Christiana Tsai was a pioneering Chinese evangelist who deeply impacted the cultural and religious fabric of 20th-century China. She helped in the development of the first Chinese phonetic Bible and gathered other believers passionate about reaching Chinese souls for Christ in establishing a missionary movement known as Ambassadors for Christ. Tsai donated land in Paradise, PA to establish AFC, and this movement has continued to promote outreach across campuses in the United States as well as missionary efforts in Asia and Europe.
Her story begins in the province of Jiangxi, and while much of her life and early missionary work centered in the city of Nanking, political tensions and missionary journeys carried her across China. In 1949, illness forced Tsai to settle in the United States, where she composed her autobiography Queen of the Dark Chamber and continued to serve the Lord faithfully until her death in 1984.
Born in Nanking on February 12, 1890, Christina Tsai grew up as the 18th of 24 children born to the vice governor of Jiangxi. She was initially known as “Too Many” and “Seventh Sister” by her family, reflecting her humble position within this large, prominent family. Tsai’s early life was characterized by luxury, strict standards of propriety, and devotion to Buddhism. Despite the past poverty, her father and uncles all rose to prominent positions in government. Her father served as Vice-Governor of Kiangsu and later assumed the role of Acting-Governor. As a result, she and her siblings were born into lives of privilege and affluence. Despite his benevolent nature and industrious spirit, Mr. Tsai’s children were indulged and shielded from the realities of life. Several of Christina’s elder brothers succumbed to idleness and self-centeredness, eventually engaging in gambling and thievery. Her sisters’ marriages to affluent families came at the cost of enduring harsh treatment, while opium addiction was prevalent among her extended family.
Embracing both Buddhist teachings and Chinese superstitions, the family’s adherence to these beliefs was so ingrained that Christiana’s unfavorable fortune hindered her mother’s efforts to arrange a suitable marriage. They prayed to ancestors and engaged in lavish, expensive practices, which Tsai later recognized as futile endeavors. Devoted to becoming an exemplary Buddhist, Tsai immersed herself in the practice, diligently reading Buddhist scriptures, offering incense, honoring idols, adhering to a vegetarian diet, and even seeking admission to a Buddhist convent. When her father was deadly sick, she inflicted a wound upon her arm, preparing a soup from her own flesh that she believed would heal him. However, her dedication to Buddhism never brought her heart true satisfaction.
Despite growing up in luxury, Tsai grappled with a growing sense of meaninglessness and discontent. As these feelings persisted and Buddhism did not provide adequate answers, Tsai began an eager pursuit of education to try to find purpose. This led her to a mission girls’ school in Soochow where she began learning English. The missionaries and teachers there tried to introduce her to Christianity, but she was determined to avoid it at all costs and openly spoke out against it. She remained hardhearted towards the gospel until one day when an American preacher came to teach at their church. Tsai listened intently in her desire to learn English and was deeply impacted by his message on Jesus being the light of the world with the power to chase away darkness inside the hearts of man. She recalled a scene from her childhood where she had lifted up a white stone in the garden and bugs had scurried out from underneath as soon as their dark hiding place was penetrated by the light. She realized that in many ways her life looked like a polished white stone from the outside that was hiding sin and corruption underneath, and she realized her need for Christ in that moment. She prayed simply, “Lord, forgive my sin and help me to understand Thy Word” (Tsai 69). After this, Tsai’s heart was flooded with supernatural peace, and she began to enjoy beauty and meaning in the world that she had grown so jaded with. Her experience with Christ prompted the beginning of her ministry as she returned home to evangelize her family and, over the course of her life, she saw 55 of her family members come to receive Christ.
Despite her growing faith, Tsai’s life was not without many trying experiences that tested her steadfastness and ability to remain faithful in times of need. A casual pen-pal relationship quickly blossomed into a romance that exceeded her expectations. Marriage arrangements were made, and the ceremony was to be held after the return of her fiancé from studying in America. While he was away, however, Tsai noticed a change in his outlook and demeanor towards Christianity. His views on the faith that she so firmly stood on shattered her world and led to her deciding to break off a five-year-long relationship to pursue the Lord further. For the remainder of her lifetime, Tsai continued in singleness.
Her mission was also riddled with serious bouts of illness that overtook her physical body for extended periods. One day, without warning, she awoke to find the world spinning, and before long, she was imprisoned in a dark chamber and bedridden. The illness seized her muscles, drowned her in darkness, and left her unable to take care of herself. Her inability to move for seventeen days, speak for eight months, and open her eyes for one and a half years challenged her and her faith. It was later determined that she was suffering from a serious case of malaria of the bones, beriberi, and pellagra. After many weeks, she started recovering slowly and was eventually nursed back to health. Unfortunately, her condition left her with a permanent hyper-sensitivity to light, forcing her to remain in darkness in order to not agitate her eyes. The struggles that she endured with her illnesses failed to shake her faith in Christ, however, and throughout this time she reflected on all of the joy that she had found in him. Even through trying times, she held strong in her faith, and this encouraged those around her.
Starting in 1937, China was invaded by the Japanese in what became the early years of World War II. This brought on a new host of challenges that greatly impacted Tsai’s life. Fear of the Japanese caused many Chinese nationalists to flee to Shanghai to avoid the brutality that the Japanese soldiers left in their wake. At the time, Tsai was living with her good friend and mentor Miss Leaman, and they too recognized the need to escape to Shanghai. However, with Tsai’s health still wavering, this proved to be a difficult move. Along every step of the way, they faced challenges and barriers that prevented them from being able to escape. With everyone else trying to evacuate, it was nearly impossible to find tickets on the train that led to Shanghai. Happily, Tsai and Miss Leaman, along with their servants, were able to secure passage to Shanghai, where other challenges loomed. The population of Shanghai had quickly skyrocketed as more and more people fled to the city. Searching for housing became the next major concern, and it was purely by God’s grace that they were able to find a room that they could live in temporarily. Growing accustomed to living in a new place after being uprooted from their home took some time, but the women managed to find comfort and peace amongst the chaotic circumstances into which they were thrust.
As the war continued to heat up, Miss Leaman was eventually sent to a Japanese concentration camp. The conditions at the camp guaranteed that she could not live long, and Tsai, recognizing this, did everything in her power to support Miss Leaman. Tsai’s possessed scant financial resources, making it much more difficult to send items to Miss Leaman that would help her survive. However, Tsai continually found ways to support her. It was not until the conclusion of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1945 that Miss Leaman was released from the concentration camp. This separation with Miss Leaman mentally, emotionally, and physically greatly challenged Tsai. However, through prayer and steadfast faith, she stayed confident in her faith and saw the Lord provide for her friend.
Christiana Tsai’s time one earth was filled with hardships and pain, but God used these moments to further his kingdom. Many of Tsai’s accomplishments happened during tragic and painful times, which shows how God is always in control and can make broken things beautiful. One major event was the conversion of her whole family. For many decades, Tsai experienced much persecution and pain, but she remained faithful to the Lord all the same. Many of her very traditional family members were moved by this and ended up coming to faith through her resilient and strong witness. One notable example was a brother, who, while she was sick, visited Tsai often and, seeing her remain faithful through everything, called the family together to announce that he too was going to follow God.
Another major accomplishment was that she was able to receive an education. Tsai was born and brought up in China during a time when girls were not expected to attend school and become educated. The role of women was to be married off to a man (which was normally through an arranged marriage) and then to become mothers and housekeepers. Tsai, however, wanted to go and study at a missionary school to learn English and piano, and she became one of the few women in her region to earn a high school degree.
Her biggest achievement was her evangelism. Her contribution to evangelism in China still shines clearly today and it is evident that she was passionate and called to share the gospel with the Chinese people. Tsai’s first work was to form Bible groups for others around her home. After her family expelled her from the house because she adopted Christianity, she returned to the missionary school where she was converted and helped teach. Tsai was a kind and gentle woman even towards those who persecuted her, and this was another way that she led people, especially her family members, to Christ. From 1914-1920, the opportunity arose for her to travel all over China to visit and encourage other Christian workers and missionaries across the country. Tsai ended up visiting 11 out of the 18 provinces on her journey, and she experienced the ways in which God was working through other Christians. In 1921, she and Miss Leaman were given the offer to travel to the U.S. and visit many churches across the country. On their first arrival, they landed in San Francisco, California. During their time in the U.S., they also visited Pasadena, Detroit, Chicago, New York, Massachusetts, Washington D.C., and Pennsylvania. While she was traveling, she would hand out little Chinese coins that had a hole in the center. She would tell the children that they should hang the coin on the window curtain so they would see it at night and know to pray for the children in China where it was morning.
Tsai’s travels around China to help spread the gospel opened her eyes to a significant need of the Chinese people. Many whom she met could not read or write, and that meant that they could not read the Bible; thus, they had an additional obstacle gaining access to the good news. Miss Leeman conceived the idea of making a phonetic Bible so they could sound out the words rather than having to memorize all the characters. Though it was a significant undertaking, Miss Leaman worked diligently from 1930-1937 to make written the language more accessible to common people in China. She worked with the Chinese government to develop a five-year plan that would phoneticize the Peking dialect and distribute written materials to the masses. During this time, she also translated the entire Bible and did so with the hope that many more would receive and understand the Bible. Tsai fell ill during the early stages of this project; however, she would spend much of her later life helping advance and complete it. Whilst in her “dark chamber” when she was sick, she kept up her ministry by using a cat to help evangelize. She would often tie tracts, which were small handouts that told the story of the gospel, onto the collar of a cat, which would then carry them to people.
In the year of 1949, Tsai and Miss Leaman made the difficult decision to permanently leave their beloved China to move to the United States. The two women found the only hope of recovery waiting for them in America amidst their declining health conditions. Despite the original reluctance that Tsai felt about leaving her country, her feelings changed as God gave her a sense of peace about the situation. On January 18, they began the passage across the world; they eventually ended up settling in Paradise, Pennsylvania, with some of Miss Leaman’s relatives. It was here that both Christiana Tsai and Miss Leaman lived out their final days, with Miss Leaman passing in 1972 and Tsai passing in 1984.
Legacy and Reflections
Christiana Tsai’s legacy is a stunning tribute to Jesus Christ’s transformative grace and love. Her heart set out on a journey beyond temporal things such as money and privilege, and she searched for a truth that would resonate with her soul. When she encountered the gospel, she discovered Christ’s unchanging love, a treasure far exceeding the fleeting pleasures of this life.
Tsai’s life became a living epistle, proclaiming the grace of Christ’s salvation. Despite challenges like crippling illness and the horrors of war, her faith was strengthened as she remained firmly grounded in God’s promises. Her life, marked by supernatural encounters and spiritual tenacity, served as a vessel through which the Good News flowed into the lives of countless people around her.
Tsai’s story demonstrates the gospel’s enormous impact. Her life, a portrait painted with faithfulness and sacrifice, exemplifies the converting and remaking power of Christian truth. Each part of her narrative reveals a heart devoted to God’s will, strongly dedicated to delivering the life-giving message of Christ’s love and salvation.
Her story encourages us to consider the vast possibilities that emerge when one’s soul becomes connected with God’s redeeming love. Tsai’s life exemplifies a life refined by God’s grace, always pointing people to the heavenly kingdom. We find encouragement in her example to persist, to love passionately, and to live in a way that glorifies Christ, sharing the hope of the gospel near and far. Christiana Tsai serves as a constant reminder of God’s faithfulness and the life-giving dynamism of his message in the hearts of people who believe and follow in Christ’s footsteps.
AFC History, www.afcinc.org/en-us/about/afchistory.aspx. Accessed 30 Oct. 2023.
Tsai, Christiana, and Ellen L. Drummond. Queen of the Dark Chamber: The Story of Christiana Tsai as Told to Ellen L. Drummond. Moody Press, 1953.