Religion in China - Part 3

This is the second part of a three-part series on the Three Grades of Servants church in China.    See Part 1 and Part 3.

(Phoenix Weekly)  Xu Wenku and his Religious Empire.  By Liu Zhiming and Deng Fei.  April 15, 2006.  Issue No. 216 (2006 issue no. 11).

(in translation)

It was a twisted journey to gather news about Xu Wenku, and it only made Xu even more mysterious.

Xu's place of origin is at number 6-13531, Caishi street, Chengquan town, Zhenping county, Henan province.  On the afternoon of March 1, 2006, Phoenix Weekly went to the town to look for the home of Xu Wenku.  When the office worker punched the identification number of Xu Wenku into the computer to obtain the residential information, she had to exclaim "Oh!".  She said that many people have previously come to look up information about Xu.

According to the residential information, the householder Xu Wenku is of Han origin and was born in 1946.  The Xu family also has three other family members: Xu's wife Wang, a daughter and another person named Li.  According to the indictment sheet from the Shuangyashan city procuratorate, Xu Wenku also uses the aliases of Xu Shengguang, Wang Shengjie, "Big Uncle,", "Manager," et cetera.

The Chengguang town police station residential information director Li Jing told Phoenix Weekly that this was just a town residential permit that Xu Wenku bought.  In 1993, it was common to sell town residential permits in Zhenping county, which were going at 500 RMB apiece.  Number 6-13531 was just a residential permit number without a real physical address.  The reporter saw that in the residential information, the address of the household was listed only as Houza.  Houza is a small town in Zhenping county.  When the reporter made inquiries at the Houza police station, he found nothing.

Phoenix Weekly finally found out that Xu Wenku was actually born in Nanzhao county, which is next to Zhenping county.  Xu's hometown is in that county's Xiaodian town, Lingliu village, Xuying team.

At Lingliu village, the villagers were not aware of the name Xu Wenku.  They only knew his original name -- Xu Shengfu.  Xu had left the village very young.  His young brother Xu Shengjun is still living in the village.

According to reports, like most other people in the village, Xu Shengjun left to work on the outside.  Xu Shengjun's wife Chao Yuxin is a robust and hearty middle-aged woman.  When the reporter met her, she was shoveling cow dung in front of the door of her home.  She said that the elder brother Xu Shenghu's family does not live in the village.  Instead, they live at her sister-in-law Wang's hometown of Lushan county and they rarely ever come back.

The Xu family appears to be one of the earlier families to be converted to Christianity in this village.  Cao Yuxin told the reporter that the Xu family members are all Christian believers and they did so even before the "Cultural Revolution."  According to the legend, Xu's mother had a throat disease and the family did not have any money to pay for treatment.  So she began to believe in Christianity and then the whole family was converted.

During the period of the Cultural Revolution, the 20-year-old Xu Wenku was criticized.  At the time, the relevant personnel locked up all the religious believers in the area.  Whosoever promises not to believe in religion anymore was released.  Xu paid no attention, so he was strung up with ropes and nearly died.  As punishment, the family was deprived of food for four persons.  Since there was no food to eat at home, Xu left for the outside.  From then on, he basically never returned to Lingliu village.

Xu left a vague memory for the villagers.  The villagers only knew that when he was 12 years old, he followed a Christian named Wang Huaru to preach.  Wang had difficulty walking, so Xu had to carry him around to preach.  Eventually, Xu established a reputation and became a "religious leader" who had a large number of believers.  But nobody knew what Xu did exactly.  In fact, some people were sure that he was dead.  As for the Three Grades of Servants, among the villagers, only Cao Yuxin and her husband have ever heard about it.

A number of Christian villagers in Xu's village said: "Our faith is different from his.  In their kind of faith, one can become rich.  When they go out to preach, they will ride up-scale sedan cars."

41-year-old village mayor Zhang Daosheng had met Xu Wenku as a child, and then he saw his photograph later.  Several years ago, Xu's wife Wang had to come to the village each year from Lushan county to get tested for pregnancy.  The family planning office record has a photograph of Xu Wenku.  "He parts his hair on the side.  He looks cool."

Xu's sister-in-law Cao Yuxin has also only seen Xu infrequently.  The big brother in her eyes "had a tall nose, big and strong body, looking like a foreigner."  After he departed to preach, he did not return home even after his father passed away.

Phoenix Weekly found certain knowledgeable sources who wished to remain anonymous as well as a large amount of religious research materials, and this allowed a picture of a huge but mysterious "religious empire" to be gradually formed.

In the indictment by the Shuangyashan city procuratorate against Xu Wenku and others, the law enforcement department received approval in 1975 to arrest Xu as a counter-revolutionary.  Xu was arrested the next year.  In 1978, the Henan local court sentenced Xu to three years of labor reform for loitering, committing fraud, rumor mongering and disrupting social order.  In 1991, the Shaanxi police placed him under educational reform for illegal assembly.  In 1993, the Zhejiang police placed Xu into labor reform for three years for organizing an evil cult.

According to the promotional materials from this sect, they believe in the Christianity that is based upon the full Bible.  Xu Wenku was described as a person who is protected by God.  "Xu had a great deal of prayer power.  One day, it was too foggy to travel.  Xu prayed and the fog dissipated.  Another time, he was being chased by someone who wanted to kill me.  He prayed and the wheel fell off the motorcycle of the other party."

According to a book titled "The Torch in the Thorn bush," Xu used his prayer power to heal cancer and he can even resurrect people from death.  It also claimed that Xu fasted sixty days without dying.

Chinese preacher Wang Yongxin who is the founder of the American Chinese Evangelical Association and the Zhongxin Monthly Journal has done some research on the Three Grades of Servants.  In his "The Handbook of the True Way," he disclosed that the Three Grades of Servants followed a unique way of organization with a complex structure.

Based upon interviews with "Co-workers," Xu Shengguang set up grades within the organization.  The highest grade is the "Big Servant," whose position is equivalent to Jesus' disciple Moses in the Bible.  The next level is the "Little Servant" whose position is equivalent to Joshua in the Bible and these are important cadres within the organization.  The next level down is the "Missionary Girl," who is responsible for the work in one or two provinces.  Below them are the "Co-worker," the "Little Co-worker" and the "Church Pillar Stone" who administer and preach at the county or local level.

Apart from the church organization, Xu Shengguang also tried hard to develop ways of making money and he built up a "religious empire" that owned a great deal of assets.  All the church properties were managed by Xu's younger sister.  If any "Servant" or "Missionary Girl" lack the ability to preach publicly, or even those who worked for the "Big Servants" but whose loyalties are being doubted (on one hand, these people should not be allowed to return home and spread information that is unfavorable to the "group"; on the other hand, these people should not be kept in the core organization where they can create internal conflicts), they are sent out to learn hair-dressing, automobile repair and other skills based upon their interests and abilities and then asked to set up barber shops, tailor shops, restaurants, hotels and so on.  These facilities will serve the "Big Servants" as well as make money, so that the "Big Servants" can conceal their whereabouts wherever they are and not have to worry about food and board.

They believe that the church must be built within the various grades.  If someone is not in any of the grades, they will not achieve salvation.  The basis for being saved is obedience.  Whoever obeys the "Servants" obeys God.  Since God is the never-changing God, the "Servants" are also never changing.  Disobeying the "Servants" is sacrilege.  In 1996, this type of theory evolved to the point when the "Servant" is the "master in flesh" (meaning Xu Wenku) and absolute authority.  The believers can only go through this "master in flesh" to see Christ.  Therefore, they must confess their sins to the "Servant" and they cannot directly confess to God.  The "Servant" had taken the place of Christ.  Wherever Xu Wenku went, his bedroom was designated as a "most sacred place."  Unless especially allowed, ordinary people were not allowed to enter.  Besides the "most sacred place," the other places occupied by the "Co-workers" are "sacred places" and only the "co-workers" were allowed to enter.  The places of congregation were known as "outer courts."

In 1996, the Three Grades of Servants began the expiation of sins by flagellation.  When the believers commit sins or break the rules, they have to be whipped in order to be forgiven.  Depending the severity of the sins, the "Servants" and the "Missionary Girls" will decided on the number of lashes (at least 40, but sometimes 50 or even 100).  The punishment is meted out immediately.  If a person cannot endure it, the lashes can be saved for the next occasion.  Believers often end up owing several hundred lashes.  When they saw a "Servant," they began to shiver because they were afraid of being whipped.  Thus, they lived in terror and anxiety every day.

According to the indictment document, Xu Wenku came from a poor family.  He only had elementary school education.  Li Maohong also only made it to third grade in elementary school.  These preachers had never received systematic education and training in religion.

According to an essay titled "Distinguishing between truth and heresy" from the Christianity and China Research Center, within the Three Grades of Servants, some local believers were even asked to study the Analects, Mencius, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and other books, and the biblical sayings were infused with a lot of traditional Chinese cultural elements.

The Three Grades of Servants claimed that the end of the world is approaching and Earth will be destroyed.  Each year, there will be major catastrophes -- SARS, earthquakes, wars are all omens of the end of the world.  Only by joining their church can one enter Heaven.  Xu also predicted the end of the world on three occasions when Jesus Christ will return.  The first time, he said July 1, 1989; then he changed that to 1993; the last prediction was that Jesus Christ will return in 1997.  All these predictions turned out to be false.

In 1994, a number of believer in Xu's church with contact to other preachers wanted to leave and they published a booklet titled "Knowing about Heresy."  This cleared up the confusion of the believers about the Grades and influenced some believers to leave.  Xu launched a counterattack by publishing many propaganda materials that insisted that he was mainstream and those church deserters are heretics who will be punished by God.  Xu succeeded in controlling the situation.

According to the "Regulations on Administering Religious Affairs" that took effect on March 1, 2005, mainland China has a quite strict administration of religious activities.  When believers congregate, they must do so at the designated places for religious activities.  If they do not obey these regulations, they will be engaged in an illegal assembly.  As a result, they may be detained for disrupting social order, fined or even sentenced to prison.

On October 9, 1999, the Supreme People's Court and the Supreme People's Procuratorate published the "Explanations about certain problems on the applicable laws for handling organizations and using evil cult organizations to commit crimes," it was clearly stated that "The 'evil cult organization' in Criminal Law Number 300 refers to illegal organizations which use religion, qigong and other causes to establish and deify their leaders, to use methods such as manufacturing and disseminating superstitions and heresies to mislead and deceive others, to expand and control members and to endanger society."  Between 1999 and 2000, the Ministry of Public Security twice issued documents that defined the Three Grades of Servants group as an evil cult.

Xu Wenku had been in prison many times and he was used to be on the fringe of the law.  Apart from this, there were internal religious threats.  As described in the indictment by the Shuangyashan city procuratorate, when Xu Wenku was placed into labor reform by the Hangzhou police in the late 1990's, Eastern Lightning increased their fight for the believers in Xu's church and successfully took away many of them.  At one point, Eastern Lightning became one of the largest underground churches in China.  Xu felt threatened, and undertook a new and more vigorous round of defensive activities to control his believers.  He frequently used the term "administrative education."  To maintain order within the church, the Three Grades of Servants group set up a team of enforcers.  The team members were men who had undergone martial arts training and they took orders directly from the "Missionary Girls" to punish those "traitors" who quit their church or the heretical invaders.

Under the double pressure from the police and hostile churches, Xu's church became even more secretive and mysterious.  There are different opinions as to whether the Three Grades of Servants is an evil cult or a group of heretics.

According to an open letter that claimed to be from some of the preachers within the Chinese Family of Christians Association, Xu's church organization basically has a complete church administrative system.  But because this church has remained at the fringes of society for such a long time and closed itself from the public eye, there are some differences in opinions and disputes abut the Three Grades of Servants.  People also have some reservations about certain of the work and the leadership style of Xu Wenku.  It is difficult to make a clear judgment because of the lack of understanding about the state of the Three Grades of Servants, its theological leanings, its church administration and financial management and other issues.

According to a knowledgeable source who read the case files and who was interviewed by Phoenix Weekly, most of the church members including some senior officials are extremely pious Christian believers.  They are devoted to God without any reservations, and they are willing to pay any price for their religious beliefs.  They live extremely Spartan lives.  But for many reasons, this church could not become a pure and mainstream Christian church.

"If the outside forces did not intervene, this underground church could have become a dangerous problem.  Many more people could have lost their lives."  This informed source told us with sadness.

Xu Wenku and his church may not be known among the people in his hometown, but the relevant local departments have paid attention to him for a long while.  This year, the village mayor of Xiaodian town Chuandian village is 65-year-old Feng Liuzhang, who had worked in the town police station reception office for six years.  He told Phoenix Weekly that since 2003, there have been people conducting investigations in that village several times a year.  Last year, some people have gone there three or four times.  Most of these investigators were police from the Ministry of Public Security's national security team.  On the last occasion, the police told him that Xu's church was involved in many major criminal cases involving multiple murders.  As of March 2006, Feng was still quite astonished, "How could a field hand in our village create such a huge stir?"