Embedded rationality : conversion of middle-aged and elderly women to Christianity in contemporary rural China
Date of Issue2017
School of Humanities and Social Sciences
Since the late 1970s, there has been a rapid increase in the number of Christians in China and of those who embrace Christianity, many are rural middle-aged and elderly women. Existing literature on Christianity in China has mainly focused on institutions and religious leaders, which, for the most part, deals with the supply side of the spread of the religion. Few studies have specifically examined the demand side. Using an embedded approach, this thesis studies the conversion of 24 middle-aged and elderly women (aged 50 and above) to Christianity in a rural town in northern Jiangsu, China. A total of 27 semi-structured interviews were conducted in June and July 2015. This thesis argues that the conversion of this group of women to Christianity is a rational choice but their rationality is embedded in Christianity-related narratives, social networks, life circumstances and the broader context of Chinese modernization. Christianity-related narratives prescribe the benefits and costs of being a Christian. Social networks serve to convey, endorse and recreate these narratives. Life circumstances, including problems and miracles, galvanize narrative changes. Paradoxically, the modernization efforts of the Chinese state, which are supposed to liberate people from religious beliefs in the official discourse, have created a favorable environment for the women’s conversions. The state-sponsored modernization has delegitimized folk beliefs while retaining the notions of ghosts and evil spirits and increased people’s social contacts while maintaining their family, kinship, and communal ties. The modernization efforts have also created social illnesses, such as environmental pollution, sequelae of birth control and a lack of social support, which gives rise to the pervasiveness of life problems.