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In July 1937, the Japanese invaded China.

The Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek was forced to move westward and set up its capital in Chungking (Chongqing) behind the safety of the Yangze rapids and gorges. Over 80 million, including Christians, evacuated to the comparative safety of west China.
Wartime conditions encouraged corruption, racketeering and hyper-inflation. War came to an end on August 15 1945 after atomic bombs had been dropped by the Americans on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With the reunification of China, Chiang’s government rapidly disintegrated. Mao Zedong proclaimed the birth of the Communist People’s Republic of China from the Tiananmen (gate of heavenly peace) in Beijing on October 1 1949.
Students’ spiritual awakening
Paul Contento was an Italian American and missionary in Ningxia, Inner Mongolia, 1929-1936. He returned to China after having being abroad for Muslim studies. By necessity, the route into China was by the southwest into the province of Yunnan. He arrived at the capital Kunming with his gifted wife Maida in 1939.
They had been there but a very short time when they had visitors. At the door stood some Chinese university students wanting to learn English. The Contentos were astonished, for they knew that, prior to that, students were so nationalistic and anti-foreign that nothing could be done with them. The war with Japan was having unexpected effects. Thousands of university students had fled with their faculties westward for safety from the Japanese, especially from the great cities like Peking, Tientsin, Shanghai and Nanking. Many from these elite universities had come to this area.
In the face of this expressed desire to learn English, Paul Contento replied that he had no textbooks. The students suggested: ‘Use your English Bible, we know that it is better [for the purpose] than Shakespeare’. Paul Contento states: ‘So that’s what we did. We never did get started among the Muslims there’.
Teaching with the Gospels
The Gospels in English were mimeographed and used. The pattern for teaching was set. Both Paul and his Scottish wife Maida would teach, in one-hour sessions: ‘45 minutes pure English, 15 minutes gospel. There were 40 or 50 in each class, four classes each, every morning. They would wait in a line, you know. One class out, one class in .... one class out .... , it was unbelievable, unbelievable. That was the beginning of the student work in China. A very remarkable thing... we found the parables and the metaphors of the Gospels wonderful material to teach both English and the Gospel to the Chinese students ... the rich young ruler, the story of Lazarus, the rich man who went to hell, and above all the Prodigal Son, because of the high value placed on loyalty to parents in China’.
Inter-Varsity Fellowship (IVF) organised student Christian groups in universities and colleges to meet for Bible study, prayer, training in principles of Bible study, discipleship and evangelism among students. ‘So we started a group right then and there in Kunming, the first China IVF.
We were very fortunate to find a very keen and able Christian medical student who became the first chairman.’ The movement took root and spread rapidly among the exiled universities and colleges.
Calvin Chao
Paul Contento continues: ‘I hooked up with an old friend of mine Calvin Chao (Zhao Junying,1906-1996). And, oh, he had great power, he had great power. I remember in one service there in Chungking, he was preaching. There were over 1,000 students and there was hardly a dry eye in the audience... 200 came to the front, not only to be saved, but to dedicate their lives to the Lord... you know that revival was genuine because students began to confess their sins publicly, and then do something about it. Students who had stolen books out of the library took the books back and told the director of the university. It’s not like Chinese to confess their sin publicly, you see’.
Calvin Chao had been educated at mission schools. When at college he had been afflicted seriously with tuberculosis and had to go to the Southern Presbyterian Mission Love and Mercy Hospital, north of Shanghai. Dr. Nelson Bell (whose daughter Ruth was to marry Dr. Billy Graham) was his physician. After recovery, Chao was converted in 1931 at one of the early series of revival meetings held by Andrew Gih and the Bethel Band. He soon became an evangelist in the team. From 1943 he led a Chinese evangelistic team of his own in West China. By 1945, Calvin Chao had 22 national workers and 22 students in training. The workers were well trained in theology. At least seven churches were established in Sinkiang (Xinjiang) among the Han Chinese. These churches have survived and are flourishing today.
The IVF movement had so spread, that, as Contento says, ‘in (July) 1945 we had a great convention in Chungking. And I was there. There were representatives from 50 Chinese colleges and universities already. That was when Inter-Varsity went national. ...Calvin Chao was the first executive secretary of the All-China Inter-Varsity Committee (CIVF)’. Many Chinese Christian student groups and Chinese churches around the world today can trace their roots to the spiritual movement birthed at this convention. Many non-Christians attended as well. Many were converted and many dedicated their lives to the service of Christ. It was a wonderful time of continuing and expanding revival right up to 1949.
A prison work in Chungking
Conditions in the prisons were appalling. Remarkably, the prison governor welcomed the evangelical Chungking Seminary under its principal, Marcus Cheng. Permission was given to visit the long-term prison on a regular basis in order to preach the gospel. There were about 1,000 prisoners, about 100 of whom were women. A hall which could seat about 500 was used for meetings. Over a period of time, more than 100 ‘definitely accepted the Lord Jesus as their Saviour’. These organised themselves into a church inside the prison and had six elected deacons! Marcus Cheng taught candidates for baptism and a baptismal service was held on the Sunday before Christmas 1947. There were 43 baptised, of whom 13 were murderers and one was a warder! The head warder also desired baptism. He said that the changed lives of the saved prisoners had led him to seek and find the Saviour for himself.
There were no medical facilities or doctors in the prison. Also, there was much under-nourishment. The death rate was high among the prisoners. The spiritual awakening within the prison led to practical measures. The prisoners and their families decided to do something about the conditions. The governor encouraged this and contributed to the fund. The result was a hospital ward fully equipped with 20 beds. On January 24 1948, the dedication service was attended by the hospital governor and a High Court judge.
Easter Day 1948 was a memorable day in the prison. Baptismal services were held in different parts of the prison for 20 women and no less than 199 men. Two women and 13 men of those baptised were members of staff. The governor went on record: ‘From the time your students began coming here to preach the gospel, many lives have been changed. As a result, the whole atmosphere of the prison has improved. Formerly, these prisoners were talking about their rights and making democratic demands. There were constant disturbances and frequent riots. They would not even allow us to lock the cell doors. We had to call in the local militia to keep them in order. Now, the whole prison is peaceful and easy to govern; we no longer require the assistance of the militia and have dismissed them. I especially send the worst characters, the troublemakers, to listen to the gospel message, and it changes them’.
In such ways, the power of the gospel was preparing a spiritually strong church ready to face the ordeal which was about to burst upon it when the Communists set about eradicating all vestiges of religion from China.
This article is comprised of extracts from The Power to Save — A History of the Gospel in China by Bob Davey, published by Evangelical Press (£9.99, ISBN 978 0 852 347 430) and is used with permission.