Christian book publishing in China is a growing industry, though still in its early phases. In 2003, there were only about sixty different Christian books available on the market. Now there are about four hundred. Considering that over 220,000 books are published in Chinese each year, there’s plenty of room for growth for Christian book publishing.
But it’s not easy. We had a mini-seminar today with various guest speakers talking about various aspects of the Christian book world in China, and there are challenges in both publishing the books as well as selling and distributing them. First of all, only state-run publishing houses are issued ISBNs, the book code numbers allowing books to be sold and distributed. Independent Christian publishers, if they want to publish books with actual official ISBNs, need to partner with a state-run publishing house. That means the content and overall package needs to be approved by the government. In many cases, this means toning down the Christian content. Christian editors and publishers can sometimes find creative ways of working through this. For example, they might take out the parenthetical Scripture references but retain the actual verses, or paraphrase Bible verses instead, so the biblical content is still there, even if it’s not explicitly visible. And interestingly enough, some government censors are actually Christians who are able to have some degree of subtle influence in their positions.
Right now, much of the Christian publishing in China consists of translations of English-language books from the United States or Great Britain. There is some indigenous publishing of original Chinese authors, but not a lot. Many of the Christian books are on topics like marriage, parenting, relationships, business and other such areas of Christian living. Many of these sell in general market bookstores and are bought by non-Christians who just happen to be looking for topical books. After all, there aren’t “religion” sections for these books, so they are shelved alongside all the rest, in a neat form of unintentional stealth witness.
Ironically, a lot of Chinese Christians are not as interested in these kinds of Christian living books and prefer to have books on more directly “spiritual” topics like prayer. This attitude seems to come from pastors and church leaders who tell the laypeople that all they really need is the Bible, that all the answers are found there. While this is in some sense true, it also creates the implication that reading a parenting book or a leadership book is somehow “worldly,” even if they are Christian books. This echoes American evangelicalism of thirty or fifty years ago or so, where the church was skeptical of many kinds of Christian books, whether on psychology and counseling or the arts or sciences. The American church has mostly come to see the value of Christian books in all disciplines, and we can be hopeful that the Chinese church will likewise grow in these directions.
Christian bookstores often get inspected by government officials, and they may need to defend themselves as not being “Christian bookstores” but rather as “commercial bookstores” that just happen to carry books on various topics, including religion. Our hosts this week have a division that is working on children's materials, and it’s harder for them to create Christian resources for children because there are laws against proselytizing people under age 18. So the materials are written to the parents, who are then encouraged to talk to their kids about spiritual things. And then the challenge is that culturally, parents are uncomfortable with that role because teaching is done by teachers.
So Christian publishing in China has lots of challenges. But there are also encouraging signs of hope. Book publishing creates opportunities for public witness that otherwise might not be possible. For example, one Christian publisher was able to put together a launch event for a new book that enabled Christians and their friends to gather and hear from the book and other Christian content. By itself, this kind of thing would normally be disallowed, but in this case, it was permissible because the event was part of the marketing for the book, and that kind of commercial venture was seen as okay.
If you have a chance, do pray for the Christians in China who are trying to live out their faith in uncertain and ambiguous situations. Chinese Christian publishers and booksellers tend to be undercapitalized and lack the resources for widespread marketing and distribution. Pray that these Christians will remain faithful to their calling and find creative ways and means to bring Christian literature to those who need it.