Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Lesson Analyzed - Battle of Changban

Mimajiao lessons were actually quite simple, consisting on three steps:

1.) The reading of the original story. The language was subtly changed to resemble the Bible passage to which it was being compared.
2.) The reading of the relevant passage.
3.) Questions and discussion. This portion typically drew upon Confucian pedagogy, in which the attendees gained knowledge through asking questions.

The first part is generally the most difficult. Chinese stories are written in very simple, stark terms - a far cry from the poetic language of the Bible. Rewritten versions of the original stories are among the only hard records of the movement, and they are extremely rare. Lacking a translator, I have no way of directly replicating a lesson here. Fortunately, there are enough former teachers with high proficiency in English to keep the accounts alive. The following is taken from two teachers who were active in 1979 and 1980. It uses the Battle of Changban to describe the fishes and loaves and water-walking miracles from Matthew 14:13-33:


While traveling South with his men, Liu Bei encountered a group of peasants who were fleeing the tyranny of Cao Cao. His officers came to him and said "These people are in need of aid, but we do not have the means to protect them. We should send them West, where Cao Cao will not follow." Liu Bei replied, "That should not be necessary. We shall bring them with us." Zhuge Liang was uncertain that they could support the peasants, but he put his trust in Liu Bei's judgment.

As they neared Changban Bridge, the weather grew rough, and their pursuers grew nearer. Zhuge Liang again instructed Liu Bei, "We can not shelter these men. Send them West, that they may find shelter." But Liu Bei replied, "Is it our skill that you doubt, or our righteousness?" With that, he dismounted his horse and gathered the peasants to cross the river. Zhuge Liang realized the righteousness of his master, and he took to Liu Bei's side.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Variant Accounts - Romance of the Three Kingdoms

While the previous post highlighted the most common Three Kingdoms analogies, there are many more. Most of these variant accounts are regional or founded in various subcultures across China. Note that most of these accounts are either unverified or have only been reported to me by a single source, so it is possible that they were never in common use.

-Zhuge Liang as Jesus

In this version, Liu Bei's three visits to the sage Zhuge Liang are likened to the journey of the Magi to Bethlehem. This event is one of the most famous from the novel, having been referenced in East Asian novels for centuries, and it makes for a good story. It would also allow the teacher to use Zhuge Liang's feigned death as an analogy for the resurrection. However, it is very unlikely that this story ever came into common use, given that it downplayed the importance of Liu Bei and his brothers.

-Cao Cao as a heroic figure

As mentioned before, Cao Cao was typically used as a stand-in for a villain, such as Judas or Caiaphas. However, as Cao Cao is shown as an honorable man even in the novels, some stories use him to illustrate more positive events. Several people reported to me that they have heard a particular event in Cao Cao's life used to explain the parable of the Good Samaritan. I also know of one school which used Cao Cao as an analogy for Joseph, comparing the early relationship between Cao Cao and Liu Bei to the relationship between father and son.

-Old Testament storytelling

On occasion, mimajiao was used to relate Old Testament stories. Teachers would use battles - particularly battles where a smaller force triumphed over a greater one, such as Guandu and Red Cliffs - to illustrate how the power of God allowed a weak person or group to triumph. In Old Testament mimajiao, Sun Quan is often used to stand in for King David.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Character Analogy - Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Establishing analogous characters was the most important part of a mimajiao session. Once the analogies were established, the stories would follow with ease. However, due to the massive differences between Chinese fiction and the Gospels, a perfect one-to-one analogy was seldom possible. Romance of the Three Kingdoms, while one of the most common stories used, also proved one of the hardest to analogize. Nevertheless, there are a few common threads that link the different versions. What follows is the most common version I could find. I will discuss variants later.

-Liu Bei : Jesus Christ
-Guan Yu : John the Baptist*
-Zhang Fei : Saint Andrew
-Zhuge Liang : Saint Peter
-Zhao Yun, Huang Zhong, Ma Chao : Other apostles**
-Liu Biao : Thomas the Apostle
-Handi Xian : Herod
-Cao Cao : Caiaphas or Judas Iscariot***
-Zhang He : Judas Iscariot
-Yuan Shao : Pontius Pilate
-Sun Quan : Joseph of Arimathea
-Lady Sun : Mary Magdalene
-Gan Ning : Barabbas


*Westerners who are familiar with the Three Kingdoms mythology often wonder why Guan Yu is never analogized with Jesus. On the surface, it seems a good fit: Guan Yu is already a sacred icon in East Asia, and he actually returns from the dead in the novel. There are several reasons why this is not done. First, his status as a bodhisattva would actually interfere with the lesson by conflating the Christian tradition with the traditions of Buddhism and Daoism. Second, while Guan Yu is a very important character, Liu Bei is still the main protagonist, so using him as the Christ figure makes storytelling easier. Finally, Guan Yu is often associated with war, which clashes with most lessons. In contrast, Liu Bei is almost a pacifist, using violence as a last resort and even then being mournful about it.

**The Five Tiger Generals are always associated with apostles, but which apostles vary greatly depending on the story.

***As he is considered a villain in the novel, it makes sense that Cao Cao would be analogized to a biblical villain. Which villain depends on the event from the novel being used. In addition to the above, I have even heard of sessions in which he is compared directly to Lucifer. Interestingly, some mimajiao practitioners who rely more on the Records of the Three Kingdoms than the fictionalized novel will occasionally use Cao Cao as a biblical hero, even an apostle.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009


Mimajiao, or the Code of Spirituality, is a practice which is little known in Western countries, to the point where there is next to nothing on the Internet regarding it. It is only by a stroke of luck that I managed to catch wind of it, and it's been a personal fascination ever since.

Mimajiao was an informal method of preaching the Christian Gospel used throughout the People's Republic of China prior to the 1990s. It was developed by native Chinese who converted while working or studying abroad. Teachers of mimajiao illustrated Bible stories by drawing analogies between characters in classic Chinese stories and Biblical figures.

I first heard of mimajiao through a roommate, a student from Szechuan. I poked around a bit, finding next to nothing. At the same time, there were plenty of Chinese and Korean students who'd at least heard of it. In grad school, I received permission to write a thesis on mimajiao, using first-hand accounts from people in the community. Apparently, I aroused some interest, because the following year I received a grant to travel to China for a month to interview formed mimajiao. When I returned to the United States, I found even more messages from people wanting to discuss their experiences with me.

My final thesis is a work in progress, but in the meantime I thought I would share a bit about this fascinating practice. The thesis will ultimately cover three novels - Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West and Water Margin - which served as foundations for mimajiao teachings. Over the next few months, I will briefly describe how these lessons worked. I hope you will find this as interesting as I did.