Elder Zheng Datong, Who Introduced the Phrase 'Wenzhou, China's Jerusalem' to the World, Dies at 84

A picture of Elder Zheng Datong, shot in May, 2023
A picture of Elder Zheng Datong, shot in May, 2023 (photo: Ruth Wang)
By Ruth WangMay 21st, 2024

On May 19, Elder Zheng Datong, who coined the phrase "Wenzhou, China's Jerusalem" and was imprisoned for his faith three times, passed away in Wenzhou at the age of 84.

The obituary issued by his family in the evening of that day stated, "Zheng was born in Ruian, Wenzhou, Zhejiang on March 3, 1941. Later, he settled in the urban area of Wenzhou as a child. In his youth, he followed Christ and served the Lord throughout his life. The elder was once an art teacher in Wenzhou and was imprisoned three times during the persecution of the church of China. However, 'he remained firm in his faith, courageously walked the path of the cross, and never regretted it.'"

The obituary also announced that a farewell ceremony and cremation will be held on May 22, followed by burial in the mountains.

For many years, Elder Zheng Datong served as an elder at the Puxieshi Christian Church in Lucheng District, Wenzhou, and had a deep enthusiasm for church history and literature ministry. Holding a doctor of ministry degree, he was a poet and a painter. Since the 1980s, he published books including Revelation Illustrated and The Path of Blessing: A Poetic Life in Christ in Singapore and Hong Kong.

The Path of Blessing: A Poetic Life in Christ is Elder Zheng’s memoir, telling the story of a young man who loves painting and poetry, finds his faith in the turmoil of current events, and perseveres in his faith despite all kinds of persecutions. From youth to old age, Elder Zheng experienced two imprisonments for the Lord. He also hoped that through his autobiography, readers could see the faith experiences and stories of an intellectual youth.

In the book, he shared that he was imprisoned simply because he wrote down “Believe in Jesus and Obtain Eternal Life” on the banner of a brother’s funeral during the Cultural Revolution. He also wrote about his testimony of leading people to the gospel while on a labor farm, where he went through reform. In one chapter of the book, the author refers to himself as "Little Joseph," testifying to himself as Joseph in the Bible—he was imprisoned for his faith but relied on God in prison and experienced God’s presence, becoming a blessing to others.

Lo Kam Wah, MH, the former general secretary of the Methodist Center in Hong Kong, commented on the book, saying, “Although The Path of Blessing is Elder Zheng’s personal testimony, it points more to God’s work in Wenzhou churches during historical turning points.”

For many years, Elder Zheng conducted extensive research on the development and history of Wenzhou churches. The widely known saying that “Wenzhou is the Jerusalem of China” is also related to Elder Zheng. Scholar Cao Nanlai wrote in the footnote of the first chapter of his book Constructing China’s Jerusalem: Christians, Power, and Place in Contemporary Wenzhou, “An elderly leader of Wenzhou churches claimed that in the 1990s, he first used this term in an article titled ‘Wenzhou: The Jerusalem of China,’ and it later spread to the overseas Christian world.”

When contacted by a pastor, Elder Zheng confirmed this matter, saying that he was not the original source of the saying “Wenzhou is the Jerusalem of China,” but he helped spread the phrase widely. In his book The History, Current Situation, and Future Prospects of Wenzhou Churches (Part 1), he explained, "On March 1-4, 1990, Dr. Philip Wickeri, a friend of K. H. Ting, led an international delegation of the Amity Foundation to visit Wenzhou and mentioned that some overseas people referred to Wenzhou as ‘the Jerusalem of China’ due to the revival of Wenzhou. In the early 1990s, the saying started to spread widely. In response to a sister in Hong Kong whose pastor wanted to learn about the revival of Wenzhou churches, I wrote an article titled ‘Wenzhou: The Jerusalem of China,’ which has been widely circulated overseas. Later, I did not like this title.”

In his later years, Elder Zheng continued to research and record the history of Wenzhou churches. He also shared his unpublished book, God’s Churches in Wenzhou through lectures and other occasions. The manuscript tells about the development and persecution of the local church and various testimonies.

Every time mentioning the history of Wenzhou churches, he always emphasized, “The revival of Wenzhou cannot be separated from missionaries, and many of them had a significant impact on Chinese churches.” Among them, he felt a deep sense of responsibility for studying the history and influence of the British missionary William Edward Soothill’s deeds and ministry in Wenzhou. Regarding this history, he not only created a script based on this theme but also hoped to find an opportunity to make a film about it.

Elder Zheng also often recalled and testified about many fellow workers who endured hardships during the Cultural Revolution, especially witnessing that although Wenzhou churches faced persecution during that period, it was “a church of brotherly love regardless of denominations and united during the Cultural Revolution.” He added, “During the Cultural Revolution, churches across Wenzhou, including Yongjia, Ruian, Yueqing, Pingyang, Mencheng, and Taishun, experienced a revival, and their numbers grew rapidly. Pingyang’s church did particularly well in this aspect, unifying apart from the Little Flock movement and the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and is still referred to as the United Church.”

In 1982, Zheng Datong and other fellow workers, aiming to promote greater unity and soundness in the church, drafted a “church stipulation” to regulate the behavior of brothers and sisters, especially fellow workers, adhering to the separation of church and state.

In May 2023, he shared with the Christian Times his thoughts on the exclusion of the Charismatic Movement in China in his later years. Among them, he shared a book manuscript of over 70,000 words titled Facing the Non-Charismatic Movement: A Review of John MacArthur’s Book Charismatic Chaos. He criticized the views of some Western scholars, theologians, and New Testament commentators who believe that the Charismatic Movement has been extinguished. He commented, “John MacArthur’s non-Charismatic viewpoint is quite representative, not only affecting churches in Europe and the United States but also Wenzhou churches in China.” He recounted stories of himself and many pastors and fellow workers who experienced a spiritual revival around the Cultural Revolution, mentioning that they personally experienced the Charismatic revival recorded in the Bible during the early church days. He pointed out that the non-Charismatic trend had interpretive errors and severe hazards, which could make the church lifeless.

At the end of the book, he wrote, “We who are chosen by God to work for Him in this era are truly blessed. Although we have already received the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, we still pray that God will continue to fill us abundantly, and we will proclaim the message of the universal outpouring of the Holy Spirit, asking the Lord to grant grace so that all who desire to receive the outpouring of the Holy Spirit may be blessed.”

- Translated by Charlie Li

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