Chinese anti-cult scholars and activists denounce the movement as a dangerous cult, but how active it is today is unclear.
Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) literature against xie jiao mentions often a group called Association of Disciples (门徒会 Mentuhui). In 2009, the China Anti-Xie Jiao Association even produced a movie against the Disciples, still available on YouTube (in fact, the second release of an older movie). But who are they, exactly?
As usual for Chinese new religious movements, information is scarce and often comes either by the CCP or Christian critics. In addition, members of the Disciples claim that certain excessive claims about the founders were folk beliefs of some devotees rather than official teachings of the movement.
The founder of the Disciples was Ji Sanbao (季三保, 1940-1997). The claim that he was born on Christmas Day, 1940, is perhaps part of the hagiography. Ji was not born a Christian, but converted at age 36 and joined the True Jesus Church, a large independent Pentecostal church. Eventually, he became a full-time evangelist and acquired nation-wide fame for his preaching, exorcisms, and supernatural phenomena. In addition to healing and visions, several of Ji’s reported miracles were associated with food, particularly with grain. It is claimed that he was able to fast for long periods of time, and that grain descended miraculously from Heaven and fed him. Again, present-day Disciples argue that some of the stories about miracles spread among members without being officially confirmed or promoted by Ji himself.
Reports claim that Ji left the True Jesus Church and founded his own movement in 1989. The name Mentuhui, Association of Disciples, came from the fact that he appointed twelve disciples (门徒, mentu), modeled on the twelve apostles. As usual for Chinese new religious movements, the Disciples are known under several different names. One is Narrow Gate in the Wilderness (旷野窄门), which has an obvious Biblical meaning (Matthew 7:13-14: “Enter through the narrow gate”) but also refers to the fact that members used to meet in remote areas to escape CCP’s surveillance.
Which claims Ji exactly advanced for himself is a matter of contention between CCP-related scholars and the movement. It is generally agreed that Ji proclaimed himself “the stand-in for God” (神的替身), but the exact theological scope of this designation is far from being clear. Critics contend that by this, Ji claimed to be Jesus Christ returned to Earth and God himself, while the movement’s own claims are more nuanced and ambiguous. The literature of the movement finds in the Bible allusions to the messianic role of the ancient Chinese state of Qin (秦), which included the part of Shaanxi where Ji was born. The doctrine of the Disciples is known as “Teachings of the Third Redemption” (三赎教), referring to the fact that the movement offers the third sign of salvation, after Noah’s ark and Jesus Christ’s cross.
Scholars such as Emily Dunn and Fenggang Yang report that the Disciples have a very elaborated organizational structure, the so-called “7-7” system (七七制), with seven hierarchical levels, each of which supervises seven groups. The system was remarkably effective, and in a few years, according to CCP authorities, the movement grew to at least 350,000 followers.
The group was banned in 1990 and included in the list of the xie jiao in the 1995 and ever since. Like other xie jiao, it was accused of having incited riots and predicted the end of the world for the year 2000, and severely repressed. One of the accusations was that Ji kept distributing allegedly miraculous grain, and taught that faithful disciples could survive by eating only two liang (3.5 oz, or 100 grams) of grain every day, which led to yet another nickname for the movement, Er Liang Liang (二两粮). It is unclear whether this was literally true, or a misinterpretation of Ji’s symbolic teachings about food and grain. Bitter Winter’s contacts in China report that, in fact, the Disciples believe that devotees of great faith may have their grain increased in amount miraculously. The amount of the increased grain may exceed the amount of grain they eat every day. And, if the net daily grain consumption of a believer becomes less than two liang, this would prove that the believer is very faithful.
According to the CCP, Ji died in December 1997 when his car tried to force a road block, while his successor Yu Shiqiang (蔚世强) died of cancer in 2001 and was succeeded by Chen Shirong (陈世荣), who is currently serving a 13-year jail sentence. The CCP continues to report arrests of members of the Disciples, although it is believed that the size of the movement has been significantly reduced by the leader’s death and by persecutions.