The 40th Anniversary of Project Pearl

On June 18, 1981, Open Doors smuggled one million Bibles onto a beach in China. It was the culmination of a massive effort known as Project Pearl. They were met by Chinese Christians who received the Bibles and distributed them in the country.

Forty years later, Chinese Christians reflect on the impact of Project Pearl.

The Darkest Period 

Chinese Christian Brother Charlie became a Christian in 1978 while in his early 20s. This was the darkest period in the history of the Chinese church. Thousands of Bibles were burned, and countless pastors and Christians were arrested during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Only Charlie’s pastor owned a Bible.  

One day some 40 years ago Charlie met a fisherman, who had boxes upon boxes of Bibles. Charlie says, “I investigated why such a large number of Bibles had appeared in our town and discovered this unprecedented story…”   

One Million Miracles through the Eyes of a Teenage Boy 

A man named Xiao Chen was on the beach when Project Pearl took place on June 18, 1981.  

He remembers, “It was very dark. I could barely see anything in the sea. My elder brother called me to the beach.  There were about 500-600 people waiting at the beach. I didn’t know what was happening.” 

“I remember a giant ship with no flags slowly approaching the harbor. Everyone at the beach seemed very anxious. Then, a small rubber boat came down from the ship. I saw my elder brother rowing a boat to the ship and speaking to a foreigner who might have been the captain.” 

“My elder brother and three other men formed a team to pull the rubber boat to the shore with a thick rope. The rubber boat had a full load of boxes. After unloading the boxes at the beach, they repeated the process to pull another rubber boat full of boxes. There were countless numbers of boxes. My elder brother didn’t tell me what they were doing.” 

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The Chinese church requested one million full Bibles in the Chinese language

This simple teenage boy had witnessed a million miracles known as Project Pearl. Every miracle came as a response to the fervent prayers of Chinese Christians and their hunger for God’s Word. 

On the Way to Becoming a Bible Distributor 

Charlie was one of the many who worked to distribute the Pearl Bibles.  

Charlie says, “altogether, we distributed about 600-700 boxes of Pearl Bibles, both dry and wet. The work was done through the joint effort of brothers and sisters in different places. Thank the Lord.” 

“I recognized that God had called three groups of us to cooperate and make this project happen.  First, he called the church in the city to coordinate Project Pearl with overseas brothers and sisters.  Second, he called those in the villages around the beach to pick up Bibles from the ship. Third, he called us who lived in the town to distribute Bibles to different regions in China.  

Blessings Brought from Thousands of Miles Away 

As the leader of a missional church, Lucy received her Pearl Bible 30 years ago. “My Bible came from overseas to southeast China, from southeast China to central China, and then to our place. I heard from my father that a very rich foreigner had hired a big ship to carry a full load of Bibles to China in one night. There were a lot of Bibles. We received thousands from them!” 

“Decades ago, my father moved from central China to northwest China. As he was an itinerant preacher, he often traveled to a lot of places in China. One time, he went back to his hometown in central China and met a man who was also a brother in Christ.  The man shared his experience of receiving bags of Bibles mysteriously.” 

“The man worked in a convenience store that was close to the train station. One day, when he opened the store early as usual, he found a big black bag leaning on the gate. He looked around and found no one. He opened the bag and found it full of Bibles. He tried to conceal the excitement and pretended nothing had happened.” 

“He received bags of Bibles again and again in the same way. Eventually, he learned that the Bibles had come from the big ship hired by the rich foreigner. This man decided to share the Bibles with us. He knew we needed Bibles desperately in this region.”   

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Unloading the Bibles at the beach

Suffering for the Unseen Impact 

Transferring one million Bibles did not come without a cost. 

Sister Cindy lived in the same town as the Chinese Christians who organized Project Pearl. She remembers, “All relevant persons in the church were investigated, monitored, and even arrested by the police.  Those found related to the Project were especially harassed. Three of us were investigated. That year, I was detained for 14 days, and my family knew nothing about it. After 18 investigations, the local and regional security officials knew more about the details of how the Bibles were delivered from overseas than I did. 

Sister Cindy says, “Despite all this suffering, there were many good outcomes. It catalyzed the great revival in China. The believers in my province received many Bibles.  Many believers in different provinces said they received their own Bibles. Many churches rose up, thousands and thousands of people accepted Jesus, and many leaders were born because they finally had their own Bibles.” 

Q&A with young Chinese Christians

Since Project Pearl, there have been periods of relative freedom for Christians in China, but today, religious restrictions have again been imposed on Christians to curb the phenomenal growth of the church. While these measures may not be as harsh as those used in the Cultural Revolution, various regulations have been introduced to make things increasingly difficult for Christians. Printed Bibles are only available in bookstores of government-sanctioned churches. Bibles can be read online, but the sale of printed Bibles online is prohibited. Many challenges remain. 

We spoke to three young Christians in China to find out how they feel about the Bible today, and how we can pray with them for China.  

 

Zhang Ming* from Central China  

When did you get your first Bible? 

I got my first Bible in Kunming in 2012, but I didn’t read it and ended up giving it to someone else!  

What does the bible mean to you? 

After becoming a Christian, the Bible became the only standard for truth in my life.  

What is your favourite Bible verse and why? 

Hebrews 11:15-16, which is all about desiring a heavenly dwelling because it far surpasses our earthly home. When you live with persecution you never know when you’ll be taken from your earthly home but God has promised to never be ashamed to be called our God and has prepared a better place for us to go to.  

Have you ever had trouble trying to get access to bibles? 

In 2015 I was moved by the Holy Spirit to put my trust in Jesus, but at that timethe Bible was not readily available at the secular bookstores. It wasn’t until I met the pastor of a house church that I was finally able to get a copy of my own.  

Have older Christians you know ever talked about Bibles being difficult to come by when they were young?  

Yes, many times I have heard old believers talk about how difficult it was. They said they had to risk their own lives to get one copy. Most churches waited their turn to receive a hard copy from another house church, before producing hand-written copies of their own.  

Have older Christians you know ever talked about Bibles being smuggled into China? 

Yes, they told me that around that time nearly all the Bibles had been smuggled in, and that they all smelled like the ocean!  

Have you ever heard the story of Project Pearl?  

In 2016 one of the church leaders from that time told me how they basically signed up to a ‘life or death pact’ to head to southern China to carry a load of Bibles back home in backpacks. 

I don’t take it for granted that we can now meet as a church and that I have my own Bible – these blessings didn’t come easily! God’s kingdom in China can only expand from here! We will always remember with great admiration those brothers and sisters who took part in Project Pearl.  

How does it make you feel to know that Christians around the world gave money and were praying so that one million Bibles could be smuggled into China in one night? 

Praise God, this is one of the biggest miracles in the story! If it were not for the Holy Spirit’s work this would be impossible. Praise God!  

Do you ever feel worried that it could become difficult to access the Bible in the future? 

I am very aware that persecution is getting worse. I won’t be surprised if bulk purchase of Bible will become more and more difficult. But I’m not anxious. In fact, I’m full of hope, because the Bible’s prophecies and promises have prepared us for what is to come. We can’t possibly withstand persecution and hardship by ourselves, but by trusting the Lord we will be victorious. 

What would you like Christians around the world to pray for you? 

I would love our family around the world to pray that our faith remains strong, and to thank God that we can serve Him.  

What would you like Christians around the world to pray for China? 

Please pray with us for China. Ask God to prepare people’s hearts and to open doors for Chinese Christians. Pray for an increase in workers and harvesters for the gospel. Pray that God raises up more young believers to spread the gospel.  

Ask for an awakening amongst China’s ethnic minorities, and for more workers to engage in cross-cultural mission.  

Ask God to destroy evil and the dark work of the enemy in this country, and to silence the spirit of confusion and chaos that has blinded so many to the truth.  

Ask too that despite all the enmity and divisions in society, that Christians would be united! Pray finally that the blessings we receive may flow through to the rest of the world! 

 

Sun Qingling* from Northern China  

When did you get your first Bible? 

I got my first bible in 2001.  

What does the Bible mean to you? 

The Bible is God’s personal Word to me. It is so precious. 

What is your favourite bible verse and why? 

Philippians 4:6-7.  The reason is that right at the time I became a Christian I experienced God’s promises and power through these verses.  

Have older Christians you know ever talked about Bibles being difficult to come by when they were young? 

Yes, some of the old brethren said when they first became Christians there were no Bibles at all. They used to meet and stay up all night handwriting copies of the Bible.  

How does it make you feel to know that Christians around the world gave money and were praying so that one million Bibles could be smuggled into China in one night? 

I sense that God really loves the Chinese church and Chinese believers, so He has raised up so many people to pray on our behalf.  

Do you ever feel worried that it could become difficult to access the Bible in the future? 

Actually, I am concerned that it may become harder and harder to access Bibles freely across China. However, what will more likely happen is that hermeneutics and exegesis will be sinicized along the socialist ideological lines.   

What would you like Christians around the world to pray for you? 

I want my hunger for God’s Word to increase and I also want to understand everything He says to me through His Word.  

What would you like Christians around the world to pray for China? 

My heart’s desire is that the Chinese church and Chinese Christians grow in maturity, resilience and boldness. 

 

Ma Guiying* from northeast China 

When did you get your first Bible? 

Soon after becoming a Christian I wanted so much to read a bible but didn’t know where I could buy a copy, so I went to the school library and found one there. Unfortunately, I was not allowed to take it out of the library, so I started going to the library every day to read their copy. The pastor of the church I attend heard about this and gave me my first Bible. 

What does the Bible mean to you? 

The Bible is food for life. It is also a guide to show me which direction to take. The Bible tells me about God’s plans and His will.  

What is your favourite bible verse and why? 

2 Corinthians 4: 7-11.  These verses remind me that even in the midst of a very difficult situation, God will never leave me alone. They also teach that by trusting totally in Jesus I am assured of his acceptance forever.  

Have older Christians you know ever talked about Bibles being smuggled into China? 

I have heard some Christians talk about how Bibles were carried across the border and then passed to our friends who transported them by train across the country to give to their church members. 

How does it make you feel to know that there was a time when it was very difficult to find a Bible? 

I know that believers in those difficult times loved God very much and even though there were almost no Bibles, they desperately wanted to know God’s word better and know Him better. This was all that really mattered to them. Although we are from a different generation, I have learned that we too will encounter oppressive circumstances, but God promises that we will overcome them. My part is to always seek God and ask for His guidance in how to do that. 

How does it make you feel to know that Christians around the world gave money and were praying so that one million Bibles could be smuggled into China in one night? 

For me the lesson is that when we as God’s people understand God’s will and then with one heart and mind go after what He has told us, we will see breakthrough, miracles and God’s power at work. 

Do you ever feel worried that it could become difficult to access the Bible in the future? 

Yes. Even now it’s nearly impossible to buy a Bible online or in bookshops. The next step will probably be to stop or at least limit the printing of Bibles, or only selling Bibles on the condition that the buyer’s ID, and, in some cases, address and contact details are recorded also. 

What would you like Christians around the world to pray for you? 

I don’t ask that I be taken out of this environment (or that it be taken from me), but rather that I learn well how to trust God to see breakthrough and victory over my circumstances. 

What would you like Christians around the world to pray for China? 

Please pray that the Chinese church learns how to love God more from within this ‘pressure cooker’ environment. Pray that His people keep meeting together and understand the Father’s will for His body, the church, and then willingly participate in the calling that He has commissioned us for. 

*Names changed for security reasons.  

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