In July 2022, the singer G.E.M., Chinese name 邓紫棋 (Deng Ziqi), released her 14-track album Revelation. On August 9, the music video of the album’s first song, “Gloria,” was released online. G.E.M. also recorded and released a short video sharing her spiritual journey in the creation of the song.
Deng, nicknamed “China’s Taylor Swift,” is one of China’s most popular and successful female singers. She is a Christian who has openly talked about her faith on social media. She said in the recorded message that “Gloria” was actually her real English name, given to her by her father when she was a child. She liked this name very much since childhood “because it feels like being full of glory” and she named the song after her real name to “present the real me to everyone without framing.”
The background of most scenes in the “Gloria” music video is a gray, desolate wasteland. The computer-generated imagery creates a vibe of the metaverse. The singer stands in the wasteland, with tears “falling into the wilderness.” She walks into the “Afterland” only to find it is not paradise but a place full of pain and numbness.
However, the light of hope gently shines through, and the singer hears a whisper from heaven that was “indistinct and healing.” She slowly turns around and walks through ruins to a seaside where the dawn is emerging. The background begins to change color. As the singer is moved to tears and kneels to pray, the sea parts. As the lyrics of “I’m waiting for you, waiting for you to come back” play, she walks toward a glowing door.
Deng said that she hopes the visual effects of the music video will create an “immersive experience for the audience as they walk with me through those moments of pain, despair, and redemption.” She said that the inspiration for the entire Revelation album came from a supernatural experience she encountered. One day, overwhelmed by sadness, she was crying and praying in the bathroom. When she began humming a melody unconsciously in the shower, she began to feel it bringing her peace, transcending her circumstances.
The inspiration for an album emerged: She wanted to use her new song to speak of her struggles, heartbreaks, and prayers, and to remember how God answered prayers to redeem and bless her.
Walking through the wasteland
G.E.M., now 31, grew up in Hong Kong. An alumna of Christian education, she learned to sing in her school choir. In 2008, at the age of 16, she debuted in Hong Kong with her first solo EP “G.E.M.” and began touring around the world.
In 2014, Deng entered the entertainment industry in mainland China and competed on the singing competition show, I Am a Singer 2, a contest that sent her popularity soaring across the country. She is known as the “Iron Lung Girl Singer” due to her wide vocal range. She is the first Chinese-speaking singer whose music videos have exceeded 200 million views on YouTube, and the only Asian musician on Forbes’ 2016 list of “30 Under 30.”
But there were tears and pain behind the glamor of success. In addition to the critics and rumors that characterize the entertainment industry, G.E.M. also faced heat for her supposed political stance, even though she did not like to talk about politics publicly. Some who support the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement accused her of supporting the then–chief executive Leung Chun-ying, who they saw as the Chinese government’s pawn. On the other side, Chinese censorship officials placed her on a list of “strictly controlled” persons because she prayed for Hong Kong “in bitter tears” during the Occupy Central movement in 2014.
G.E.M. has spoken publicly about often feeling physically and mentally wasted and has broken down at concerts multiple times. But she also admitted on social media that it was her faith in God that kept her through the hardships of her career and allowed her to grow in trials.
“I gradually learned that the result is not the most important thing because whether it’s a failure or a success, I would gain experiences either way,” she said. “I think everyone is a walking witness to other people.”
“Gloria” is not Deng’s first song that contains elements of the Christian faith. She wrote and sung “Heartbeat” and “Walk on Water” with gospel implications before. In the lyrics of “Gloria,” Deng repeatedly talks about love using Biblical language such as “Do not be afraid; there is no fear in love” and “love never fails.”
Most Chinese Christians appreciate the song’s message
The release of the “Gloria” music video (MV) brought out many discussions among Chinese and overseas Chinese Christians. In a recent livestream on the evangelism YouTube channel “All Things Tea House,” Cui Yu, a member of the Christian worship band and song writing team The Burning Bush, said he admired G.E.M.’s high production values in the music video and the quality song composition. Cui was deeply moved by the image of the Red Sea parting: “We read about the Red Sea story in the bible often, but the visual effect in the MV has such a strong artistic impact.”
While he doesn’t consider himself a fan of her music, Chicago-based pastor Jiang Shaolong admired Deng’s courage to use music to testify her Christian faith. “There are commercial and political risks in today’s China for a Christian artist to testify her faith publicly.” Jiang said in the same livestream. “Although Deng has participated in a wide variety of popular TV shows that can reach hundreds of millions of audiences, it is impossible for her to be given any opportunity to openly witness her Christian faith on those shows. She knew that expressing her Christian faith in the song may cause her to lose fans or be critically attacked, but she was determined to speak out using her music.”
Deng’s use of biblical vocabulary to express her Christian faith in her song could be a good “pre-evangelism work,” said Jane Hao, also a member of “The Burning Bush” team. Hao also defended G.E.M. from Christians who criticized the song for not mentioning “God” or “Lord Jesus” directly: “Churches should not rely on a Christian pop star to do the whole work of evangelism. Some non-believers may become curious about Deng’s faith through her musical works, but it is the responsibility of the Christians around them to share the complete gospel with them.”
Kris Wang, elder of the Lansing Chinese Church in Michigan and campus ministry leader who has been following and writing commentaries on pop culture, shared with CT, “It is very rare to see in the Chinese pop music industry that a singer would disclose her faith in songs and to generate ideas from the Bible for the entire album. There are examples in the United States that songwriters integrate their faith into pop music, like Kanye West, Justin Bieber, and DMX have done. But in atheism-dominated China, doing so is innovative and creative.”
“Deng Ziqi is a singer, not a theologian. It is commendable that she presents spiritual encounters in the form of art and from a first-person perspective,” Christian author Naxier said in a WeChat article. “We can’t judge her work as cheap-grace gospel simply because there is no mentioning of sin and repentance in the song. We should allow a work of art to take on one aspect of the Christian faith at a time.”
According to Naxier’s interpretation, the MV is telling its audience a story of redemption: Gloria was a scarred person, lured into false hope, losing her identity and dignity as a human. After hearing the voice of God and turning to him, she is finally complete in her humanity. This song is a call to people who also live in the wasteland to abandon the disillusion of finding a paradise in that world, to return to the love of God, and to enter the real paradise of God’s grace.
When Deng entered the entertainment world, she gave herself a lively stage name, “G.E.M.,” which means “Get Everybody Moving.” Many among her Chinese Christian fans are praying now that the love of God she witnesses through songwriting will get everybody moved—that her songs would move and comfort the hearts of many who are still struggling in the wasteland.
Sean Cheng is Asia editor of Christianity Today.
Translation by Yi-Ting Tsai