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Authors: Liao Yiwu

God Is Red

GOD IS RED

The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived
and Flourished in Communist China

LIAO YIWU

Translator: Wenguang Huang

Contents

 

L
iao Yiwu is one of the most prominent and outspoken contemporary writers in China today. His epic poem “Massacre,” composed in 1989 in condemnation of the government's bloody crackdown at Tiananmen Square, landed him in jail for four years. His book
The Corpse Walker:
Real Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up
(2008), which chronicles the lives of those on the margins of Communist society, remains banned in China. The Chinese leadership deems his writings subversive because they are critical of the socialist system.

Despite the adverse environment at home, Liao is undeterred and continues to give his curiosity full rein. In
God Is Red
, he turns his attention to an area hidden from the West for many years, one that remains a subject of immense controversy—the resurgence of Christianity in China. The World Christian Database estimates that there are seventy million practicing Christians in China. In a society tightly controlled by an atheist government, Christianity is China's largest formal religion.

The number will no doubt surprise many Westerners who are more likely to associate China with incense-burning Buddhists and Taoists, or pragmatic Confucians, or red-flag-waving Communist atheists and spiritually ambivalent converts to consumerism.

Christianity entered China as early as the seventh century, and the scientific exchanges involving Jesuits in the court of Kublai Khan are well chronicled, but the religion didn't firmly take root until the nineteenth century, when improvements in transportation and access to the interior made it possible for waves of European missionaries to work in the Middle Kingdom. Before the Communist takeover in 1949, local Chinese Christian leadership, trained abroad or tutored by missionaries, accelerated its indigenous growth. According to the China Soul for Christ Foundation, the number of followers had reached seven hundred thousand when foreign missionaries were expelled in 1949.

Before Mao Zedong's death in 1976, many Chinese Christians were imprisoned or executed. In recent years, as the government began relaxing its control over religion, Christianity underwent explosive growth, though the Communist Party sought to keep the Christian movement in check by requiring all churches to belong to either the Three-Self Patriotic Movement or the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. The official
China Daily
reported in 2007 that there were an estimated forty million professed Protestants and about ten million Catholics—Beijing views Catholics as separate from mainstream Christianity—in China. While a large number of Chinese chose to recognize the political reality and practiced their religion within the government's prescribed limits, others resisted, believing that only God, not the Party, could lay claim to their beliefs. They eschewed the “official” churches and gathered for worship in their homes—called the “house-church movement”—despite ongoing persecution by government authorities. The movement has been gaining momentum.

Liao's interest in Christianity began in July 1998, when he was visiting a friend in Beijing and met Xu Yonghai, a neurologist-turned-preacher with an underground Protestant church. It was the first time that Liao came into contact with a Chinese Christian. That meeting is described in a story called “The Secret Visit”:

I gathered from the scraps I could catch from their conversation that they were planning to print some banned materials. Yonghai was tense and would, every few minutes, raise his head furtively and look outside to see if anyone was there. They had apparently finished their business when Yonghai moved closer to me and whispered, “We have to be careful. I think Xu Wenli's home is bugged.” I nodded, acknowledging his caution.

He wanted Xu Wenli's help with a publication for China's underground church members and, warming to me, talked about the concept of salvation through God. I knew little about Christianity at the time and was interested in what he had to say, but deep down I rejected his proselytizing. In the end, I said, “I don't go to the church.” He laughed, “I don't go to the church either . . . they are all government controlled.”

Having grown up under the rule of Mao, when religious practices were banned and Communism was treated like a national religion with Mao at its center, deified and worshipped, Liao remained skeptical of any forms of religion. He had scant knowledge of Christianity, which had long been demonized by the government as “spiritual opium” brought in by foreign imperialists. However, for a writer who had been in and out of jail for his writings critical of the government, Liao felt strongly about freedom of expression and freedom of religion. He did not share Yonghai's faith but admired his courage.

After returning to his hometown in Sichuan, Liao began researching the Christian faith in China and learned about the underground Christian movement, of which Yonghai was at the forefront.

Liao maintained contact with Yonghai and engaged in long conversations with him about politics and faith until early 2004, when Yonghai's telephone was disconnected; Yonghai had been arrested while preaching at a private home in China's southeastern province of Zhejiang and was sentenced to three years in prison.

Yonghai's arrest spurred Liao's interest in Christian issues. When he traveled to Beijing again in early 2004, his friend Yu Jie, a writer and prominent Christian activist, gave him a copy of a documentary made by Yuan Zhiming,
The Cross: Jesus in China
. The film chronicles the history and growth of Christianity in China and sheds some light on early Christian martyrs and individual believers, who are part of China's “house-church movement.” Seeing the extensive footage of large Christian gatherings was an eye-opening experience for Liao, and he felt compelled to include Christians in his wider project about people living at the margins of society in China today.

An opportunity presented itself in December 2004 when Liao, on the run from government agents who had raided his apartment while he was interviewing members of Falun Gong, a banned quasi-religious group, went into hiding in Yunnan. In Lijiang, he met a Chinese Christian doctor, identified throughout this book by only his family name, Sun, who gave up a lucrative city practice to do missionary work in the remote mountainous regions of southwestern China. Since Dr. Sun's territory covered a large swath of China's minority regions, where early European and American Christian missionaries had been active, Liao asked to join Dr. Sun on several monthlong journeys that took him to villages with large populations of the Miao and Yi people, two of China's largest ethnic groups.

In those ethnic enclaves, impoverished by isolation and largely neglected by modernization, Liao stumbled upon a vibrant Christian community that had sprung from the work of Western missionaries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Liao was granted rare access for an outsider.

Liao interviewed Christians at a gleaming white church that “stood proudly among the mountain peaks, with a red cross displayed prominently on top of the steeple.” He witnessed a prayer session in a crammed courtyard house where “animals and humans lived side by side, forming a harmonious picture.” At services celebrated like festivals, Liao heard illiterate villagers express their love of God with eloquence.

Many of those Liao interviewed for this book had never opened up to an outsider. They shared stories about “tall and blond or red-haired” foreigners saving villages during the devastating Third Pandemic of bubonic plague that swept China and much of the world at the beginning of the twentieth century. They told how the foreigners promoted public hygiene and taught villagers how to protect their water supplies, how they spread literacy by building schools, improved health through their hospitals, and saved infants and young children abandoned by their parents because of poverty. Villagers also opened up to Liao and told him tales of brutal suppression and persecution of prominent Christian leaders in the Mao era, including the tragic and heroic story of Reverend Wang Zhiming, a Protestant minister executed during the Cultural Revolution and honored by Westminster Abbey as one of ten Christian martyrs of the past century, with a statue above the west entrance to the abbey.

Liao was moved by the sustaining power of faith and the optimistic spirit among the congregations he encountered. For example, after recounting the tragic story of Reverend Wang Zhiming, his son, Reverend Wang Zisheng, told Liao: “I don't feel bitter. As Christians, we forgive the sinner and move on to the future. We are grateful for what we have today. There is so much for us to do. In our society today, people's minds are entangled and chaotic. They need the words of the gospel now more than at any other time.”

In the cities, Liao witnessed the political tensions that dog unregistered and government-sanctioned house churches but was refreshed by the more laissez-faire approach by government authorities to religion in the countryside. Villagers treated politics and religion in a more pragmatic manner. They might have been baptized at a government Three-Self Patriotic Church but would feel no qualms about praying with and listening to leaders of a house church. “The holy figure on the cross above the pulpit is my Lord, whether it was above the pulpit at a government church or inside a living room,” a twenty-four-year-old man told Liao. Moreover, Liao found it common for families to display a portrait of Chairman Mao on one wall and a picture of Jesus on another.

In late spring 2009 Liao and I started discussing the possibility of developing a book based on his experiences in Yunnan. He wanted to explore the broader issue of spirituality in China in the post-Mao era, when the widespread loss of faith in Communism as well as rampant corruption and greed resulting from the country's relentless push for modernization have created a faith crisis. Though
God Is Red
takes Christianity as its subject, its objective is to delve into the past and present experiences of a particular group of people in search of clues about China's future.

In the summer of 2009 Liao went back to Yunnan and stayed for a month in the ancient section of Dali, a city well known for its diverse and robust religious culture. There he conducted a series of new interviews to expand the scope of this book. He visited the city's two oldest Christian churches built by Western missionaries at the beginning of the twentieth century and tracked down local Christian leaders and activists to record their life stories.

In
God Is Red,
Liao has brought to readers, for the first time, a collection of eighteen loosely interlinked interviews and essays written between 2002 and 2010. The past, present, and future coexist in the pages of
God Is Red
. Some stories, while unique and colorful, typify the experiences of ordinary Chinese Christians and shed light on the social and political controversies that envelop and at times overshadow the issue of Christian faith in China today. Other pieces capture the dark years of the Mao era, when the claws of political persecution left no place untouched in China and when thousands of Christians, and numberless others besides, were tortured and murdered. More important, each story puts a human face on the historical and ongoing political battles staged by ordinary people against what is still a police state.

In
God Is Red,
Liao's essays also chronicle his own transformation. He started this project as an outsider—an urban, non-Christian, Han Chinese writer—thrust into a crowd of rural ethnic Miao, Yi, and Bai Christians, whose language, cultural traditions, and faiths were foreign to him. At times, Liao felt alienated and confused. At the end of the journey, the villagers' hospitality, honesty, and sincerity, their single-minded pursuit of their faith, as well as their optimism for the future, melted away any sense of alienation and helped him gain a better understanding of China. He was deeply touched by what he heard and witnessed. In his story “The Fellowship,” he observes:

Village women, many of whom were semiliterate, had long been deprived of the right to speak and did not so much “tell” their stories as perform them, articulating their ideas with eloquence, as if each had been a professional trained actress. Their stories were told with vivid anecdotes. The variation of tone and occasional outbursts of tears enhanced the effect, carrying their performances to a high emotional level. They were true storytellers. I was a meager scribbler compared with their gift.

Even though Liao remains a “nonbeliever,” the journeys brought him kinship with millions of Chinese Christians who are finding meaning in a tumultuous society, where unbridled consumerism is upending traditional and inculcated value systems. Liao saw parallels in the perseverance by Chinese Christians with his own fight for the freedom to write and travel. In September 2010, when the Chinese government finally granted Liao a permit to present his literary works and perform music in Germany after he had attempted to do so fourteen times in the previous ten years, he e-mailed his friends: “To gain and preserve your freedom and dignity, there is no other way except to fight. I will continue to write and document the sufferings of people living at the bottom rung of society, even though the Communist Party is not pleased with my writing. I have the responsibility to help the world understand the true spirit of China, which will outlast the current totalitarian government.”

Wenguang Huang,
Chicago,
November 2010

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