God is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China, Liao Yiwu. (Harper One 2011) $14.99
In God is Red, historian Liao Yiwu tells the story of Christian missionary workers and the house church movement throughout the twentieth century in China under totalitarian government. For his previous writings, Liao has been imprisoned and his books banned. “But what if we, as a nation, collectively lose our memory of the past?” Liao asks.
This question haunts the entire book, a fear that is reminiscent of Orwell’s perennial classic. Liao delves “into the past and present experiences of a particular group of people in search of clues about China’s future,” interweaving and linking several interviews conducted in the Yunnan province of southwest China between 2002 and 2010. Albeit a particular story about Christianity in China, God is Red takes on the political dragon to record the country’s moment of faith crisis in the wake of a push for modernization.
Readers will find this an easy book to get lost in: Liao recounts the interviews cleanly without losing the humor, as well capturing the Chinese way of telling a story poetically,
I followed Brother Yang, clutching both hands in front of my chest, tears streaming down like raindrops. I tell you, I wasn’t overcome with grief. I felt grateful. For the first time in my life, I didn’t think about myself or about human beings. I was thinking about God, who is above us, above all living things, above the highest mountain, above Erhai Lake. My parents gave birth to me, but God gave me life. I didn’t know that before. Cancer helped enlighten me, giving winder to my heart, which had been downtrodden in the mud, and made it fly and feel the bliss of heaven.
The persons interviewed, most of them in their eighties and nineties, have astoundingly good memories of their traumatic pasts, having witnessed the stalwart character of their parents’ faiths or having been persecuted and imprisoned for their faith by the Communist government themselves. The accounts range from the retelling of the first Australian and Catholic missionaries in the area to the Chinese ministers who continued the work of the Church after the Communists toppled the Nationalist party when all foreigners were expelled as ‘imperialist spies’ in 1949. In “The Martyr,” Wang Zisheng relates the province’s history with Christianity, beginning with its introduction in 1906 to the Miao people, who worshipped local spirits and ghosts up to that point. Liao also touches on the ministry and imprisonment of his father from 1969-1973, and the naming of his father as one of the ten Christian martyrs of the twentieth century to be honored by Westminster in 1998, where his statue can be seen above the Great Door of the Abbey.
The development of the particular character of Chinese Christianity in response to poverty and harassment (and the consequent development of the Chinese government’s reputation because of its treatment of Christians) becomes one of the main features of Liao’s work. In “The Secret Visit,” Liao leads us through a tense encounter with authorities keeping close surveillance on Reverend Yuan Xiangchen’s apartment. Even while recording the interviews in 2002, Liao and his subjects are harassed by police in Beijing.
As Yuan began to talk about his early involvement in the church, there was a knock at the door. The air really seemed to freeze when a roomful of people tensed at the exact same moment, then it shimmered a little, like a bow in full draw. In an instant, video camera, tape recorder, and Christian reading materials all vanished like so many props in a magician’s act. Yuan’s eldest son crossed the room quietly and put his ear to the door. Knock, knock, knock. The son coughed and asked in a casual tone, “Who is it?”
The interview is thwarted, but Liao manages to meet with Xiangchen’s second son two years later.
What manages to come through all of these stories is the resilience of the ordinary people in the face of so many struggles. Despite their poverty, Chinese Christians hold on to their faith because it presents a cure that they simply are unable to find in the Communist ideology of their country. Cancer and other sicknesses abound, but whether or not they are cured, the storytellers find a well of hope from which to draw. People find spiritual support in the church, and in return, they are willing to stand up to authority.
When the state beat, shamed, and imprisoned many, it also caused the people to denounce, hate and torture each other. “Was that what the Communist revolution was all about?” is the question that arises over and over again, and that continues to be asked today. Even though Liao is a nonbeliever, or perhaps because of it, the questions posed by his writings are poignant. The historical record must reflect the story of a group of people as they have experienced it. In an email to his friends in 2010 he wrote, “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.”
Ingrid Melendez is currently studying Cross-Cultural Studies and Christian Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA. When not busy reading or writing for classes about youth culture and gender roles, you can find her biking around town on her blue bike.