On Monday night, the dissident Chinese author Liao Yiwu gave a reading on my campus. He read a poem, “Massacre,” about the killings of the pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square. For writing that poem, Liao was tortured and imprisoned for four years. This led to his writing about his fellow prisoners and documentation of more government abuses. He now lives as an exile from his homeland. He also read from his latest book, God is Red, which is about the rise of Christianity in China, despite horrendous persecution.
Here is a review of the book by my colleague, David Aikman, a former correspondent with Time Magazine who covered what was going on at Tiananmen Square who is currently a history professor at Patrick Henry College:
Every so often, you come across a narrative of courage under suffering that is so well reported, so restrained and sensitive in its intelligence, that you are momentarily altered by the experience. Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich had that effect upon millions, both Russians and foreigners, in 1962. The publication of Solzhenitsyn’s novels—like Cancer Ward and The First Circle, for which the Russian writer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature—even contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
It is far too early to guess whether Liao Yiwu’s latest book, God Is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China (HarperOne), will have any long-term impact on the author’s homeland. But readers will surely come away inspired by the landmark account of Chinese Christians living under the vicious political campaigns of the Mao era. (No stranger himself to political persecution, Liao was imprisoned during the government’s post-Tiananmen Square crackdown. He described his prison experience in Testimonials, an expanded version of which has just been published in German.)
Two ingredients, in particular, make God Is Red such a powerful account of Chinese Christians’ perseverance. First, Liao acknowledges that he is not himself a Christian, so he cannot be accused of trying to persuade anyone of anything religious. And second, the quality of his reporting is simply excellent.
The drama of the reporting derives from the fact that much of it takes place in remote areas of the Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. The characters Liao focuses on are men and women of extraordinary saintliness: the indefatigably beneficent Dr. Sun, for example, a man who turned down prosperous positions in China’s cities because he wanted to help the poor and outcast in China’s remote rural areas; the elderly nun persistently appealing for the Communists to return confiscated church property.
Some of the narratives are historically fascinating. There is the story of the martyrdom of Wang Zhisheng, an ethnic Miao executed by the Communists in 1973 and commemorated today by a statue in London’s Westminster Abbey. Almost as fascinating is the detailed story of the suffering of Yuan Xiangchen (Allen Yuan). A patriarch of China’s house churches, Yuan spent two decades in labor camps (as did his friend, the legendary Chinese evangelist Wang Mingdao) for refusing to join the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, the state-controlled church. Yuan died in 2005, but I can still remember visiting his house, which served as a house church, in the center of Beijing in the 1990s.
Like all good reporters, Liao lets his characters speak for themselves, without adding superfluous commentary. From hip-hop youngsters in Chengdu to seasoned old saints in Yunnan come varied stories of how each one became a Christian. From the same people come powerful recollections of the pitiless and evil tyranny of Communism as it struggled to dominate all of life in China. If you want to read one book that sums up the glory of the Christian witness under persecution and the tragic 20th-century story of China’s Christians, read God Is Red. Brilliant and immensely moving, it will, if anything can, inject new backbone into your own Christian life.
Some memorable lines from Liao, who spoke through an interpreter: “To survive under a dictatorship, you have to lie.” When asked about contemporary China, he said that Americans are so concerned with making profits that they are neglecting their traditional values of standing up for freedom and human rights. He said that his father always told him that if you are confronted by a wolf in the mountains, be sure to look it straight in the eye. If you don’t, if you look away, the wolf will tear out your throat and drink your blood. He thinks we are avoiding looking China in the eye.
I think it was good for our students to be in the presence of someone who had been tortured for his political beliefs. I think it was good for them to hear about Christians who were killed for their faith.
When I came to the event, an elderly Chinese gentleman came to the door about the same time I did. I opened the outer for him, but then he insisted on opening the inner door for me. We smiled and I welcomed him to our campus. It turns out, it was Dr. Sun, one of the book’s heroes, a saintly physician who led Liao into his exploration of the Chinese church. I don’t know his story, if he too was driven out of China, but I want to find out. It was remarkable that he showed up for the reading.
Seeing people like Liao and Dr. Sun in the flesh turns abstractions such as freedom, persecution, and martyrdom into powerful, tangible realities.
Buy the book here.