The secret story of how Christianity survived and flourished in Communist China
Buy the Book: Check out God Is Red on Amazon.
Christianity and Communism
A centenarian nun, a martyred minister, a blind musician and a Yi village ceremony, God is Red by Liao Yiwu, is not so much a book about Christianity, but a book about the struggle of those who practice it in the world’s largest Communist state.
Like his previous work The Corpse Walker, God is Red sees Liao Yiwu (廖亦武) travelling the southwestern provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan – with a brief, clandestine sojourn in Beijing – in an attempt to uncover exactly what it is that drives people to risk everything for the sake of their faith.
As the title suggests, God, in modern China, is only God insofar as he is answerable to a higher power. In a country in which religion was seen as ‘the opium of the people’ for the best part of thirty years and has still only partially been rehabilitated, the veneration of any guarantor of truth other than the Party has long been a straight and rather certain road to a distinctly unholy place. It is the effect of this conflict between church and state, between Christianity and Communism, on the people Liao meets, that God is Red hopes to articulate.
Liao himself is no Christian. He admits early on that he stumbled upon the idea of writing a book about Christianity during a chance meeting with a Christian surgeon whilst on the run from the law. He also admits that upon its completion, he was no closer to conversion than he was at the start. But over the course of his travels, meeting the people and conducting the interviews that form the basis of his book, Liao reveals a certain affinity with his subjects and an appreciation of the commitment to freedom, often denied, that underlies each story.
Preserving the faith
Banned in China and jailed himself in the past, it is exactly this affinity with the struggle for expression that led Liao Yiwu to the remote villages and house churches, the secret prayer meetings and backyard services, described in God is Red. In the eighteen interviews and vignettes that comprise the book, many stories are told and many voices are heard, but all are connected by a will to preserve their faith no matter what the personal cost.
We hear, for example, of the struggles of the early missionaries in China in the late 1800s – of George and Fanny Clarke who arrived in Yunnan Province in 1881 to preach the gospel. They achieved limited success but were well respected in the region and were buried in the Christian cemetery they established at the foot of Cangshan Mountain – the same cemetery that was later ransacked during the Cultural Revolution and its headstones used in the construction of pigsties.
Then there is Wu Yongsheng, the Dali elder, witness to almost a century of tumult in China. He remembers the arrival of the Communists in 1951 and the banishment of foreign missionaries, the denunciation meetings and the study sessions. Accused of being foreign spies, the Christians of Dali, including Wu and his wife, were subjected to beatings, their church and its assets destroyed. “They smashed the windows, the pews, the bookshelves, the furniture, old scrolls of paintings and even the pipe organ,” Wu’s wife recalls. But still their faith remained intact.
China’s largest formal religion
Like so many of the stories contained within the book, it is the brutal narrative of twentieth century China that acts as the backdrop to Wu Yongsheng’s personal history and that of his Christianity. Such accounts are now part of an increasingly precarious larger history of Christianity in China – a history at once of persecution and latterly co-option by the Communist Party, and one in danger of being buried.
With five percent of China’s population, according to the World Christian Database, claiming to be practicing Christians, Christianity is now the country’s largest formal religion. But it is a religion still tightly controlled by the Party. As one of Liao’s old poet friends tells him of her application process, she was required to get a recommendation from her university, then her application would be reviewed by the church, then it would be reviewed by the local Religious Affairs Bureau where her file would be kept. “Of course you have freedom of faith”, the interviewing priest told her, “you just need to go through the proper channels.”
Hence why many Christians in China still risk imprisonment by attending illegal house churches, pledging loyalty to the Vatican over the Communist Party whilst refusing to submit to the officially sanctioned brand of Christianity pedaled by the state. It is the courage of those that defy such appropriation of their faith, therefore, to which God Is Red can be seen as dedicated.
As in The Corpse Walker, it is Liao’s subjects that speak rather than Liao himself. Though there are more narrative sections in this book than its predecessor, there is still little comment from the author; no judgement is explicitly passed. Instead, the people and the stories are allowed to speak for themselves. It is the stories that speak of their subject’s struggle, not Liao. The implicit condemnation is all the more powerful for it.
Buy the Book: Check out God Is Red on Amazon.
Related Post: Read my review of Liao Yiwu’s The Corpse Walker for more real-life stories from China.