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Liao Yiwu writes about Chinese people at the lower rungs of society — people who have not benefited from China's rapid development.
He spent four years in prison for his writings and has been forbidden by the state from going overseas to literary conferences or on book tours. His books are banned in China, but Chinese readers are still able to get their hands on his material.
His books include "The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China From The Bottom Up" and "God Is Red: The Secret Story Of How Christianity Survived And Flourished In Communist China."
This summer, Liao crossed into Vietnam and eventually made his way to Germany. This month, he'll tour the U.S. as "God Is Red" is released in English.
Leading sinologist Perry Link says China's leaders are glad Liao left. Link says they like trouble-makers to go abroad because they can bar them from coming back.
- New York Times: Walking Out On China
"God is Red" by Liao Yiwu
I jotted down this observation in my journal in the winter of 2005 while trekking on a narrow mountain path in China’s southwestern province of Yunnan.
I had arrived in Yunnan a year before, running away from public security agents who came to interrogate me for interviewing members of Falun Gong. Fear of arrest prompted me to jump from my second-floor apartment. I fled to the sun-drenched city of Dali, where I took temporary shelter at a friend’s place. Like a rat sneaking out from a tightlidded container, in this case, the Sichuan basin, I brushed off the dust, stretched my limbs on the beach of Erhai Lake, and resumed my life as a writer and musician—performing my Chinese flute on the street and in bars, and interviewing people and writing about them.
Broke and depressed in a new city, I cut myself off from my friends in Beijing and Chengdu. During the day, I roamed the streets, hanging out with beggars, street vendors, musicians, and prostitutes, listening to their life stories. In the evenings, I doused my loneliness with liquor, through which I even made an unexpected acquaintance with plainclothes police officers who had been sent to monitor my activities. Unlike those in Sichuan, policemen in Yunnan never refused a free drink and felt no qualms about being my drinking buddies. Even in their highly intoxicated state, they didn’t forget to toe the Party line by saying how hard they tried to protect the Communist system, and that it was good for China. But drinking was not an effective escape and even worsened my sense of loneliness.
Then, at the end of 2004, l met a Christian, known among local villagers as Dr. Sun, a medical doctor. Following his conversion to Christianity, he quit his position as the dean of a large medical school near Shanghai and came to the rural areas of Yunnan, healing the sick and spreading the gospel. On that day, he was performing a cataract surgery inside my friend’s shanty house in Lijiang. The patient was an old lady who was too poor to pay for the procedure at the government-run hospital. The bespectacled Dr. Sun, in a casual green jacket and a white T-shirt, looked more like a schoolteacher than a surgeon. With thin hair on top, he reminded me of Xu Yonghai, a neurologist-turned-preacher whom I had met six years before in Beijing.
Yonghai, an activist with the government-banned “house-church movement,” had been imprisoned a few months previously for preaching in the southeastern province of Zhejiang. On this particular day, Dr. Sun did not proselytize.
To my surprise, he said he had read my books—pirated versions that he had managed to purchase on the street. As he politely complimented me on my literary efforts, I was beginning to wonder what it was in Christianity that had driven these successful medical doctors to abandon their lucrative careers in the big cities to pursue a life filled with risks and hardships.
When I asked Dr. Sun for permission to interview him, he initially declined. “I’ve led an ordinary life,” he said humbly. “If you are interested, come with me to the mountains. You will discover extraordinary stories in the villages there.”
Of course I was interested. I had spent the better half of my life capturing extraordinary stories from ordinary people.
One year later, in December 2005, Dr. Sun and I met in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan and set out on a monthlong journey that took us deep into the mountains, first by bus and then on a small tractor, along perilous mountain paths paved with small rocks, which the locals call “hard candies.” We passed Fumin and Luquan counties, both of which I had never heard of, and then Sayingpan Township, where the paved roads ended. Trudging along on winding red-mud trails, we reached a cluster of small villages hemmed in by tall mountains. According to Dr. Sun, there was a vibrant Christian community there.
The place reminded me of an old Chinese saying: “Heaven is high above and the emperor is far away,” which refers to regions that are so distant and isolated that they seem to fall beyond the reach of both divine and secular powers. I wondered how it was possible for Christianity, a foreign faith, to find its way and grow in such isolated locations, where the vast modernization that was sweeping other parts of China had not yet reached. Peasants still eked out a meager living by plowing tiny plots of terraced land with hoes and shovels. Television was still a luxury, and many had never heard of refrigerators, not to mention computers or the Internet. Medical care was almost nonexistent—for example, when one of the villagers fell sick, it took his
relatives six hours to carry him to the nearest hospital. En route, on the bumpy road, he expired. The itinerant medical service of Dr. Sun was the only hope for the inhabitants of those remote villages.
In the subsequent days after I started talking with some of the villagers, my initial assumptions gradually changed. It was true that people in the cold, high plateau of Yunnan were cut off from the developed urban centers and were destitute. However, on a deeper level, the region was never immune from both the political and cultural influences of the outside world. In fact, this region was well within the grasp of both divine and secular powers.
In the village of Zehei, inhabited by China’s ethnic Yi people, locals led me to the muddy hut of Zhang Yingrong, an eighty-six-year-old church elder whose peaceful and benevolent looks made me think of my late father. Zhang Yingrong talked fondly about the London-based China Inland Mission that had sent its first group of missionaries to Shanghai more than 150 years ago. At that time, several of these nineteenth-century missionaries set their sights on the Yi villages hidden up in the mountains. Because modern transportation was lacking, these foreigners, with “blond hair and big noses,” rode on donkeys, journeying for many days to reach the region, just in time to save the mountain people from a devastating bubonic epidemic, using Western medicine and their knowledge of modern hygienic practices. They also brought with them, in their inexact Mandarin translations, copies of the Shengjing—the Bible. The Word of God, Zhang Yingrong said, gradually penetrated the whole region by winning the hearts and minds of villagers who for generations had found solace in the chanting of local shamans and the worshipping of pagan gods. Zhang Yingrong’s father was among the early followers and then brought his whole family along. The missionaries eventually established schools and hospitals. At an early age, Zhang Yingrong attended the Southwestern Theology Seminary, and before he reached twenty, he was ready to follow in the missionaries’ footsteps.
Zhang Yingrong’s captivating stories piqued my interest in Christianity about which I knew very little. I grew up in the era when Western missionaries were portrayed as “evil agents of the imperialists,” who enslaved the Chinese mind, killed Chinese babies, and ruined indigenous cultures. I decided to talk with some local Christians, and under Dr. Sun’s guidance, I ventured deeper into the mountain valleys.
Another Christian leader, Reverend Wang Zisheng, an ethnic Miao, lived in a village across a river. He recounted a similar tale about the blue-eyed missionaries who saved lives and spread the words of the gospel. So did Reverend Zhang Mao-en in Salaowu. As the interviews progressed, I found a pattern—locals had inherited their Christian faith from their parents and grandparents who had benefited from the teachings of a certain foreign missionary. Was the missionary English, French, German, American, Australian, or New Zealander? They didn’t know. To them, it was not important. Through the efforts of that foreign missionary, who had found a fertile ground in which to plant the seeds of faith, Christianity had taken root earlier than it had in other parts of China. Three or four generations later, Christianity was part of the heritage of each individual family and an integral part of local history.
It was a path filled with strife and blood.
“Sometimes, devils often follow the footsteps of God to undo his work,” a local Christian whispered to me, referring to the period in the 1940s when the Communists forced their way in there and Mao Zedong’s atheist ideology clashed violently with the Christian faith. Zhang Yingrong, who was a preacher in training when the Communists initiated the land redistribution campaign in 1950, was labeled a “landlord” even though he had no properties in his name. The ruthless beatings, the forced kneeling on broken tiles in the pouring rain, and the near starvation reduced him to a state of near paralysis for a number of years.
Another preacher, Wang Zhiming, led the Christian movement after the Western missionaries had retreated from China. In the 1950s, local Communist officials closed the church and sent him to work in the field to be reeducated. He quietly accepted the reality of being under Communism and temporarily ceased his church activities. During the Cultural Revolution, when the Party infringed on his bottom line—that is, denied him the right to pray—he acted in defiance and was willing to give up his life. As expected, he was arrested while leading a prayer session inside a mountain cave and was brutally executed following a public condemnation meeting, with his tongue cut out of his mouth to prevent him from preaching.
In the Mao era, local Christians were not allowed to pray and attend church and were forced to accept the Communist ideology. They complied, but only a few openly denounced their faith. In order to protect their faith from being totally suppressed in that region, some brave Christians gathered for services inside mountain caves. As a result, Christianity survived, and a few years after Mao Zedong’s death, it came back again with a vengeance. Village after village became Christian territory.
On that journey to the Yi people, I attended a Eucharist celebration, which locals celebrated like a holiday, slaughtering pigs and chickens for a sumptuous feast.
I grew up in the cities, where Christianity has also revived and flourished in the post-Mao era but with a distinctive foreign identity. Many new converts are highly educated and well-off professionals or retirees. They have embraced Christianity the way they do Coca-Cola or a Volkswagen—believing that a foreign faith, like foreign-made products, has better quality. Many younger urban Christians have been throwing themselves at the feet of Jesus because it is considered hip to wear a cross and sing a foreign-sounding hymn.
In the Yi and Miao villages, Christianity is now as indigenous as qiaoba, a special Yi buckwheat cake. A majority of the Christians I met were poor illiterate farmers who had nothing to share with a visitor, but a wealth of stories. Like qiaoba, Christianity is life-sustaining to the Yi. For Reverend Wang Zisheng and church elder Zhang Yingrong, faith enabled them to survive the brutal persecution during the dark years under Mao. For Zhang Meizhi, who lost her husband, brothers, and sons to Mao’s political campaigns, a recent conversion to Christianity lifted her anger and finally gave her some peace. For a villager who had been ostracized after killing a snake, which the locals believed could cause leprosy, his newly acquired Christian
faith put him in the midst of a large and welcoming community.
In the urban metropolises of China, will Christianity provide a spiritual haven that calms the restless populace caught up in the relentless pursuit of wealth and material comfort? It has certainly changed the lives of Dr. Xu Yonghai and Dr. Sun. Or will the Christian faith, like Buddhism and Taoism, make people more submissive to totalitarian power? There is an ongoing debate among Chinese scholars as to whether some Christians forgave the murderous government as a genuine display of God’s benevolence—or as an excuse for cowardice. As the Party continues to persecute Christians, and keeps a wary eye on any spiritual movement that might challenge its authority, the willingness of Christians to forgive, however, is not universal. When I asked a centenarian nun if she was willing to pray and forgive the Communist government, which had destroyed her church, she jumped up from her seat and stamped her feet emphatically, “No, certainly not! They still occupy our church property! I refuse to die! I will wait until they return everything back to the church!”
After I came back from the trip with Dr. Sun, I became preoccupied with the topic. To continue my research of Christianity in Yunnan, I went back to Dali again in 2009 to trace the footsteps of early Christian missionaries, many of whom had settled there and used the city as a launching pad for their missions in places farther away. These trips have exhilarated me, lifting me out of my drunken depression. The stories of heroic Christians like Zhang Yingrong, Reverend Wang Zhiming, and Dr. Sun have inspired me, prompting me to write a book during a time when East and West are meeting and clashing on many fronts. In these remote corners, I have discovered a center point, where East met West, and although there has been a collision of cultures, there is now a new Christian identity that is distinctively Chinese.
The circuitous mountain path in Yunnan province is red because over many years it has been soaked with blood.
Chengdu, Sichuan province,
From God Is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China. Copyright © 2011 by Liao Yiwu. Reprinted with permission from HarperOne, a division of HarperCollins Publishers.
- Perry Link, professor emeritus, Princeton University, Chancellorial Chair for Innovative Teaching, University of California, Riverside
This segment aired on September 15, 2011.
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