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Tim Stafford

Listening to Chinese Christians

A fresh report.

Liao Yiwu is a poet, street musician, and chronicler of modern China who has persisted in antagonizing the Chinese government. After the Tiananmen Square massacre he wrote a protest poem that helped get him imprisoned for four years. Later he traveled about China describing lives of people who don't fit the Chinese ideal—"hustlers to drifters, outlaws, and street performers, the officially renegade and the physically handicapped, those who deal with human waste and with the wasting of humans, artists and shamans, crooks, even cannibals." Harassed by the government and refused permission to travel abroad, he escaped from China through Vietnam in 2011.

But not before publishing God Is Red, a book based on interviews with diverse Chinese Christians. Liao makes clear that he is not a Christian himself, despite the attempts of some of these believers to convert him. He is fascinated by the vitality of the churches, however, and by the tenacity and courage of individuals he came to know.

Stylistically, God Is Red is highly diffuse, characterized by wandering conversations and seemingly random interactions. There's little apparent organization, nor is there much analysis. That, however, is part of the charm of the book. Liao is bright and well informed, yet when he begins his interviews he is completely unaware of the Chinese church. He doesn't set himself up as an expert, just as a curious observer asking questions and enjoying interesting and occasionally adventurous interactions. In the process, we gain remarkable insight into the life of faith in China, which can be quirky and unpredictable, just like the people who follow Jesus there. And clearly Liao has been well served by his translator, Wenguang Huang, who has made the author's voice winsome in English.

Because Liao has no obvious agenda, people open up to him. Most of his interviews take place in remote parts of southwest China, where many non-Han Chinese live. He includes Catholics and Protestants, house church and Three-Self Church. He observes that in rural areas, the Christians he meets seem less interested in the distinction between government-sanctioned religion and the more independent version. He also interviews Christians in Beijing, including house church pastors who are harassed and imprisoned for their refusal to join the government-approved church. His palette is broad: he includes a young Chinese artist searching desperately for meaning, and a callow, clever twentysomething, recently baptized, who spars with him in a voice that sounds eerily Western. Liao makes no attempt to place any of these into a larger narrative.

All the same, he undermines (perhaps inadvertently) what has become the Standard Narrative: that foreign missionaries never adapted to Chinese life or had much success in building the church; that only when persecution came did the church explode in amazing numbers. Liao's Christians tell a different story: of missionaries who lived sacrificially and won tremendous loyalty and love from Chinese people; of a church that almost ceased to exist under communist terror, with its members abandoning their faith (or at least any visible observance of it) or disappearing during waves of brutal repression; of a church that exploded in numbers only after the worst persecution ended, in 1979, when pastors were let out of prison and rehabilitated and churches were allowed to function again.

Liao hears stories about "red-haired people with big noses" (only occasionally are their Western names remembered) who dispensed life-saving medicines and preached the gospel. One chapter describes an excursion with a Chinese Buddhist to a missionary graveyard, desecrated and obliterated by communists bent on demonizing the foreign imperialists, yet still remembered by Chinese loyal to the missionaries' memories. Land for the cemetery, Liao tells us, was purchased by China Inland Missionaries George and Fanny Clarke, who set up literacy programs for the local Bai people in the late 19th century, incorporating Bai culture into their teaching. Dressing in Bai costumes, the Clarkes danced in the street to the rhythms of gongs and drums in order to attract listeners. Sometimes, the story is told, they would visit village musicians and be seen "dancing on moonlit nights near Erhai Lake." The Clarkes produced few converts until Fanny's death, shortly after childbirth. Then Chinese flocked to the church to be baptized, touched by the life of a woman they had only just begun to know.

In the same city of Dali, an elderly Catholic sister, Zhang Yinxian, remembers how abandoned children were adopted by the mission-led church. As many of these orphans died, their bodies were buried near Fanny Clarke, with the same dignified burial that missionaries and church officials were given.

When the communists came to power, the missionaries were sent away and the church was sealed: "Overnight, everything was gone. We used to have four hundred people working at the church. Only three were left—me, my aunt, and Bishop Lu Hanchin." Even now, Zhang Yinxian says, most of the orphans raised by the church are reluctant to admit any connection: "They renounced the church during the Cultural Revolution, afraid they would be accused of colluding with foreign imperialists …. [D]espite the situation having made a turn for the better over the past decade, they are probably still afraid of being persecuted."

And with good reason. Liao records many stories of severe persecution during Mao's era; they are all the more powerful because told without drama. The suffering endured by some families is almost unbearable. And yet, remembering back, they often speak with serenity.

Zhang Yingrong, for example, born in 1923. He was a seminary student when the communists took power in 1949. His family was classified as "landlords," and though he owned nothing and had no interest in politics, he had to write hundreds of "confessions." These culminated when he was forced to kneel in the rain for three days without food or drink. He crawled home, but within a few hours was hauled to a public denunciation meeting. "When they realized he couldn't move," Zhang's wife told Liao, "they found a wooden plank and carried him out, put him on stage, and forced him to open his eyes."

Zhang himself continues the narrative:
There were about three to four thousand people there. I couldn't move. There were ten others on the stage for denunciation, all tied with ropes. My eldest brother was there beside me, his arms held behind him by two militiamen, his body bent to ninety degrees. I lay on the wooden plank, looking up. The rain had stopped. Amid the loud shouting, I could hear the river nearby. The clouds had dispersed and the sky was a clear blue. I thought, People lived harmoniously under this same sky in the same village for many years. Why did they act like this now? Why did they hate each other and torture each other like that? Was that what the Communist revolution was all about? All the "class enemies" had been beaten; their faces were swollen and their heads scarred. Beatings couldn't quench their thirst. They started killing. After that meeting, all the former officials under the old regime were executed, including my brother; their children were sentenced to ten to twenty years in jail, where some lost their minds, or died.
I wasn't interested in politics at all. I had never exploited anyone. So they let me live. The torture left me disabled for the rest of my life …. I wasn't allowed to preach, of course.

Talking to underground pastors in Beijing, Liao marvels at their determination and courage. "If the authorities had used my relatives and friends as hostages to threaten me, forcing me to give up my faith," he says, "I would have written confessions, lied, done whatever was needed." In response, Liao's Christian interlocutor asks a probing question:

"But you wouldn't chop off your right hand and swear never to write again, would you?"
"Of course not."
"It's the same principle. My father would not betray his faith, because it was his life."

God Is Red is full of memorable passages like these. Oddly enough, its meandering style and thesis-free curiosity amplify the sense of the church as a powerful and indelible Chinese reality. The Christians who fill these pages are real people. It would be hard to fit them into a single story line; they are too varied.

Most are elderly, but the concluding interview—with brash Ho Lu, 24—suggests a different China emerging. Referring to a documentary film, The Cross: Jesus in China, Ho complains that it focuses too much on history: "Chairman Mao and Deng Xiaoping have been dead a long time. Most Chinese don't care about Communism or revolution anymore. Even the Communist officials don't care much about Communism …. So why do we still waste our time finding fault with this government? It already feels very insecure for its criminal past. It's better not to provoke the commies."

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