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Tim Stafford

Listening to Chinese Christians

A fresh report.

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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.

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