The Ladder of Paradise icon described by St. John Climacus
PUBLICATION OF HAGIOGRAPHIES of Christian missionaries and converts in China has a long tradition in the West. Throughout the 19th century, Western missionary societies raised funds for their work by selling popular pamphlets and devotional material extolling their virtuous sacrifices. Martyrological literature peaked during and after the Boxer Uprising of 1900, as books and pamphlets described the heroism of Christians in the face of the rabidly violent Chinese mob.
Christian missionaries continued to produce tales of heroism in their journals and pamphlets into the 1930s, but the focus of the stories had changed, the enemy transformed from an ideologically nondescript mob into an organized Communist insurgency. After the Communist victory in China in 1949, accounts of Christian suffering in the hands of Communists continued to appear regularly in missionary tracts. After the expulsion of foreign missionaries in the early 1950s, narratives of Christian suffering in China were leaked to the West, the heroes now not Westerners but Chinese Christian preachers who suffered under Communist persecution.
A surprising recent contribution to this corpus of Chinese Christian hagiography is Liao Yiwu's God is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China. What is unusual is the biography of the author. Liao, who is not a Christian, made news earlier this year when he left China for Germany, after having been denied a visa for foreign travel for more than a decade, and declared himself officially a writer-in-exile. Born in 1958, Liao belongs to the same generation of Chinese dissidents as Liu Xiaobo, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 for his work in authoring the dissident manifesto Charter 08, which Liao also signed. Like Liu, Liao came of age during the Cultural Revolution; his father, a schoolteacher, was considered a counterrevolutionary. The young Liao failed to gain admission once universities were reopened in 1977, and he spent several years as a truck driver, at the same time immersing himself in the writings of Western poets. In the early 1980s, he became involved in the underground avant-garde poetry scene, while at the same time supporting himself as a "propaganda" author for the government.
Then came Tiananmen Square. In response to the June 4th massacres of 1989, Liao wrote and recorded an epic poem, Massacre, on cassette tapes. The poem spread quickly through underground channels. It is a work of bombastic indignation, a bricolage of radio dramaturgy and Chinese classical dramatic rituals, set to a soundtrack of Bruckner's Eighth Symphony and Penderecki's Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima. It begins with evocations of the revolutionary moments of the French revolution and the May 4th movement, and chants of "protest" (kangyi). Massacre is a showcase for Liao's language: frenetic, onomatopoetic, and brutal. The poem's climax is a manic, drunken, orgiastic repetition of the phrase "fire, fire, fire into the crowds / what a thrill, what a thrill!" Liao followed Massacre with another epic performance poem, Requiem, which he filmed with the help of five of his friends in the avant-garde poetry scene. In a letter to Liao, an ...read more