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 admiring Liu Xiaobo wrote, “Requiem is quite a poem. It’s even better than Massacre.”
Requiem and Massacre brought Liao to the attention of the Chinese government, and in April of 1990 he was arrested in Chongqing, along with six other poets who had helped him film Requiem. His wife, who was pregnant at the time, was also arrested. A crackdown on artists in cities across China followed; poets and novelists were questioned and detained. Liao was identified as a ringleader and sentenced to four years in prison, while his codefendants were sentenced to two years. The government placed him on a permanent blacklist. In prison he was tortured and twice attempted suicide. When he was released from prison in 1994, Liao fell into a deep existential crisis. His wife left him and his former intellectual friends abandoned him. Censored by the government and spurned by his friends, Liao became a homeless street musician and worked menial jobs. In Testimony: Speaking for the Outcasts from Bottom Rung of Chinese Society, a memoir documenting his time in prison (an English translation is expected for 2012), Liao makes clear his contempt for Chinese intellectuals who, after June 4th, had become “clowns and lackeys” of the state, defending Communist policies purely for materialistic gain. This distaste for Chinese intellectuals, coupled with his time wandering the streets, pushed him to engage the people from the “bottom rung” of society.
Liao then turned himself to what he saw as a “sacred” calling. He began to document the stories and lives of the people that he met, and in 2001 published 60 of his interviews in the multivolumed Interviews with People from the Bottom Rung of Society. The work was published in Taiwan and immediately banned in China, but gained circulation underground as well as on overseas Chinese websites. The use of the words “bottom rung” – diceng – was itself an act of protest against the supposedly classless society that Chinese Communists had created. The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up, an English translation by Wenguang Huang of 27 of the interviews from Bottom Rung, appeared in the United States in 2008.
The Corpse Walker records the voices of people driven to illegality or to the margins of society as a direct result of Communist state policy. The one-child policy, for example, spawns new kinds of criminals. A self-proclaimed “peasant emperor” declares war against China by burning contraceptives. A human trafficker, viewing opportunity in the gender imbalance, lures women to male-dominated rural areas. Censorship laws spur graffiti artists to use bathrooms walls as a public square. Throughout, Liao revels in showing how individuals resist the ideology of the Communist state by drawing on old customs, traditions, and “superstitions” purportedly stamped out during the Cultural Revolution. He interviews people who see themselves as working in a continuous tradition of ancient rituals: feng-shui masters, professional mourners, and “corpse walkers.” The Corpse Walker thus provides an antidote not only to the state-sanctioned image of China as a “harmonious society,” but also to Western discourse that claims the Chinese Communist Party has a “totalitarian” grip over the country and the minds of its citizens. What emerges instead is a remarkable picture of China’s enduring diversity, fractured and fraught with tension and internal contradictions.
In his latest book, God is Red, Liao continues his study of the bottom rung of society by focusing on underground Christian communities in China. The basic structure of the book is not much different from The Corpse Walker. In 16 chapters, Liao intersperses interviews with vignettes of his personal journeys to find and locate these figures. He editorializes lightly, sometimes wondering about the purpose of oral history: “But what if we, as a nation, collectively lose our memory of our past?” The translation, again by Wenguang Huang, is a marvel, presented in sparkling and colloquial prose.
Some of the stories Liao tells are already quite well known. He tracks down the son of Wang Zhiming, a Miao preacher whose statue hangs above the Western portal of Westminster Abbey as part of their commissioned series of 10 martyrs of the 20th century. But he also delights in discovering Christianity in unexpected places. His cast of unlikely converts includes a Tibetan Catholic seminarian, an avant-garde poet who converted to Catholicism in the 1980s, a blind street musician, and an octogenarian who has continued to preach and spread the faith in spite of decades of persecution. There are incredible tales of perseverance during times of intense persecution. There are also some gruesome tales: Liao recounts in detail, for instance, how a Christian doctor treats a gangrenous leg in a makeshift mobile hospital room, with rudimentary forms of anesthesia and disinfectant. In these tales of survival under persecution, Liao finds fellow travelers fighting for freedom of expression under a repressive regime.
In God is Red, as in his previous work, Liao travels to a variety of locations to find his cast of characters; his interviews range from the bustling metropoles of Beijing and Chengdu to the rural countryside of Yunnan. In Yunnan, Liao encamps with the ethnic Miao and Yi, he discovers a milieu completely foreign to him:
So far as I could tell, I was the only Han; everyone else was Yi, a small but distinct ethnic group within China numbering about eight million, and I was unfamiliar with their clan customs. I might as well have been in deepest, darkest Africa, rather than in a corner of my own country.
In these interviews, a picture of the resilience and elasticity of Christianity in China emerges, and it becomes clear that Christianity remains a powerful force for the poor in China, many of whom merge Christian theology and practice with local rituals and beliefs. Liao’s interviews show how deeply and clearly Christianity has taken root in Chinese soil; indeed, Liao’s book is one of the clearest challenges to the historian Joseph Levenson’s formulation in the 1960s that one could not be simultaneously Christian and Chinese.
Liao’s subjects can be grouped into three different generations, whose faith was forged in three drastically different political contexts: the Sino-Japanese and Civil War years of the 1930s and forties, the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and seventies, and Deng Xiaoping’s post-reform era of the nineties. The biggest difference between the generations is their attitude towards the government-sanctioned Patriotic Churches. For members of the underground Christian church whose defining political experience was the Nationalist and Communist civil wars, resentment and distrust towards the official religion seem to dominate. An underground minister speaks bitterly of “religious celebrities” such as Wu Yaozong, Ding Guangxun, and Liu Liangmo who, to his mind, capitulated to the Communists and betrayed orthodox Christian principles. The sentiment is shared by an older Catholic convert, who goes so far as to say that “the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association is satanic.” But when Liao asks Ho Lu, a 24-year-old who converted to Christianity after the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, whether he has heard of Wu Yaozong, he replies, “The name sounds familiar. I don’t know to which dynasties he belonged.” Ho does not consider the distinction between underground and official Patriotic churches “a big deal,” believing that “[w]e only have one God, who leads us all. It doesn’t matter where you worship.”
While Liao’s interviewed subjects may have diverse opinions on the separation of religion and politics, they are united in one aspect: their disillusionment with official Communist ideology. One subject, who like Liao came of age during the Cultural Revolution, confesses how after the fervor of the Cultural Revolution had ended, Communism could not salve his spiritual longing:
I was a victim of the Communist atheist ideology. I had nothing to cling to spiritually. I had no idea where the end would be. Each time things started to trouble me, I planned a way to escape, either through smoking or drinking, or simply burying it down inside.
Liao’s own position comes closest to that expressed by an old friend, an avant-garde poet who converted to Catholicism. She talks about how she became disillusioned with her previous circle of avant-garde poets:
Those artist friends of mine were supposed to be the cultural elite, but they were a bunch of soulless good-for-nothing animals. One time, I saw them getting drunk and engaging in group-sex. It was disgusting. Where was the artistic vision in that? Everything became so meaningless.
The disillusionment with Communist ideology that Liao finds in his subjects mirrors his own contempt for Communism since the post-Deng reforms. In Testimony, Liao expressed his disgust at the pendulum swing in China from the “pure spirituality” of the Cultural Revolution to the “pure materiality” of the post-Deng Reforms. But for Liao, a return to the traditional rituals and “superstitious” practices – he uses this term freely – that he found in the countryside in The Corpse Walker was not the solution. Rejecting these practices, Liao positions Christianity as a “middle ground” for China’s reform. It is a “modern” religion, simultaneously providing a previously lacking moral compass while accepting science and modernity. For Liao, the underground Christian Church retains its legitimacy because it refuses to be co-opted by Communist ideology. This church offers an alternative system that addresses China’s economic inequality and spiritual malaise.
One of the central figures in both The Corpse Walker and God is Red is Dr. Sun, Liao’s personification of Christianity’s possible contribution to reforming China. Sun had become a deputy dean of a medical school close to Shanghai in the mid-1990s, but he soon found that:
too many Chinese will do anything for trivial material gains and have no regard for morality, ethics, or the law. How do we change that? Can we rely on the Communist Party? Can we rely on government rules and regulations? Apparently not.
After converting to Christianity, Sun roamed throughout rural villages in Yunnan, providing medical care to the poor and ethnic minorities who had been forgotten and abandoned. Liao’s vision for China’s future can be glimpsed in Sun’s compassion and his encounters with the multicultural areas of Yunnan.
Yet, by unquestioningly accepting Christianity as a force of liberation, Liao’s book shows the limitations of his approach towards oral history. In his Manichaean portrayal of Christian charity and Communist evil, Liao leaves little room in his stories for nuance, subtlety, or even critique of the impact of Christian missions. Historians have long recognized their ambiguous legacy. While it is certainly true that Christian missionaries contributed much to the modernization of China since the 19th century (largely through the establishment of schools), the history of Christian missions in China is also one of disruption and attack on traditional society. Christian missionaries in the 19th century had little but contempt for traditional Chinese customs, local Chinese spiritual practices, and popular religiosity. In his influential 1865 book China’s Spiritual Need and Claims, Hudson Taylor, the founder of the China Inland Mission, depicted China as a country filled with “excessive opium-smoking” and described inhabitants in the rural areas of Tibet and Yunnan as living “in a fallen state, unclean, unthankful, unholy.” Western missionaries believed that China needed Christianity, not only for spiritual salvation, but also for moral rehabilitation.
This image of an unholy, sinful way of life has a pervasive legacy in these rural regions, as Liao’s interviews with ethnic minorities such as the Miao and Yi demonstrate. A Yi minister confided to Liao that:
In this area, it was rare to find anyone who was not addicted to opium or gambling. Only those who had embraced God had the stamina to kick their habits. When I was a kid, I remember that people in this area didn’t grow crops. Instead, they grew poppies. We used to run around in the poppy fields to catch butterflies. People also gambled heavily. This was a very strange phenomenon. People’s wealth switched hands very quickly. In the afternoon, the person might be a rich landowner. By evening, he was homeless, having gambled everything away – his land, his house, even his wife. When the Communists came, they banned opium smoking and gambling, and they banned Christianity. Apart from working in the fields, people didn’t have anything else to do in the evenings. Political campaigns turned into a form of entertainment. They devoted all their extra energy to beating up people, killing people, and confiscating the property of others. Those homeless drug addicts and gamblers suddenly became loyal revolutionary allies.
In the eyes of converts and missionaries, Christianity was a force of liberation from outmoded tradition. But to those who refused to convert, it was a force of oppression, one that sought to eradicate cherished traditional values. To understand the Communist persecution of Chinese Christians in the 1960s, one must also understand the chauvinism of the 19th century missionary enterprise, as well as the deep humiliation that that enterprise dealt to Chinese local and national sovereignty. These are facets of history that Liao leaves unexplored, and in doing so, he risks whitewashing the conflicted historical legacy of Christian missionary work in China.
Furthermore, the “secret story” that the book’s subtitle reports is not, in fact, so secret. The stories of Watchman Nee, Wang Mingdao, and other Christians persecuted by the Communist government are well known to Christian watch groups in the West, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. By focusing on members of China’s underground churches, Liao’s book represents only the voices of Christian communities that descended from conservative 19th century missionary groups, such as the China Inland Mission. But the missionary enterprise in China was diverse and multifaceted, and an important portion of the missionary enterprise came from the theologically liberal wing of the church. Many of the Chinese Christians who trained under the more theologically liberal missionaries in the 1920s later became leaders of the Patriotic Churches, and their stories have been told in the scholarly literature. But what about ordinary citizens who joined the Patriotic Church in the 1950s? How did Christians who “capitulated” to the Communist government understand and justify their faith? How did they view the relationship between church and state, how religion challenged and accommodated politics? Were they able to continue to profess their faith even though they publicly announced their allegiance to the Communist Party? By leaving these voices out of his account, Liao misses a large portion of the Christian experience in China that is unfamiliar to the West. He also neglects to consider the possibility that members of the Patriotic Church, like the men and women he chronicles in The Corpse Walker, could have engaged in everyday – silent – resistance.
As a chronicler of the human ability to survive under extreme circumstances, Liao is first-rate. Yet when compared to The Corpse Walker, which presents a complex, nuanced, and fragmented picture of contemporary Chinese society, God is Red reads as a one-sided portrayal; it fails as balanced historical inquiry and belongs instead to a longer lineage of Christian hagiography. A more complete history would have resurrected other spirits, and other stories.