Books & Culture highlights and reviews numerous titles, but one in particular stood out last year. The 2011 Book of the Year award went to Liao Yiwu’s God Is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China (HarperOne, 2011). Liao, a “sympathetic nonbeliever,” spent three years observing and studying Chinese Christianity from the inside.
Matt Smethurst corresponded via translator with Liao, whose writings have been banned in China, about his experience researching the complex phenomenon of Christianity in the world’s most populous country.
What sparked your interest to research and write on the topic of Christianity in China?
At the beginning of this century, many Chinese became disillusioned with Communism. They lacked a sense of security and searched for an alternative form of spiritual support. Conversion to Christianity suddenly became very trendy. Several of my friends in Beijing and Chengdu had joined either government-sanctioned Christian churches or house churches (Christians who believe that only God, not the Communist Party, could lay claim to their beliefs and who gather to worship in their homes despite ongoing persecution by government authorities). A catchphrase at that time was “trust and obey.”
I was also searching for my own spiritual support. However, having grown up under the rule of Mao when religious practices were banned and Communism was treated like a national religion, I was skeptical of any forms of religion.
In December 2005, I met a Chinese Christian doctor who had given up a lucrative city job to do missionary work in the remote villages in China’s southwestern province of Yunnan. I was fascinated by his story and wanted to find out what had inspired him and other Christians to devote their lives to such causes. I traveled with the doctor to the remote villages, where I discovered a vibrant Christian community. In the villages, I heard amazing stories about peasants who had been imprisoned or sacrificed their lives for their Christian faith in the Mao era and witnessed their persistent efforts to preserve and expand Christianity in the region. At the end of the trip, I felt a strong need to record what I had witnessed and heard, and share the stories with the outside world.
Even though I have not followed the paths of my friends who have joined the Christian churches, those journeys to the villages have brought me kinship with millions of Chinese Christians who are finding meaning in a tumultuous society, where unbridled consumerism is upending traditional value systems. I also see strong parallels in the perseverance by Chinese Christians with my own fight for the freedom to write.
You observe that in China “there is now a new Christian identity that is distinctively Chinese.” What do you mean?
One hundred fifty years ago, the London-based China Inland Mission started to send missionaries to China. Many of those brave Christians set their sights on the villages hidden up in the mountains. Because modern transportation was lacking, they journeyed for many days to reach them, arriving just in time to save the mountain people from a devastating bubonic epidemic with Western medicine and their knowledge of modern hygienic practices. They also preached Christianity, which, to the locals, was as foreign as their own appearances.
Gradually, these brave men and women won the hearts and minds of villagers, who for generations had found solace in the chanting of local shamans and the worshiping of pagan gods. Over the past century, the Christian faith has passed down from generation to generation despite the government’s brutal persecution against Christians in the 1960s and 1970s. In those villages, Christianity has taken root and become a part of the local heritage. It is as indigenous and life-sustaining as qiaoba, a popular buckwheat cake. During my visit there, I never felt that the locals had embraced a foreign religion. It blended seamlessly with the local cultures. Villagers held their services led by local leaders in their native tongues, and celebrated their Eucharist or Christian holidays in a way that they knew the best—local delicacies. It definitely had a distinctive Chinese identity.
What is the connection between Christian growth in China today to pre-Mao Western missionary efforts?
From what I have seen so far, today’s rapid Christian growth, most of which is happening in China’s rural areas, is the direct or indirect result of the work of Western missionaries in the pre-Mao era.
Many of the villages that I visited are extremely isolated. There are no paved roads, nor is there any electricity. However, in these remote corners, I constantly ran into people—an old man, a boy, or a middle-aged woman—who called themselves “Peter,” “David” or “Ruth.” Those were the names given to them by their parents or grandparents who were converted by what they called “blond big-nosed foreigners.” Each family had a unique story about how they or their grandparents accepted the Christian faith and how the missionaries had saved and improved their lives.
In addition, I interviewed many elderly Christian leaders, who were tutored in seminaries built by missionaries or trained by missionaries in the pre-Communist days. These Christian leaders played an active role in the revival of Christianity during the 1980s and 1990s. They are now passing the torch to the new generation.
Last, many missionaries who have come to China in the past two decades as English teachers or business people are also contributing to the revival of Christianity in China. For example, Dr. Sun, the doctor who took me to the Christian villages in Yunnan, decided to become a Christian after joining Bible study sessions organized by several Americans who studied at a medical university where he worked.
What were some of the most significant challenges you encountered while researching this issue?
The biggest challenge was to cope with the Communist government, which I believe runs the world’s largest cult organization. They banned any objective writings on Christianity in China and attempted to stop the publication of God is Red there. They threatened me with imprisonment if I went ahead and published God is Red and my prison memoir. That’s the reason I escaped and managed to overcome my life’s biggest challenge.
Another challenge was to reach people in the remote villages and get them to talk with me. Since many villagers were the ethnic Miao and Yi people, I encountered tremendous cultural challenges. Over a period of three years, I went back and forth on the circuitous mountain paths several times. I was lucky to have Dr. Sun, who gained the trust of local villages through his medical missions. Dr. Sun introduced me to the local Christian leaders, who eventually embraced me and opened up to me.
Do Chinese Christians still want Western missionaries to come?
Of course. I think Western missionaries, especially those who speak Chinese and are well versed in Chinese culture, are needed in the vast isolated rural areas. The new generation of missionaries will be able to continue the work of their predecessors and reach more people, especially their contemporaries, who are in dire need of spiritual support.
What are some of the benefits that the growth of Christianity has brought to China?
Your question is better served by a quote from the Rev. Wang Zisheng, the son of Wang Zhiming, a Christian leader who was brutally executed for his Christian work in Yunnan province during the Cultural Revolution. His son is now following his father’s example and has become a prominent leader in the booming Christian community. “There is so much for us to do,” Wang Zisheng said. “In our society today, nobody believes in Communism, and everyone is busy making money. People’s minds are entangled and chaotic. They need the words of the gospel now more than at any other time.”
In addition, I personally believe that Jesus Christ was one of the earliest and the most famous dissidents in human history. He was crucified by authorities for spreading the Christian faith and ideas. While I researched for this book, I encountered many Christians like Wang, who were inspired by Christ and were willing to sacrifice their lives for the preservation of their faith. That’s the spirit that we need to bring democracy to China. If democracy comes to China someday, we should thank Christ for inspiring us to stand up for our faith and ideas.