Every so often, you come across a narrative of courage under suffering that is so well reported, so restrained and sensitive in its intelligence, that you are momentarily altered by the experience. Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich had that effect upon millions, both Russians and foreigners, in 1962. The publication of Solzhenitsyn's novels—like Cancer Ward and The First Circle, for which the Russian writer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature—even contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
It is far too early to guess whether Liao Yiwu's latest book, God Is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China (HarperOne), will have any long-term impact on the author's homeland. But readers will surely come away inspired by the landmark account of Chinese Christians living under the vicious political campaigns of the Mao era. (No stranger himself to political persecution, Liao was imprisoned during the government's post-Tiananmen Square crackdown. He described his prison experience in Testimonials, an expanded version of which has just been published in German.)
Two ingredients, in particular, make God Is Red such a powerful account of Chinese Christians' perseverance. First, Liao acknowledges that he is not himself a Christian, so he cannot be accused of trying to persuade anyone of anything religious. And second, the quality of his reporting is simply excellent.
The drama of the reporting derives from the fact that much of it takes place in remote areas of the Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. The characters Liao focuses on are men and women of extraordinary saintliness: the indefatigably beneficent Dr. Sun, for example, a man who turned down prosperous positions in China's cities because he wanted to help the poor and outcast in China's remote rural areas; the elderly nun persistently appealing for the Communists to return confiscated church property.
Some of the narratives are historically fascinating. There is the story of the martyrdom of Wang Zhisheng, an ethnic Miao executed by the Communists in 1973 and commemorated today by a statue in London's Westminster Abbey. Almost as fascinating is the detailed story of the suffering of Yuan Xiangchen (Allen Yuan). A patriarch of China's house churches, Yuan spent two decades in labor camps (as did his friend, the legendary Chinese evangelist Wang Mingdao) for refusing to join the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, the state-controlled church. Yuan died in 2005, but I can still remember visiting his house, which served as a house church, in the center of Beijing in the 1990s.
Like all good reporters, Liao lets his characters speak for themselves, without adding superfluous commentary. From hip-hop youngsters in Chengdu to seasoned old saints in Yunnan come varied stories of how each one became a Christian. From the same people come powerful recollections of the pitiless and evil tyranny of Communism as it struggled to dominate all of life in China. If you want to read one book that sums up the glory of the Christian witness under persecution and the tragic 20th-century story of China's Christians, read God Is Red. Brilliant and immensely moving, it will, if anything can, inject new backbone into your own Christian life.
David Aikman is a former Time magazine bureau chief in Beijing and the author of Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power (Regnery).
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Previous Christianity Today coverage of the church in China includes:
Shouwang Showdown, 15 Weeks In | Members of one of China's largest house churches continue to meet amid arrests. (July 20, 2011)
Why Beijing's Largest House Church Refuses to Stop Meeting Outdoors | Shouwang vows to continue showdown until Christmas in hopes of ending Achilles' heel of unregistered churches: government pressure on landlords. (April 26, 2011)
China's 'Conscience' Missing in Action | Top Christian lawyer Gao Zhisheng vanishes as government stifles dissent. (October 23, 2009)
Great Leap Forward | China is changing and so is its church. How new urban believers are shaping society in untold ways. (May 9, 2008)
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