Though Western companies, from American automakers to European luxury firms, have recently gained a foothold in China, Western religion has played a role there for much longer than General Motors or Hermes.
Nonetheless, Christianity’s presence in China has been “hidden from the West for many years,” says Wenguang Huang in the introduction to his translation of God is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China (HarperOne, September 2011) by Liao Yiwu, a dissident writer whose previous book landed him in jail.
Wenguang reports there are about 70 million practicing Christians in China. “In a society tightly controlled by an atheist government, Christianity is China’s largest formal religion,” he says in the introduction. But for many years it was severely repressed by the Communist government.
The book gives voice to numerous stories ― from rural backwaters to big cities ― of bravery and faith under extremely trying conditions.
The book’s first-person narratives are one of its many strengths. In one story, a nun born in 1908, Sister Zhang, relates how she survived under extremely dire circumstances during the Cultural Revolution, becoming a farmer after the church she lived in was confiscated by the government.
In another, a Tibetan Christian, Jia Bo-er, recounts how found his path to Christianity. A Catholic, he is a firm believer in interfaith harmony, but won’t pledge loyalty to the Vatican because he doesn’t want to be monitored by the government.
Perhaps the most impressive story in the book is that of a man named Dr. Sun, who gave up a successful career as a surgeon to minister to impoverished communities in remote Yi and Miao villages. Sun introduces Liao to a number of people he’d never have found on his own.
“The Bible taught me to be in awe of God and to love, two important qualities that the Chinese people lacked. Too many Chinese will do anything for trivial material gains and have no regard for morality, ethics, or the law,” says Sun in one passage. “How do we change that? Can we rely on the Communist Party? Can we rely on government rules and regulations? Apparently not.”
Sun left his position as a prominent surgeon because he felt he couldn’t be a Christian and a government official. Instead, he performs surgeries in areas where doctors are scarce and hospitals nonexistent.
Liao also recounts the tale of Wang Zhiming, who lived and preached in China’s Yunnan province. Wang was arrested in 1969 for his religious work, and executed in 1973. A statue of him stands at Westminster Abbey, along with nine others recognized as Christian martyrs from around the globe.
The shadow of totalitarianism hovers over each interview. Though there are state-sanctioned churches in China now, many Christians refuse to be part of them, preferring to perform forbidden services in private homes and other locales.
Though Christianity provides a spiritual haven, says Liao (who is not a believer), he also asks some hard questions. “Will the Christian faith, like Buddhism and Taoism, make people more submissive to totalitarian power? There is an ongoing debate among Chinese scholars as to whether some Christians forgave the murderous government as a genuine display of God’s benevolence ― or as an excuse for cowardice.”
On the other hand, Liao also suggests the remote places he has visited in order to find the subjects for his book serve as a sort of “center point” where East meets West. Though there has been a collision of cultures, Liao says, “there is now a new Christian identity that is distinctly Chinese.”
Readers of this engaging book will find that even this “distinctly Chinese” identity contains multitudes.