h i s t o r y f r a n k d i k ö t t e r
The Tenacity of Hope God is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity
Survived and Flourished in Communist China
By Liao Yiwu (Translated by Wenguang Huang)
(HarperCollins 231pp £18.99)
Above the main entrance of West- minster Abbey, carved in French Richemont limestone, ten life-size sculptures of twentieth-century martyrs peer into the distance. Martin Luther King is shown with outstretched arms in a welcoming and protective gesture, an infant huddled at his feet; but how many visitors would recognise Wang Zhiming, a Protestant minister executed in 1973 during the Cultural Revolution?
Liao Yiwu first heard of Wang when wandering through some of the most inaccessible villages in the hills of Yunnan, China’s southwestern province. A fearless critic of the communist regime and indefatigable collector of the life stories of the downtrodden, Liao is the author of The Corpse Walker, translated into English in 2008. That book recounts the tales of some of the regime’s outcasts, from street performers, official renegades, political pariahs and impoverished farmers to shamans, crooks and even cannibals. Liao only became interested in the fate of Christians after meeting the preacher of an underground Protestant church when visiting a friend in Beijing a few years ago. He was sceptical of any form of religious belief, but admired the courage of the underground Christians. After the preacher was arrested, Liao began to research the Christian faith in China. It was the beginning of a long journey, one in which Liao remained a non-believer but learned to respect the faith of millions of impoverished farmers who find hope and meaning in Christianity, despite official persecution.
Liao tracked down Wang Zhiming’s son in a cavernous courtyard house set against lush, subtropical mountains. He listened to the 67-year-old man, ‘short, sturdy, like a tree stump’, recount how in 1926 his father had started preaching in some of the province’s most deprived regions. Christianity developed very slowly in China in the nineteenth century, but local preachers like Wang helped accelerate its indigenous growth. Before the communist conquest in 1949 there were approximately three million Catholics and one million Protestants. With the advent of communism all religious activities were decried as ‘backward’ and ‘superstitious’. Buddhist monasteries were seized during the land reforms and monks forced to work in the fields after being denounced as parasites sucking the blood of the masses. Taoism was denounced as a ‘secret society’ plotting for a return of the old order. Christians too were singled out for persecution. In 1954 Wang Zhiming was sent to prison for ‘refusing to mend his ways and continuing to engage in religious and spying activities’. He was soon released but for more than a decade became a target in every political campaign. (Even before the Cultural Revolution started some believers endured three hundred public condemnation meetings.)
In 1966 Red Guards ransacked Wang’s house, and the whole family was paraded from village to village, being beaten and spat upon countless times. One morning a few years later, two soldiers kicked down the courtyard door and arrested Wang. He was held for four years. The day before his execution his family was allowed to visit him. ‘Thin, like a skeleton’, his hair grey, he hobbled towards them with shackled ankles; he was still a believer. The following day he was condemned at a public show trial, paraded through the streets and taken away to be shot – after his tongue was cut out to prevent him from preaching. No public funeral was allowed, although between seventy and eighty farmers defied the militia who guarded the village, quietly passing through the house in the middle of the night to pay their last respects.
As one of China’s most persecuted writers, the author of this book developed a kinship with Chinese Christians in their stubborn commitment to freedom of expression and their search for meaning in a society obsessed by material wealth and impoverished by collective amnesia. During his journey through the religious underworld Liao came to admire the eloquence that comes with a suppressed faith. Some of the village women he spoke to were barely literate, and had been deprived of the right to speak for decades. They ‘did not so much tell their stories as perform them’, with dramatic variation of tone and outbursts of tears: ‘They were true storytellers. I was a meager scribbler compared with their gift.’
The eighteen loosely connected interviews and essays in God is Red record a broad range of voices, from Li Linshan, a poor tailor dying of cancer and unable to afford medical treatment, who finds spiritual sustenance in religion, to Dr Sun, a successful surgeon in a medical school, who abandons everything to care for the sick and poor in the remote mountains of China’s southwest.
These vibrant, mesmerising tales are often all that is left of the past. During the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards vandalised most remnants of religion, and now bland and uniform shopping malls, office towers and housing developments sweep away traditional courtyard houses and old streets. As Liao discovered during his journey deep into the hinterland, the bulldozers reach everywhere, erasing every last trace of a Christian past. On one occasion, having trekked along remote mountain paths in search of a missionary cemetery, he finally came upon an excavator, ‘its metallic arm convulsing like the leg of a giant cockroach’: the headstones were being extracted by property developers who prize high quality stone.
As I looked down at the uneven ground beneath my feet, I could see broken and jagged pieces of stone and, as I focused on the pieces, groups of letters from the Roman alphabet and then whole words, in English, and crosses.
George Clarke, one of the first missionaries in the region, had founded this cem-
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