HarperCollins, New York. 231 pages
Reviewed by Bill Teng
As a fourth generation Presbyterian minister and someone born and raised in Hong Kong, I’ve always had a keen interest in knowing more about the state of the Christian church in China. While most books on the Chinese church are written either by foreign visitors about their experiences in China or by Chinese Christians themselves of their own faith in the land of atheism, “God Is Red” is actually written by one who not only knows China intimately as a native son but who has been declared a dissident because of his writings critical of the regime.
Not a professed Christian himself, Liao Yiwu is also not an academic. Having failed the university entrance examination, he was offered a government job as a “state writer” only after some of his early poems were noticed. From that unpromising beginning, he became “one of the most prominent and outspoken contemporary writers in China today,” mainly because his epic poem “Massacre,” composed in 1989 in reaction to the brutality witnessed at Tiananmen Square, landed him a four-year prison term and branded him an enemy of the state.
“God Is Red” is mainly written in an interview format, based on a collection of interviews that Liao had compiled in 2002-10 when he was mostly hiding in Yunnan Province from government agents. Yunnan (in southeastern China) is home to two of China’s major ethnic groups, the Miao and Yi peoples, which also comprise about 95 percent of all Christians in that province. Many became Christians under the guidance of Western missionaries at the turn of the 20th century (including many Presbyterians).
Liao elicited from these Christians nuances of the faith they have held for 100 years. Their moving personal stories tell the oft-uninformed West what it’s like to hold fast to something so vibrant and real that it could sustain them through the political and social trials that Christians experienced.
These stories also reminded me of my own experience visiting Yunnan churches in the late ’90s: When I was pastoring in Hong Kong in 1996-99, I was part of a Hong Kong Christian Council delegation visiting Yunnan in 1998. On one long day, after several delays and a lengthy bus ride into the countryside, we found out our hosts had been waiting to welcome us on the roadside under the hot sun for hours. We were quickly rounded up onto mule-drawn carts going up a steep mountainside path at dusk into a Miao village full of friendly and beaming faces.
Their mass choir sang heartily to lead us in worship under a thatch-roofed auditorium, ending with Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” (in Chinese, of course). As we were touring the village, I felt a tug on my sleeve. As I looked down, I saw an elderly woman with a wide toothless grin showing me a tiny wrinkled and yellowed photo of a Western woman. She said to me: “She brought me Jesus!”
BILL TENG is pastor at Heritage Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, Va.