Yangshuo, China

Christianity in China

Review of God is Red

Review by Cole Carnesecca
Liao, Yiwu. 2011. God is red: the secret story of how Christianity survived and flourished in Communist China. New York: HarperOne.

I
n God is Red, Liao Yiwu – journalist and author of the book Corpse Walker – brings his reporter’s eye to the vibrant and multifaceted world of Christian life and faith in China. The same topic has been the subject of a growing number of books and academic articles that have begun to take seriously the growth of China’s Christian population, the revival of religious sensibilities in China more generally, and the possible socio-political implications they entail. In this sense, Liao’s book is by no means an expose bringing to light an unknown issue. Rather, the book’s strengths come from the way that Liao tells his story and the very fact that a secular Chinese journalist is telling that story at all.

The bulk of the book incorporates transcriptions of interviews Liao conducted with Liao’s own stories of finding each subject and giving the interviews interspersed. While representing a cross-section of locations and types (urban and rural, coastal and inland, old and young), Liao primarily focuses on older stories from rural Christians – including a number from ethnic minority groups. Each interview does, in its way, present a snapshot of Christian life in modern China, but the strongest impression they leave is of their stark accounts of the decades of struggle many of the interviewees have faced.

While ostensibly concerned with simple reportage – though throughout he is obviously concerned with capturing the sufferings of Christian believers at the hands of the state – Liao tips his hand concerning what his underlying purpose has been in recording and relating the various tragic and touching stories he recounts. “What if we,” Liao asks, “as a nation, collectively lose our memory of our past?” And this is primarily what Liao has attempted to avoid through his work of interviewing and writing about the different Christians whose narratives fill these pages. He is trying to inscribe these moments in time so that, though the subjects of the accounts may be lost to time and memory (the death of interviewees and the ruin of locations written about in the book only serve to heighten this impression), the stories themselves won’t be forgotten.

One of the great benefits of God Is Red is that Liao does readers the favor of letting his subjects speak for themselves. While plainly evident in his ample use of excerpts from recorded interviews, it is also present in his commentary on the interviews and the context in which they took place. Many of the tales of religious believers from any context will be filled with references to the intrusion of the supernatural into the natural (all the more so given the rather charismatic religious experiences of many rural Christians in China). Liao’s interviewees are no different, as they often attribute their survival to miracles and other moments of supernatural aid. Rather than undercut the power of each story with explanatory verbiage, Liao lets the tales stand as they are.

Another interesting issue that Liao’s interviews draw out is the relationship between the interviewees and the foreign missionaries with whom many of them worked. Given the stereotypical depictions, both in Western and Chinese literature, of the relationship between missions and colonialism/imperialism, it may come as a surprise how warm and respectful the majority of interviewees’ memories of their missionary colleagues/predecessors turn out to be. This, however, should not be surprising. However the Western academy, Communist Party, and more liberal elements of the Three-Self Church have depicted the missionary legacy in China, the facts can often be very different on the ground. Some of my own research points to congregations either not caring much about the church’s history pre-Liberation or seeing themselves as the direct heirs to the church movement the missionaries helped to initiate. Liao’s interviews seem to confirm this by giving voice to an oft forgotten side of the story.

Ultimately, Liao’s book provides a series of interviews and stories that will be useful reading for anyone interested in the history and growth of Christianity in China as well as those who, like Liao, are concerned with the moral complexion of contemporary Chinese society. That being said, caution should be counseled to those overly eager to accept Liao’s rather pessimistic evaluation of the Chinese church’s present and future. Liao has few positive things to say about the contemporary church that has, like the wider society, seemingly forgotten the past – its own past. Yet, Liao’s book, while rich in detail, is, like many journalistic works of non-fiction, impressionistic and hardly representative. While he is not incorrect that some more recent manifestations of Christianity pale in comparison to the conviction expressed by their forebears, there is plenty to be said about the emerging strength and vibrancy of the contemporary church as it begins to understand its own role in Chinese society. With that proviso, Liao’s book is a welcome addition to the growing corpus of works on religion in contemporary China generally and Christianity in particular.

Cole Carnesecca