Saturday, June 2, 2012

God is Red

Seeing that I'm not a religious person, I wasn't sure whether I would like Liao Yiwu's new book - God Is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China. "Christianity in China" in my mind is synonymous with Mormon and Protestant born again Evangelical Americans teaching at Chinese universities who spend a great deal of their time prosthelytizing to eager Chinese undergrads. The topic is not something I'm particularly interested in.

I liked Liao's previously released book in English, though - The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China From the Bottom UpLiao's story is most interesting too - he was a state-sponsored writer as a young man, wrote provocative poetry about the Tiananmen massacre in the late '80s and early '90s, spent years in prison for that work, developed his writing more and more, and has recently written books that have been translated into English.

While I had reservations about reading a book profiling Christians in China, I picked it up anyways knowing Liao's dissident and bohemian life story and liking his previous work.

God is Red is written in the same style as The Corpse Walker. Liao uses his friends and connections to meet people on the fringes of Chinese society. Much of the book is written in an interview Q&A format. It's broken into three sections:
1. The Trip to Dali
2. The Yi and Miao Villages
3. Beijing and Chengdu
Dali is a hippie outpost in Yunnan Province, an area in southwest China between the Himalayas and Myanmar. My strongest memory of Dali when I was there in 2006 is being offered marijuana from tiny, wrinkled old ladies in lavish ethnic garb. It's a very chill little tourist town dotted with coffee shops and cafes serving foreign food. It's surrounded by beautiful mountains and an idyllic lake.

The Yi are an ethnic group I've now seen profiled in several of the books I've read on China (River at the Center of the World is a book with one of those profiles). They are one of the most exotic ethnic groups in all of China. They mostly reside in the mountainous and undeveloped areas of Yunnan, Guizhou, and Sichuan Provinces.

And then Beijing and Chengdu are two of China's biggest and most progressive cities.

The interviews that Liao conducts with Christians throughout these areas highlight the edginess and rebellious nature that are required in being a Christian in China. Liao interviews old men and women who talk about picking up Christianity from missionaries during the 1940s before the founding of the People's Republic, people who somehow continued to practice their religion during Mao's reign of terror, and younger people who today are picking up Christianity during China's opening to the world. A full spectrum of people and stories are introduced to the reader.

Stories about Mao's persecution of Christians and destruction of churches during his never-ending political campaigns are featured in many people's stories. Liao conducted the interviews for this book around 2005 or so. Many of the people who suffered at that time are nearing the end of their lives. Liao's book is quite valuable in recording several instances of great abuse and sharing them with the world before those events fade into history and are forgotten.

I really enjoy books that go off-the-beaten-path, taking readers to parts of China that are hard to access. God is Red goes really deep into rugged parts of China. Liao takes the reader to some of the most scenic and inaccessible parts of China.

I liked the following passage from pages 143-44 where Liao has a feast with Yi Christians in Yunnan Province a lot:

There's so much passion and life in Liao's words here. This passage illustrates what is special about Liao and his books. He brings both a Chinese and outsider's perspective to the people and events he introduces. Both God in China and The Corpse Walker (a book I read last year but never got reviewed on this blog... hope to get something on here at some point about it) are excellent windows in to the underclass and people on the edges of Chinese society.

I, unfortunately, don't read enough books by Chinese authors. Looking at my bookshelf of Chinese books, there are a few Chinese authors' books, but I see mostly Anglo names there. Not reading many Chinese writers is, obviously, one of the drawbacks of not being able to read a book in Chinese. Liao Yiwu is a Chinese author writing captivating creative nonfiction about China, its history, and its people. And his books are being translated into English. He's worth checking out.

1 comment:

Nick Kellingley said...

Thank you for this review - I've just picked up an e-copy of this and have been delaying a decision on reading it. I think it'll be the first thing on my new Kindle next week now.