I just finished God is Red, the story of Christianity in China. I could not put it down. What makes it so compelling is that it is a series of interviews by the author with Christians, many of them old enough to have lived through the wars and Chairman Mao's reforms. It is not a history but more like a book of snapshots about Christianity in China over the past century. China is so large that a book like this can cover only a portion of the whole country. This book's main setting is in the rural South of the country. Most of the people are poor villagers. Yet, the revolutions and reforms that shook China over the past 100 years impacted every day of their lives.
The author is Liao Yiwu, a writer and an outspoken critic of the current Chinese regime. A poem he wrote about the government crackdown at Tiananmen Square landed him in prison for four years. His works, including a book called The Corpse Walker: real life stories; China from the bottom up (2008), are banned in China. Yiwu claims to be an unbeliever but his work brought him into contact with a Chinese Christian, a doctor who was active in the Chinese underground church movement. This doctor had given up a highly prized position in big city medical practice in order to do missionary work in the mountainous regions of southwestern China. Yiwu had never known a Chinese Christian. Like many of his fellow Chinese he had only been exposed to government propaganda - Christianity was a religion of the Imperialists and a "spiritual opium" of the people. There is a sense that Yiwu was going through a rough patch in his own life and was intrigued by the Christians and the message of the gospel but this book is not about him and his search for truth. Traveling with some of the Christians he meets he is afforded access to a number of vibrant Christian communities and this is the power of the book. The World Christian Database estimates there are 70 million Christians in China today. When the Communists came to power in 1949 all the western missionaries were expelled from the country. At that time estimates are that there were only 700,000 Christians. China has been such a closed society that little was known about this growth and the nature of the church in China today. It has been a closely guarded secret.
I remember reading mission stories about Hudson Taylor and the China Inland Mission which began it's work in the 19th century. Taylor was a pioneer missionary who did not dress western and try to make the people like western Christians. He was criticized at the time for adopting the local culture and trying to assimilate Christianity to the local cultural practices when he could. It is an inspiring story and it was a long tough slog to make even one new convert for Christ. Yet the missionaries from China Inland Mission hung in there until they were expelled and in many of Yiwu's interviews of the older Christians the impact of the "seed planting" by the early missionaries is evident.
It is the story of the endurance of the Christians through all the years of persecution and suffering that is the real story here. No one knows for sure but the government put to death many many thousands of Christians because they would not renounce their faith, or acknowledge that their highest allegiance was to the Communist Party rather than God. Many Christian leaders spent the better part of their lives in prison or in forced labor camps. Even if they were spared prison their lives were greatly restricted and very poor. Yet, the church grew. One is reminded of the early Christian leader, Tertullian, in his defense of Christianity, writing that "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." Thus, it seems so in China, as well.
After Mao died, the government tried to deal with their "Christian problem" by registering churches with the government. There is 'freedom of religion" today as long as the churches come under the sponsorship of the Communist Party. The Party is the official head of the church in China. This is an untenable arrangement for many Christians. Their primary loyalty is to Christ not the Party. So, they are seen as unpatriotic and they are watched closely and continue to suffer persecution. Yet, it is the underground or house church movement that is growing.
Another story line that is not developed is the growth of the church in the cities. There is a rabid hunger for all things western in modern China as the wealth of the people grows. Christianity is seen by some as the religion of the west so it is desirable as are all the trappings of western culture. The younger affluent Chinese do not seem to be as discriminating about whether they go to a registered church or an underground one. It is the western experience they are after.
There are many conflicts and controversies in Chinese Christianity today and this book only offers a glimpse of some of those. One is left wondering though whether the greatest struggles in the history of Christianity in China are still to come as China continues to modernize and it's western - like affluence grows.