Review of “God is Red” by Liao Yiwu

The “mythic past” of China in the 20th century probably looks something like this:

  • Weakness & Chaos (fall of the Qing, Revolution and Civil Wars, Whampoa, Yenan, Song Dynasty, Invasion by Japan)
  • The New China of 1949
  • Peaceful and Orderly mid-1950s
  • Disaster of Great Leap Forward
  • Peaceful and Orderly early and mid 1960s
  • Disaster of Cultural Revolution
  • Economic reform & prosperity

References to foreigners in this mythic past are pretty scarce. Unlike the anti-Western years of the Cultural Revolution, it’s probably fair to say that foreigners play as much a part of the Mythic Past of 20th Century China as they do in the Mythic Past of 20th Century America: Russians are sometimes friends and sometimes enemies, Europe’s weak, troublesome, and far away, sporadoc wars with Pacific neighbors. Foreigners are not an essential part of the mythic story of China, and more than they are an essential part of the mythic story of 20th century America.

Liao Yiwu decided to change that.

God is Red is a history of Christianity in 20th century China, told through interviews. The book proceeds chronologically, so while the first interviews are about old people who are persecuted by the Communists in 1949, the latest are about youngsters in our own day. The book appears to be written with the intended audience of young, literate, middle-class Chinese, and from a Chinese perspective is as much an introduction to the horrors of Communist oppression as to Christianity in China.

Liao is not himself a Christian, though he is clearly sympathetic to Christians and hostile to the Communist Party. The most moving part of the book for me was the interview of a blind musician, who lost his site as a small child, had it recovered through eye-drops given to him by a Missionary doctor, and then lost it again when the Communists expelled the Missionaries. (The man’s parents, poor farmers, never thought to ask what was in the eye-drops until it was too late.) The epilogue of the chapter reveals the sight-giving eye-drops, which the man lost access to because of the Communists, almost certainly contained fish oil. Multiple this loss by expulsion of all foreign charities and western investment in China in the years following 1949, and the backwardness that Communist rule doomed China to is staggering.

Because the book is told in the words of Chinese Christians, young and old, God is Red is an excellent example of martyrology. Indeed, the Chinese Communist Party is one reason why more Christians have been martyred in the last century than in the first three centuries combined. Yet, God is Red also blows up the “mythic” history of China, emphasizing the amazing contact with the west that was rapidly liberalizing and modernizing China, until aborted by Mao Zedong and others. The Mythic Past of China doesn’t have to be just an amalgamation of KMT and Communist party history. The works of Christians, including foreigners, can be a part of it, too.

Liao Yiwu was already a well-known Chinese liberal before writing God is Red. In the book, Liao talks about his friend Nobel-Prize Winner Liu Xiaobo and the banned Charter ’08. This past September, Liao walked out of China, as Liu serves an 11-year prison sentence. An article based on the book appears in the Huffington Post.

I received God is Red as a gift from Catholicgauze. I read it on my Kindle.