Every so often, you come across a narrative of courage under suffering that is so well reported, so restrained and sensitive in its intelligence, that you are momentarily altered by the experience. Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich had that effect upon millions, both Russians and foreigners, in 1962. The publication of Solzhenitsyn's novels—like Cancer Ward and The First Circle, for which the Russian writer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature—even contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
It is far too early to guess whether Liao Yiwu's latest book, God Is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China (HarperOne), will have any long-term impact on the author's homeland. But readers will surely come away inspired by the landmark account of Chinese Christians living under the vicious political campaigns of the Mao era. (No stranger himself to political persecution, Liao was imprisoned during the government's post-Tiananmen Square crackdown. He described his prison experience in Testimonials, an expanded version of which has just been published in German.)
Two ingredients, in particular, make God Is Red such a powerful account of Chinese Christians' perseverance. First, Liao acknowledges that he is not himself a Christian, so he cannot be accused of trying to persuade anyone of anything religious. And second, the quality of his reporting is simply excellent.
The drama of the reporting derives from the fact that much of it takes place in remote areas of the Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. The characters Liao focuses on are men and women of extraordinary saintliness: the indefatigably beneficent Dr. Sun, for example, a man who turned ...