God is Red

The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China

Liao Yiwu

Artwork by Yohei Oishi

Wang Zhiming (1907-1973) acted as a Christian pastor to a small group of believers in Wuding, Yunnan, China. In 1956 he met with Chairman Mao and incorporated some of the government's reforms of the Christian church into his practice. But by the mid-1960s, with the start of the Cultural Revolution, Wang refused to take part in public denunciations of those considered evil by the government stating, "My hands have baptized many converts, and should not be used for sinfulness." He was arrested in 1966 and held until he was put to death four years later. In 1981 a memorial to Wang was built on his grave site, the only such memorial built for a Christian martyr of the Cultural Revolution. He is also honored, along with ten other 20th century martyrs, with a statue above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey.

Wang's family rarely talks to the mainstream media, but his son Wang Zisheng (b. 1940) granted an interview to Liao Yiwu in 2007. This is an excerpt from that interview.

: My father was held for four years in Wuding County. In December 1973 they executed him.

He was never officially accused, but they listed five charges against him: first, he was a lackey of the foreign imperialists and an incorrigible spy, using spiritual opium to poison people's minds; second, he was a counterrevolutionary; third, he consistently boycotted the government's religious policy; fourth, he was a member of a local landlord gang; fifth, he led a large group of evil landlords and their followers to ambush the Communist Red Army when they passed through Lufeng County in the 1930s, killing seven Communist soldiers. Local Miao did exchange fire with Mao's army in Lufeng County. Both sides suffered casualties. The battleground was far from here. My father had nothing to do with it.

Liao: Were you able to visit your father before he was killed?

Wang: We could visit the detention center but were not allowed to see him. We could drop off clothes, but not food. They wouldn't give us any information about his physical condition. We were constantly taunted by the revolutionary soldiers and villagers: "Your old man was a bad guy. He believed in God. Why don't you draw a clear line with him?" "God is not the savior. Chairman Mao and the Communist Party are the saviors of the people. Do you believe in God or in Chairman Mao and the Communist Party?"

Eventually, we received a notice from the local government saying he would be executed. Since he was labeled "an incorrigible counterrevolutionary," the rules said we would not be able to see him. But since our family belonged to the Miao minority group, the government had granted us a final meeting, for "revolutionary humanitarian reasons."

On December 28, 1973, the day before my father's execution, members of the local militia showed up at our door and informed us that we could visit him. A dozen of our family members gathered, and we went together. It took us several hours to reach the detention center. After passing through several checkpoints and layers of high walls, we finally saw our father. His hair had turned gray; he was thin, like a skeleton. Each time he moved, the shackles around his ankles clanked loudly. As he hobbled toward us, we all cried.

He was treated the same as a murderer. Seeing that our whole family was crying and sobbing, one guard howled at us: "Stop crying! Hurry up and talk to your father one by one. Time is limited." He made us speak Mandarin so he could understand what we were saying.

My mother nodded at my father and said, "You are the one who used to do all the talking. We listen to you first."

My father smiled. He understood what my mother meant. "I haven't been able to reform my thinking," my father said in his usual tone of a Christian minister. "Since I cannot be changed, I am responsible for, and deserve, what I receive. But for all of you, don't follow me. Listen to what 'the above' tells you."

Liao: In secular terms, the word "above" means the government, but I assume that your father meant "God."

Wang: Exactly. Christians knew what he meant right away. Then he said, "You should engage in physical labor, making sure to have food to eat and clothes to wear. You should pay attention to personal hygiene and stay healthy. Don't get sick."

Our father's words warmed our hearts. He used to tell us that those were the words of his own father and the foreign missionaries. I stepped up to him and sobbed: "Dad, we will listen to what 'the above' tells us, but we have many children at home who need you. If you can't be reformed and come back home, what will the children do?" What I really meant was that he was a reverend and a leader of the church. His flock wanted its shepherd.

Then, my mother brought out six eggs and presented them to Father. My father reached out his bleeding hands, touched Mother on her head, her chest, and her shoulders, and then he separated the eggs, keeping three and giving back three.

Liao: The Trinity?

Wang: We understood the symbolism. At that point, a prison officer came in and announced, "Wang Zhiming has been sentenced to death. The execution will be carried out tomorrow after a public trial. The criminal's body shall be handled by the government. Family members don't need to get involved."

We begged the guard to explain why we could not take his body. He said that in response to the overwhelming requests from the revolutionary masses, the government had decided to blow up his body with explosives. We were shocked. We kept begging. We promised not to erect a tombstone or put up any prominent signs that could bring people to pay tribute. The guard refused. "Throughout history, you Miao people are well known for being superstitious. Who knows what will happen if we allow your family to give him a proper burial!"

After Father was taken away, we refused to leave, demanding the right to collect his body. The prison officer became mad and summoned the local militia to drive us out. We did not resist them. It was already dark when we got home, and several dozen villagers were waiting for us there. They cried after hearing that my father's body would be blown up into pieces. We stayed home and prayed for God's help.

Early the next morning, a village official came and told us to borrow a horse-drawn cart. He said we could go to Father's public trial, which would be attended by ten thousand people. Afterward, we could, in his words, "drag home the body of the counterrevolutionary."

God must have heard our prayers, we said to ourselves. On the road, we quietly sang hymns together. The meeting site was packed with people shouting slogans and waving red flags. Two other criminals were also there on trial, but they wouldn't get the death penalty. They were dragged there to receive "education."

As soon as we arrived, several armed soldiers walked over and aimed their guns at us: "Don't move. Squat down with your hands clutching your heads." So we did, our backs toward the stage, but during the meeting, when the soldiers were distracted, we would quickly turn around to take a quick glance between people's heads at what was going on with our father. There were two rows of seats on the stage. All the county leaders were sitting there. My father, with his hands and legs tied with ropes, stood in the middle of the stage, the two other criminals on either side. There was blood at the corner of his mouth. We learned later that a guard had used his bayonet to slash his tongue so he wouldn't be able to shout or preach. Some former church members and leaders went up on the stage and denounced my father's crimes. After that was over, a leader grabbed the microphone and announced, "Wang Zhiming has been sentenced to death; the execution will be carried out immediately." Soldiers raised Father into the air so everyone could see him. The crowd roared. They raised their fists high and shouted, but all I could hear were the words "Down with . . . ," "Smash . . . ," and "Long live Chairman Mao." There was a popular saying at that time: "When the revolutionary masses rejoice, counterrevolutionaries collapse."

The soldiers put a wooden sign on his back—a "death sign," it was called. It was half his height and listed the five crimes my father was said to have committed. His name was also there, with a big red X over its characters. The soldiers carried him to a truck and pushed him in with the other prisoners, bending his head low. Two cars led the way. My father's truck was in the middle. Another truck with fully armed soldiers followed. A machine gun was perched on the roof of the last vehicle. I was told they paraded my father around the streets for half an hour before taking him to an old airport where he was shot.

Liao: Where were you?

Wang: We were still at the meeting place, guns pointing at us. When most of the spectators had left, the soldiers tied all of us together with a long rope and led us to the detention center and a room where all of my father's belongings were on the floor. A public security officer said, "That's the garbage left by the counterrevolutionary. Take it home."

Liao: Weren't you supposed to collect your father's body?

Wang: Friends in the village did that for us. They had borrowed a cart, and when they reached the old airport, my father's body was surrounded by several hundred gawkers, like black crows. A soldier was guarding the body. Once he made sure the villagers were who they said they were, he let them take my father. We met up with them at the detention center. I wiped my father's face with a wet cloth. My sister covered his body with a quilt. It was one o'clock in the afternoon. It was sunny and the sky was blue. The road was empty by the time we left, the cart moving slowly, us on each side walking with it. I remember there were birds, flying and chirping, and it felt like Father was still alive all around us.

Some Miao people stopped our cart and said their good-byes to my father. Some were old, some young, some we knew, some were strangers. A little girl climbed onto the cart, opened the quilt, and touched my father's body, from head to toe. We smiled at her innocent gesture and for a moment forgot our grief.

By the time we reached the village, the sun had already set. We took my father's body inside the house. His face looked peaceful, as if he were just taking a nap. Village officials and members of the militia guarded the house to keep out visitors wanting to pay tribute, but after midnight, when the guards went home to sleep, fellow Christians quietly knocked and came in to pray with us.

translated from the Chinese by Wenguang Huang

From God Is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China. Copyright © 2011 by Liao Yiwu. Reprinted with permission from HarperOne, a division of HarperCollins Publishers.