"Every inch of soil beneath my feet was red, glittering under the frail winter sun, as if it had been soaked with blood."
I jotted down this observation in my journal in the winter of 2005 while trekking on a narrow mountain path in China's southwestern province of Yunnan.
l had met a Christian, known among local villagers as Dr. Sun, a medical doctor. Following his conversion, he quit his position as the dean of a large medical school near Shanghai and came to the rural areas of Yunnan, healing the sick and spreading the gospel. After learning that I was writing a book about Christianity, he promised to take me to the mountainous villages, where he said I could discover extraordinary stories.
Dr. Sun and I set out on a month-long journey that took us deep into the mountains, first by bus and then on a small tractors along perilous mountain paths paved with small rocks. Then, we trudged along on winding red mud trails and reached a cluster of small villages hemmed in by tall mountains. According to Dr. Sun, there was a vibrant Christian community there.
The place reminded me of an old Chinese saying, "Heaven is high above and the emperor is far away," which refers to regions that are so distant and isolated that they seem to fall beyond the reach of both divine and secular powers. I wondered how it was possible for Christianity, a foreign faith, to find its way and grow in such isolated locations, where the vast modernization that was sweeping other parts of China had not yet reached. Peasants still eked out a meager living by plowing tiny plots of terraced land with hoes and shovels. Television was still a luxury, and many had never heard of refrigerators, not to mention computers or the internet. Medical care was almost non-existent -- for example, when one of the villagers fell sick, it took the villagers six hours to carry him to the nearest hospital. En route, on the bumpy road, he expired. The itinerary medical service of Dr. Sun was the only hope for the inhabitants of those remote villages.
In the subsequent days after I started talking with some of the villagers, my initial assumptions gradually changed. In a village inhabited by China's ethnic Yi people, locals led me to the muddy hut of Zhang Yingrong, an 86-year-old church elder whose peaceful and benevolent looks made me think of my late father. Zhang talked fondly about the London-based China Inland Missions that had sent their first group of missionaries to Shanghai more than one hundred and fifty years ago. Because modern transportation was lacking, these foreigners, with "blond hair and big noses," rode on donkeys, journeying for many days to reach the Yi villages, just in time to save the mountain people from a devastating bubonic epidemic, using Western medicine and their knowledge of modern hygienic practices. They also brought with them, in their inexact Mandarin translations, copies of the "Shengjing" -- the Bible. The Word of God, Zhang said, gradually penetrated the whole region by winning the hearts and minds of villagers who for generations had found solace in the chanting of local shamans and the worshipping of pagan gods. Another Christian leader, Reverend Wang who lived in a village across a river, recounted a similar tale about the blue-eyed missionaries who saved lives and spread the words of the Gospel. As the interviews progressed, I found a pattern -- locals had inherited their Christian faith from their parents and grandparents who had benefited from the teachings of a certain foreign missionary. Was the missionary English, French, German, American, Australian or New Zealander? They didn't know. To them, it was not important. Through the efforts of that foreign missionary, who had found a fertile ground to plant the seeds of faith, Christianity had taken root earlier than it had in other parts of China. Three or four generations later, Christianity was part of the heritage of each individual family and an integral part of local history.
The path of Christianity was also filled with strife and blood.
"Sometimes, devils often follow the footsteps of God to undo his work," a local Christian whispered to me, referring to the period in the 1940s when the Communists forced their way in there, and Mao Zedong's atheist ideology clashed violently with the Christian faith. A preacher, Wang Zhiming, led the Christian movement in the ethnic Miao villages after the Western missionaries had retreated from China. During the Cultural Revolution, when the Party denied him the right to pray -- he acted in defiance. As expected, he was arrested while leading a prayer session inside a mountain cave, and was brutally executed following a public condemnation meeting. His tongue was cut out of his mouth and his body was blown into bits.
In the Mao era, local Christians were not allowed to pray and attend church, and were forced to accept the Communist ideology. They complied but only a few openly denounced their faith. Some brave Christians gathered secretly for services. As a result, Christianity survived, and a few years after Mao Zedong's death, it came back again with a vengeance. Village after village became Christian territory. While Christians in China's major cities are greatly divided over the government-sanctioned churches, but villagers here are not so political. They attend Sunday service at government-sponsored churches but also participate in services held by family pastors. It is not uncommon to see families display Chairman Mao's portrait side by side with that of Jesus on their living room walls.
I live in the cities, where Christianity has also flourished in the post-Mao era but with a distinctive foreign identity. Many new converts, who are educated and well-off professionals or retirees, have embraced Christianity the way they do Coke-Cola or a Volkswagen -- believing that a foreign faith, like foreign-made products, has better quality. Here in the Yi villages, Christianity is now as indigenous as qiaoba, a special Yi buckwheat cake.
The trip piqued my interest in Christianity about which I knew very little and inspired me to write "God is Red" at a time when East and West are meeting and clashing on many fronts. In these remote corners, I have discovered a center point, where East met West, and although there has been a collision of cultures, there is now a new Christian identity that is distinctively Chinese.
The circuitous mountain path in Yunnan Province is red because over many years it has been soaked with blood.
The Morning Email helps you start your workday with everything you need to know: breaking news, entertainment and a dash of fun. Learn more