By Rikki Elizabeth Stinnette. Pictures by Michelle Stevens and Art Cox
Patrick Henry College
Liao Yiwu (R) performs on the xiao, a Chinese instrument, during event that included interview with Dr. David Aikman (L)
“I think that politicians are using the pragmatic approach because of the financial downturn…and are willing to deal with China on any level,” Liao said. “They give up human rights and freedom to get financial benefits from China.”
Liao, author of the recently-published book God is Red, spoke to an audience of Patrick Henry College students and residents of Purcellville, Va. God is Red chronicles Liao’s experiences following a Christian surgeon, Dr. Sun, around the rural Yunnan province in southwestern China. Liao interviewed many Chinese Christians on his journey and recounts their stories in his book.
“You should know the realities of China. You should go to the countryside, the mountains,” Liao said. “Meet the local people, and there you will find your God.”
Liao has been brutally persecuted for sharing his views. Chinese authorities jailed him in the laogai, the Chinese equivalent to the Gulag, from 1990 to 1994 after he wrote a poem criticizing the Tiananmen Square massacre. His suffering in prison was so intense that he had two nervous breakdowns and tried to commit suicide twice.
Liao turned to interviewing his fellow prisoners—indigents, common criminals, drifters—and wrote his first book, Memorials, as a result.
“He’s an incredible truth-teller,” said Dr. David Aikman, Professor of History at Patrick Henry College and former senior and foreign correspondent for TIME magazine. “He is one of the most distinguished writers from China today, and his experiences as a citizen have been quite remarkable.”
Liao, wearing a loose, Eastern-style jacket, played several traditional Chinese instruments during his interview with Dr. Aikman. He also recited some of his poetry in his own dramatic, chanting style.
Aikman asked Liao about his experiences in prison and his conversations with Chinese Christians. Audience members also asked Liao about his opinions of American relations with China.
Liao said, “I feel like the Obama government is diverting somewhat from the fundamental virtues of the U.S.—human rights, democracy, freedom and love.”
He compared recent dealings with China to a story his father once told him. If he ever met a wolf during his travels in the Chinese mountains, said his father, he was to "stop and stare into the wolf’s eyes, because he is a very stubborn animal. Do not look away, because then he will kill you and drink your blood.”
“If the U.S. becomes reliant on the economy of China, it will be a real disaster,” Liao said.
Though he greatly admires the Chinese Christians he interviewed, Liao is not a Christian himself. “I believe in God, but not in the Christian churches,” he said. Many of Liao’s intellectual friends converted to Christianity and urged him to “go to heaven.”
“I needed something specific to touch me,” Liao said. He found it, at least to a certain extent, in his Christian friend Dr. Sun, who also attended the interview. A prominent Chinese surgeon, Sun abandoned his position to tend the poor minorities of the Yunnan province. Liao witnessed him performing cataract surgery by flashlight and removing an appendix in a patient’s kitchen.
Liao credits Western missionaries for the impact they made in these minority communities, often bridging generations. Several people in these communities are named Peter and John, after missionaries who visited their grandparents. “With missionaries, they [the Chinese minorities] found there was a person in heaven they could talk to and who could understand them.”
Liao must often avoid Chinese officials by lying. To escape from China by crossing into Vietnam this July, he had to evade authorities. “We must lie, lose all sense of shame to survive,” he said. “If I came to God, I feel that I would have to confess every day for lying.”
Ellen Prichard, a Patrick Henry College student, was impacted by how emotional Liao became as he retold events of his painful past. “It’s very eye-opening,” she said. “It definitely shows you more about their [the Chinese] culture.”
Gregory Escobar, another Patrick Henry student, appreciated Liao’s message. “China’s influential on the world stage. It’s always helpful to get to know the cultural and political situation and hear about it from one of the most influential activists in China.”
View this gallery from Monday evening's Coffeehouse event with Liao Yiwu.