April 11, 1999

The Pilgrimage From Tiananmen Square

Ten years after the uprising, some of its pivotal figures have found a new agent for change -- Christianity. By IAN BURUMA

From "Yellow River Elegy" to the Jordan, via California: Yuan Zhiming, leading his Christian choir.
Photograph by Gail Albert Halaban for The New York Times

ow do revolutions get started? Obviously rebellions begin with serious discontents, about oppression, corruption and so on. The protest movement that began at Tiananmen Square in Beijing 10 years ago this month was not really a revolution, although it could have turned into one. Oppression and corruption were certainly two of its root causes. But there were other influences, of a more cultural nature, that inspired the protesters. One of them was a television movie made a year before, in 1988. It was titled "Yellow River Elegy."

This six-part series emerged from a general intellectual fashion in China in the late 1980's, known as culture fever. Culture, like religion, is often a substitute for political expression. After decades of wooden Communist culture, slash-and-burn revolutionary modernism and murderous political campaigns, Chinese intellectuals turned to traditional Chinese culture to find answers to China's contemporary problems.

China's descent into impotence has been an intellectual obsession of Chinese writers and thinkers since British gunships exposed its weakness during the Opium Wars in the middle of the last century. How could the Middle Kingdom, the center of civilization, have been so easily humbled by long-nosed barbarians and, later, by the "dwarf bandits" from Japan? These were the questions asked by Chinese intellectuals in the 1890's, in the 1910's, in the 1930's and yet again in "Yellow River Elegy."

Chinese civilization, as presented in the film, is compared to the Yellow River, sluggishly following its changeless course through a vast, agricultural continent, isolated from the world by the Great Wall and governed by despotic, semidivine emperors. This is contrasted to an idealized image of the West, enlightened by science and democracy, conquering the seas, trading with all the world. China has a closed, "yellow," land-bound civilization; the West is as open and "blue" as the oceans. The message, then, is that China has to discard its nostalgia for past glory, reject the symbols of its ancient civilization and become just like the West. The more hidden message is that Communist rule is as oppressive and closed as the old imperial system.

Ian Buruma, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, is the author of "Anglomania."

The "reformists" inside the Government, like the Communist Party chief, Zhao Ziyang, approved of the film. Conservatives hated it. It split the Chinese leadership. After Zhao was ousted in 1989 and the tanks restored order in Beijing, party hard-liners blamed the film for helping to incite the rebellion. Party newspapers denounced it in editorials. Its authors were put on the wanted list.

Four of the movie's five writers escaped to America. And while living here, an odd and drastic change came over all but one of them. Two became evangelical Christians, one seriously considered it and one is a decidedly secular businessman, who sells bridal clothes, French wines, men's wear and expensive crystal knickknacks out of the Sheraton Hotel in Flushing, in the New York City borough of Queens. Why? What made three out of four ardent promoters of science and democracy want to receive Jesus?

It was my curiosity to find out that took me, in January, to a Christian evangelical church in Glendale, Calif. This might seem an odd place to meet a well-known political dissident from China, but if that same dissident has convinced himself that only the word of Christ can save China, it is as good a place as any.

If he were simply a crank, a lonely man in exile whose mind has gone wobbly, there would be no reason, beyond a morbid interest, to meet him. But political crises have turned into bouts of religious zeal in China before. The most notable was in the 1850's, when a failed Confucian scholar named Hong Xiuquan claimed to be the younger brother of Jesus and tried to build the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom in southern China. By the time Hong's enterprise was crushed by Government troops, his murderous Taiping Rebellion had cost millions of lives. There are signs of a new religious fever in China today, including an upsurge in the popularity of Christianity -- an indication, I think, of political despair. So when famous Chinese dissidents get religion, they deserve to be taken seriously.

I took my place in the church hall, located next to a Chinese Christian kindergarten, where the congregation has just had its evening meal. Everyone but me is Chinese, from Taiwan, Hong Kong or mainland China itself. Some are old, some very young, but most are middle-aged. Parents speak mostly Chinese; children more often English. A young pastor from Hong Kong, dressed casually in slacks and a sport shirt, leads his flock in the singing of hymns, asking the Lord to bless China. The pastor then says how much he himself loves China. It is, indeed, as though the 60-odd immigrants have gathered in this corner of Los Angeles to worship the motherland they left behind as much as their Lord. Like Marxism before, Christianity can be a vehicle for Chinese nationalism.

New members are asked to stand up, introduce themselves, and say where they are from, so that fellow Shanghainese or Hunanese or Hong Kongers can take them under their wing. Then the hall goes dark and a video screen comes to life. We are about to see a film of the famous dissident and Christian convert I have come to meet. His name is Yuan Zhiming. The film is the story of his conversion.

After some sketchy shots of Tiananmen Square in 1989, where Yuan played a relatively minor role as a prominent intellectual supporting the students, the action quickly shifts to Paris, where Yuan found himself in political exile that same year, before moving to the United States. His voice tells us how he felt rejected by his homeland, and how he went into a deep depression. As the camera jerkily pans to his tear-filled eyes, Yuan talks about his father, who died soon after Yuan's escape from Beijing; the strain had been too much for the worried old man. And he talks about his wife, a young woman with a sharp, intelligent face, who stayed behind in China with their daughter.

The marriage had been unhappy, littered with quarrels and broken crockery. But now that Yuan is in exile, first in Paris, then in Princeton, he misses his family desperately. The West, which was like a utopian dream, now seems like a cold and lonely place. But then, encouraged by some Christians in Princeton, Yuan makes his first moves to "receive Jesus." After hearing about his father's death, he prays all night to a postcard of Jesus he picked up from a street in Paris. He prays for his family's exit visas from Beijing. He prays for all the sinners in China. And on April 28, 1992, Yuan is baptized at the Princeton Chinese Church.

Soon after that, his family is finally permitted to come to America. His wife is reluctant to become a Christian at first. She observes that she had not escaped from one authoritarian faith simply to join another. But the folks in church seem friendly, and it is an opportunity to learn English. So she ends up receiving Jesus, too, though perhaps without her husband's fervor.

After the film is over, the lights come back on, and there, behind the pulpit, is Yuan himself, a sleek, handsome man in his late 40's, wearing a gray tweed jacket. He says that Jesus saved him, and that he, Yuan that is, still loves China. Indeed, he loves China more than ever. He has been able to go back once, and noticed how unhappy people were and how empty their hearts. It has become clear to him that China cannot be changed only politically. First a complete spiritual transformation is needed. Democracy is not just a political mechanism. The root of democracy is the spirit of Christ. Only God can save the Chinese. And it is Yuan's aim to spread God's word to his people. That is how he intends to save China.

One month later I am sitting in the coffee shop of the Sheraton Hotel in Flushing. Opposite me is Xie Suanjun, a pale, slim man in his late 40's. Before 1989, he wrote a number of respected books on world religions and mythology. He, too, had been an intellectual supporter of the student rebels in Beijing. In fact, Xie's story is quite similar to Yuan's. He came to the United States via Japan. His wife and daughter were stuck in Beijing. Even though he talked to his wife weekly on the phone, the marriage, already tempestuous, suffered further as a result of his exile. Feeling miserable, he met Yuan in Princeton, but felt Christianity wasn't for him.

Then, one night, in a trough of despair, when he thought he might die alone, far away from China, he had a dream of being lifted in the arms of Christ. It gave him the most wonderful sense of floating free, he says, above all the cares in the world. But he still resisted conversion. For one thing, he was Chinese, and Christ was a Jew, a foreigner. Thankfully, he says, he discovered in the Gospel according to Matthew that Christ's spirit was already present before Abraham was born, so Christ could not really be a Jew. And so with intense relief Xie was able to convert at last.

He called his wife to announce the news. It made him feel happy and yet oddly guilty: receiving Christ was also a sign that he couldn't cope with life on his own. And, having grown up in a Communist country, atheism had been drummed into him as a child. But Xie's wife was not shocked. She had already been baptized in one of China's many clandestine "house churches," small churches located in private homes. Yet she still finds it hard to believe in the Resurrection, without which Xie thinks you cannot be a proper Christian. Like Yuan, Xie is convinced that Chinese must first find God, before a political solution can be found to their problems. But the trouble in China, he says, is that too many people simply want to use religion for political aims, instead of cultivating their spiritual lives.

The stories of Yuan and Xie are not especially rare or eccentric. Immigrants and refugees, alone in a foreign country, are always receptive to the promises of salvation in a religious community. Most of the older immigrants in the evangelical church in Glendale are from Taiwan, but the newly baptized members are almost all young people from mainland China.

In China, the destruction of traditional beliefs by the Communist Party, and the subsequent disillusion with Communism itself, have created a spiritual hunger for all kinds of Christian, non-Christian or pseudo-Christian beliefs. The officially sanctioned "patriotic" Christian churches in China, including the Catholic Church, could have as many as 20 million members. No one knows how many unofficial, underground Christians there are, but it is assumed to be 10 times the number of official Christians. They meet in private homes, in improvised halls, indeed anywhere away from the beady eyes of authority.

The Chinese Government is deeply antagonistic to the unofficial Christians, who refuse to register as members of the patriotic churches, and so are beyond party control. Many areas of daily life are beyond party control, to be sure, but the Communist Party has a particular fear of the evangelical zeal that combines faith and political subversion. That is, after all, how the party itself once came to power. Communism brooks no rivals. Of course, by crushing popular demands for political participation, most notably in 1989, the Government itself has provoked such zeal. Religion is all that is left when the expression of secular politics is blocked.

There is, however, a deeper reason for the appeal of evangelical religion for dissidents, embedded perhaps in the Chinese tradition itself. Sun Yat-sen, the leader of China's first modern revolution in 1911, was a Christian convert who believed, as he put it in a speech in 1912, that "the essence" of the revolution "could be found largely in the teachings of the church." This statement would not have startled most Christians in the West. But by that time most Western democracies had separated church from state. This had never been the case in China, where emperors were secular as well as semidivine leaders. Political institutions were part of a cosmic order, and it was this order that crumbled in the 19th century and collapsed in the 20th. Chinese intellectuals have been looking for new cosmic orders to solve their political problems ever since.

In 1919, dissident intellectuals in the so-called May 4 Movement, who opposed authoritarian government, adopted "Science and Democracy" as a slogan. But it was more than a political slogan. For many Chinese, they were like the mantras of a new religion. It was but a short step from this to the blind faith in scientific socialism and dictatorship of the proletariat. It is odd, but not surprising, that the radicalism of Mao Zedong owed something not just to the spirit of 1919, but also to the murderous fanaticism of the Taiping Rebellion of Hong Xiuquan in the 1850's. Mao, in his imperial pretensions and his radicalism, was not unlike Christ's "younger Chinese brother." Indeed, Mao counted himself as an admirer of the Taipings.

It would be grotesque to suggest that the pale Mr. Xie, of Flushing, would wish to be anything like Hong Xiuquan or Mao Zedong. It was he, after all, who told me that religion should not be used for political ends. Yuan Zhiming's conviction, however, that China can be free only when all Chinese have received Jesus, does have something in common with the zealotry of former Chinese revolutionaries. Like them, he believes in the wholesale spiritual transformation of China. As he put it in an essay: "Democracy is not merely an institution nor simply a concept, but a profound structure of faith."

The Westernization of China, which he advocated in "Yellow River Elegy," simply lacked one component, he explains, in his bungalow in Torrance, Calif.: "I now realize that our film was superficial. It left out the most important element, religion. Chinese conservatives think we have to preserve our traditions. But Sun Yat-sen was right. If China wants to be as great as the West, we have to go to the root of Western civilization."

So the road from the Yellow River to the church in Glendale was not as long as it seemed. But what about the other two authors, now living in America? How did they resist the blandishments of the church? The story of Su Xiaokang, his struggles with Christianity and his final rejection of it tell us as much about the modern state of China as do the conversions of his colleagues. Su is the most famous of the authors of "Yellow River Elegy," and contributed most of the work. He, too, has a troubled personal history.

I talk to him at his house in Princeton. He sits in front of his word processor. Once in a while his wife, Puli, who was badly injured in an auto accident six years ago, passes from the bedroom to the kitchen, very slowly, with the support of a steel frame. Su, once a celebrated author in China, finds it difficult to write about anything anymore. He told a Japanese reporter that the old Su Xiaokang had died. The new one is simply surviving.

"We intellectuals in exile," he says, "all struggled with Christianity. I was very depressed after the accident. I felt it was a punishment for me. I felt that without some contact with God, a Chinese God, I couldn't survive. So I read the Bible all the time and even went to church. Twice a week a young American came to my house to read the Bible with me. He is now a successful computer engineer."

Su's pain, however, is more than just personal; it goes back to that old despair about China, the source of "Yellow River Elegy." The tragedy of China, he says, is that the Chinese don't see a difference between China and the Chinese Government. The Chinese have an idea of tianxia, meaning everything under Heaven, not of the state or the nation. Everything under Heaven is a cosmic concept. It is where politics, religion and cultural identity are rolled up into one.

Like many exiles, Su feels ashamed to have survived, while others were arrested or killed. And he feels guilty about the failure of the 1989 rebellion. But the shame of his generation, the generation of former Red Guards, now in their late 40's and 50's, goes back further than 1989. He says: "We all feel deep guilt. All of us who lived through the Cultural Revolution, beating up our teachers, unleashing all that violence. At least we intellectuals can talk about it, but the ordinary people have it all bottled up inside them."

So why, I ask, did he end up rejecting the Christian faith? He gives a two-part answer. "I cannot believe in Christ. I tried, but I can't. He is a historical figure, like Confucius. I can't believe he is the son of God." This is a rational, secularist answer, which any agnostic might have given. But then he gives a different answer, more to do with the experience of his generation in China: "Since we lost faith in Maoism, we felt cut off at our spiritual roots. This made it impossible for me to believe in any religion, or ideology. I cannot have faith in anything anymore." Su added that he finds the post-Tiananmen generation in China baffling. He says that all they care about is material things. Perhaps the difference between Su and them is that Su feels anguish at his loss of faith, while younger Chinese never had one.

It has become clear to Yuan that China cannot be changed only politically. The root of democracy is the spirit of Christ. Only God can save the Chinese.

It is rather refreshing, after hearing these stories of painful conversions and spiritual despair, to talk to the fourth author of "Yellow River Elegy," now living in Flushing as well. Zhang Gang is a tall, bluff, chain-smoking figure, with a Chinese Army greatcoat wrapped around his shoulders. He has a loud laugh and a raspy voice, and is the kind of man for whom waitresses jump to attention as soon as he enters the Sheraton coffee shop. The Chinese expression for his type is Big Brother. Big Brothers get things done, take care of others, run businesses, start rebellions. Yet business is not Zhang's main interest. "Business," he tells me, "is just a matter of survival. My real life is at home, staying in touch with Chinese affairs on the Internet and talking to Chinese friends."

It turns out Zhang was quite a Big Brother in China. He was born in Nanjing, the son of a high Communist official. During the Cultural Revolution, he was a leader of the Red Guards, with memories of seeing his most respected teacher beaten almost to death. Being an upper-class Communist, as it were, gave him the opportunity to read a large number of forbidden books. Zhang concluded that Marxist analysis didn't apply to China. Pre-modern China wasn't really feudal. It was ruled by an authoritarian system based on ancient agricultural practices.

Zhang's main contribution to "Yellow River Elegy" was to introduce this idea of "Oriental despotism," as he (and others before him) called it. But he couldn't write for the television series openly, for Zhang was working for the Government as an economic adviser to the reformists around Zhao Ziyang. He understood the nature of power in China, he says. Zhang never got openly involved with the Tiananmen demonstrations, but he did play a shadowy role as an intermediary between reformists in the party and the students. For this, he, too, was put on the wanted list after June, 4, 1989.

I ask him about religion. He pulls himself up, and says he is no stranger to Christianity. His mother is a Catholic. And he respects the "gentleness" of Catholics. But the thing is that unlike the others, he is self-sufficient. "I trust myself, rather than putting my faith in outside forces. The others need God to cope with their frustrations. But I'm very tough, independent. I can't see a difference between what I want to do, and what they want God to do for them."

Zhang has no interest in joining any dissident group either. "Not as long as I have a brain and I see what they do. You see, these dissidents are very inferior people. They have never touched real power and money." He snorts derisively. The implication is that he has.

Some might call Zhang Gang self-confident, others might view him as arrogant. His air of Chinese machismo reminds me of Wei Jingsheng, the dissident leader who is often accused of being unable to listen to or compromise with anyone. Tough guys like Wei and Zhang can be indispensible, however. How could Wei have survived for so long in jail if he hadn't been convinced of his own righteousness? Big Brothers are natural leaders.

Christians and other religious people can have a role, too, by resisting political orthodoxy and staking out moral positions independent of the state. Things only become dangerous when Big Brothers take a religious view of their political missions and want to affect a moral transformation of China. It was Xie who observed to me, with the wan smile of a man who had known despair, "The problem with China is that instead of adopting Christ's ideals, too many Chinese think they are Jesus Christ themselves."

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company