"I wanted to be a part of those people"

A story about an illiterate village of Chinese Christians who possessed a Bible that no one could read

by Chai Ling

     During the registration for my workshop, in the noisy and crowded student government office, I met a young man — his family name was Wang — whose quiet presence stood out amid the clamor. A chemistry student who also excelled in the martial arts, Wang was several years older, of average height and build, and possessed an unusual aura of peace and calm, which I found very soothing. He soon opened a world to me I had never known before: faith in God. This was another taboo in China, where all forms of spiritual belief were condemned as capitalism's poison to the working-class soul.
     Wang told me he had spent the previous summer traveling by bicycle along the Yellow River, the birthplace of our ancient civilization. He had wanted to see the lives and culture of the Chinese heartland with his own eyes. On his journey through six provinces, he came upon a mountain village so poor that no woman could marry into it. When the local girls reached the age of matrimony, they left the village to marry elsewhere. No one in the village knew how to read, and the villagers clothed themselves in rags. The dire poverty shocked Wang.
     When the people heard that a college student had wandered into their midst, a village elder gathered everyone, young and old, into a small, mud hut and invited Wang to join them. As everyone stood around a tiny oil lamp, the elder brought out a bundle wrapped in black cloth. Slowly, with trembling hands, he unfolded the cloth, one layer at a time, until it revealed an old Bible. The pages were wrinkled and yellow.
     The old man told Wang that, many years before, an American missionary had left the Bible before he was driven out of China by Mao's liberation. None of the remaining villagers knew how to read. So when they gathered to secretly worship, they simply passed the Bible around, hand to hand. Each person was allowed to touch it once. In this way, they received the presence of God. Still, they longed to know what was in that book, and they prayed for someone who could read it to them. When Wang showed up, they were overjoyed and said their prayers had been answered. Wang had no idea what they were talking about, but he was happy to oblige their request.
     With all eyes on him, he read the Word of God as the people listened intently. He said it was as if they all fell into a trance. No one left or even moved. Wang, too, felt the special bond these people shared. Without feeling tired, he kept reading late into the night. Each time he paused, the peasants begged him to read more. Before he knew it, a rooster was crowing, and the peasants went out to work in the fields. Wang took a nap. After sunset, the peasants returned, and Wang continued reading to them.
     After several days, Wang had to resume his trip in order to be back at school on time. The entire village turned out to see him off. They presented him with a large sack of sweet potatoes and would not let him leave without it. It was the best they could offer him from their village. Although Wang had many more miles to cover before he returned to Beijing, and he gave up many things along the way to lighten his load, he carried the sack of sweet potatoes on the back of his bicycle all the way home.
     When Wang told me this story, I felt like one of those villagers who had longed to hear the Word of God. Though religion was outlawed in China when I was growing up, to me it was neither foreign nor intimidating. As I listened to Wang, I was strongly attracted to that powerful spiritual force. How much I wanted to be a part of those people who had such a strong devotion.

From pages 40-41 of A Heart for Freedom by Chai Ling (Tyndale House, 2011).

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