The New York Review of Books: “Christians Can’t Believe in a Mao”: An Interview With Yuan Zhiming

Ian Johnson

Yuan Zhiming

Filmmaker and Christian activist Yuan Zhiming

In the intellectual ferment leading up to the 1989 Tiananmen protests, a much-watched series on Chinese television called River Elegy became closely identified with the hopes of China’s reformers. The six-part series, which used the Yellow River as an allegory for Chinese civilization, argued that China should move away from its inward-looking culture, symbolized by the muddy river, and embrace the deep blue oceans that link China to the outside world. One of the series’ writers was a graduate student of Marxism at Renmin University named Yuan Zhiming.

After the Tiananmen crackdown, Yuan became one of the country’s most-wanted dissidents, fleeing to Paris and eventually making his way to Princeton. It was there, in 1992, that he converted to Christianity and later started his US-based charity, China Soul for Christ Foundation. Although banned from entering China, he has become one of the country’s most influential spiritual figures through his documentaries and videotaped sermons. This summer, I met Yuan at his offices north of San Francisco, where we talked about China’s moral crisis, the future of communism, and the problems Christianity has in adapting to its new home.