In the New York Review of Books, Ian Johnson continues his series of interviews with prominent Chinese thinkers by talking with Yuan Zhiming, a former pro-democracy activist turned Christian preacher. Exiled after the 1989 protests and crackdown, Yuan fled to France, where he became a Christian, and he now lives near San Francisco. In the 1980s, he helped produce the influential TV series River Elegy, which criticized the inward-focus of traditional Chinese culture. From the interview:
How did you go from making River Elegy, a critical documentary about Chinese society and politics, to Christianity?
River Elegy‘s conclusion was that the solution for China was democracy and human rights. But it was only when I got to the West that I realized that the root of this was Christianity. It was the Bible. It creates something more important than rights given by a constitution or a government. It creates God-given rights—endowed by our creator. This made rights something permanent and not dependent on a leader.
Some Chinese Christians go further and reject much of traditional Chinese culture, saying it is incompatible with democracy and Christianity.
A lot of Chinese Christians seem to know more about Israel’s history, through the Old Testament, than they do about the 5,000 years of Chinese culture. I find this unreasonable. People say there was no revelation of God in China but I felt this was wrong. So I was trying [in the DVD series China’s Confession ] to find the hand of God in China, his footprint. How could there not be God’s footprint? You can’t say “Jesus has arrived, let’s execute Confucius and Laozi!” Instead, we have to think that they would have welcomed Jesus. They weren’t prophets but they were seekers too.
Update: The video of River Elegy is available on YouTube (h/t @kinablog):