Red Runs the River and its sequel Exiles of Hope tells the fictional story of two Chinese Christians who face religious persecution at the hands of Mao Tze-tung’s Communist Party. Though a novel, the book describes actual people, places, and events. The author, Anthony Bollback, has worked in China for many years, and his purpose in writing this story is to give the reader a glimpse into life as Christians in China experience it today through the eyes of the book’s two main characters. This is the story of Meiling and Anching who fall in love and are then separated by years of Communist control; it is a love story, not only between themselves, but also between each one and the God whom they love and serve – a God for whom they risk their lives daily despite the persecution of Communism.
The story begins by depicting the socialistic classes of the Chinese people and how this did not affect the friendship of the two main characters. Meiling grew up in the home of a successful professor, but Anching was just a poor peasant who could never hope to have a bright future, let alone to have anyone like Meiling as a wife. The two first meet when a bully is belittling Meiling in front of all the other students, scattering her books across the lawn, because she was the daughter of Principal Woo, a government worker. Anching watches from the bushes, and when the crowd clears away, he expresses his remorse for what was done as he helps Meiling to collect her things. Secretly, he hopes that they can be friends, but as a poor peasant, he is doubtful that this will ever happen. However, Meiling makes it perfectly clear that she is not bothered by Anching’s social status. She has been reading the Bible and is becoming inspired and excited by its words, and she shares some of this hope with Anching and invites him to church. Though Anching was reluctant at first because of his social status, he accepted the invitation. At the church, he saw that people were not concerned with one’s ranking at all. This greatly impacted him, in addition to the words of the Bible, which Meiling shared with him every time they were together. The unlikely pair had become inseparable friends despite social rank.
In the time that followed, Anching and Meiling talked about the imminent threat of Communism; they wondered what would happen if they were ever separated. They had both concluded that they could never live without the other, and Anching had promised Meiling that he would wait for her his whole life, if necessary. Little did they know that they would be separated for 25 years, due to the Communist aggression. By this time, both Meiling and Anching were Christians; but the Communists were moving in for the takeover of China, and they were not particularly tolerant toward Christians. The Chinese Nationalists needed reinforcements; they began forcing young men into their army in order to fight off the Communists. Anching was one of them. Thankfully, Meiling and Anching’s family did get to see him one last time before he left, due to their persistence. They had no idea how long they would be separated. Anching made a heartfelt promise to Meiling that day – a promise which would sustain both of them through the 25 years of separation: “I will find you, no matter where you may be, even if it takes the rest of my life!”
The book, particularly the sequel, then goes on to describe what life was like for both Anching and Meiling individually during the years of separation. Anching was a man of exceptional character; during the war, he helped many people whom his comrades were treating harshly, he led one soldier to Christ, and he rescued a wounded soldier. After the war, he helped those in need, printed many Bibles, and led many others to Christ. He had his share of sufferings as well; once, a group of thugs beat him to a pulp! He also endured imprisonment, torture almost to death, and an isolation cell! He spent much of his time in hiding – he was a Christian, and that made him a wanted man. Meiling became a leader of the growing underground church. She and other Christians copied pages of the Bible from dictations over a secret radio. She was also instrumental in leading people to Christ through her witness. She was, like Anching, separated from her family; in fact, upon her release from a labor camp, she was banned from ever returning to her family. Because she was a leader in the underground church, Meiling also endured much horrendous torture at the hands of the Communists (beatings, isolation cell, interrogations, labor camp, etc.), but she refused to give up. In addition, both her parents and Anching’s lost their jobs and endured their own share of sufferings. God worked miracles for both Meiling and Anching during this time, however; there were heartaches and there were victories, but even in the worst of circumstances, God was always there and He made that perfectly clear to them. But even after all this time, the two never forgot about each other; each wondered if the other was even alive, and they longed to be reunited one day, Lord willing.
The sequel then depicts Anching’s journey back, in keeping with his promise. He faced many hardships and triumphs along the way, some of which are described above. But this one thing nagged at him: His promise to Meiling – “I will find you, wherever you are!” He never did forget that promise, but many times, God led him in another direction; therefore, his journey home took much longer than normal. During this time, Anching’s thoughts often wandered off to Meiling: So much had changed now that the Communists had taken control. He had no idea if Meiling was still alive. And if she was, was she even living in the same location anymore? What was she doing now? Would he ever get to see her again? But following God, though not without its hardships, was yielding great rewards. Would this hinder him from seeing Meiling again? Anching had made a promise, and he intended to keep it no matter what the cost – but obeying God was first on his priority list.
Overall, this is a very heartwarming story about what life is like for Chinese Christians in the face of persecution. It is definitely a page-turner; I could not put the books down once I started reading (and writing this review makes me want to read them all over again!). For a novel, the depiction of two characters in love and separated by years was very realistic; for many Christians in persecuted countries are separated from their loved ones due to the intense opposition against them. Some of the details (of torture, for example) are rather graphic, but this is because the author is very accurate in his portrayal of the Christians’ sufferings. As I was reading, I was mentally noting this fact, based on other books that I have read on the subject. In fact, the author shares in the sequel that a pastor that is mentioned in the book is actually representative of someone that he knew; this pastor spent many years doing hard labor at a stone quarry – I had read of another Chinese pastor who had a similar experience and I was able to verify that the details are correct. In addition, when the author mentions the Communist takeover of China, he is very accurate in his portrayal of that point in history; however, he portrays if from the Chinese peoples’ perspective, something that we are unfamiliar with. I found this to be a great addition to the story; since the author strove to be true to events, circumstances, and people, the reader gets a very precise glimpse into the lives of persecuted Christians in China. In everything that I’ve read on the subject, I am compelled to pray more earnestly for the persecuted church; this book is no exception. The book’s ending leaves the feeling that the story seems to be continuing. At first I was disappointed; you want a happy ending that you don’t have to “read into,” something that just finalizes the whole. But then I realized that this is true of the persecuted church: their story has not yet ended. It is still continuing today. It is a story in which we learn a very important lesson: to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength, regardless of the circumstances – something that these brothers and sisters do daily. This is their love story.