Review: A Heart for Freedom: The remarkable Journey of a Young Dissident, Her Daring Escape, and her Quest to Free China’s Daughters, by Chai Ling. Tyndale House, 2011
I wish Chai Ling had waited a few more years to tell her story.
In A Heart for Freedom, she recounts the events that led to her involvement in the leadership of the Tiananmen Square student protest in China in 1989. We have a front-row seat as the students and the Chinese government come to a stand-off over personal freedoms, and we vicariously experience the horror of the massacre. Ling evokes our sympathy as she tells us what like to leave her country as a political refugee to start over, a young girl alone and misunderstood.
The final third of the book was the most compelling, as Ling details coming to terms with her helplessness to change the political system in China, her conversion to Christianity and the process of grief and repentance over her four abortions. We see her understanding progress— first Ling realizes that her abortions ended the lives of real children—that something wrong happened. She grieves over her loss and begins to talk about it. At first she blames China’s one child policy and her ex-husband, but eventually she comes to realize her own role and to understand grace and forgiveness.
On the positive side, it is possible for someone to read this book (and especially the description of grace on page 320) and learn enough about God to be converted. Ling’s honest testimony of struggle, of learning about God and the truth about her own sin and helplessness over the period of several months is no simple reciting of a sinner’s prayer – there was real change involved in her life and I have no doubt that she knows God.
But on the negative side, I found that Ling came across as judgmental toward nearly everyone she mentions in the book. Everyone from her father, boyfriends, friends, potential employers to her current husband (whom she seems to love very much) seems not to have “done it right” in their relationship to her. For example, when Ling finally confesses her abortions to a spiritual mentor, she is asked, “Did you confess to God? He will forgive you.” Sound advice, right? Not according to Ling. She left judged by her friend. Over and over she says in her book, “For the Chinese women who will someday come out of their trauma, what they need to hear first is not, ‘Come to God and He will forgive you.’ but, ‘Come to God and He will love you, heal you, and free you.’” It’s as if Ling cannot stand even the implied criticism by her friend that she needs forgiveness. This is only one of dozens of examples where Ling explains to us her “rightness” sometimes at the cost of condemning the actions and attitudes of others. This is where a little Christian maturity might have tempered some of her judgments and made the book a more edifying read. Her theology is not always perfectly on target, and the book is probably not suitable for young people because of the general (not detailed) descriptions of her sexually immoral teen years.
That being said, I do believe that because of her unique role in China’s history, Chai Ling has a story to tell about grace that no one else could tell.
Review by Susan Verstraete, church secretary at FCC.