(Editor's note: This article continues a year-long partnership between LWP and Media Associates International to present a series of articles focused on global Christian publishing.)
A woman once told me what she saw in a prayer: a dragon riding through clouds and thunder. It howled, spewing fumes and smoke, and its’ tail pounded hard in the wind, threatening anyone who dared come near. After it had landed on a rocky shore, the dragon laid down to catch its breath. Suddenly, it wheezed and coughed. To the woman’s surprise, a baby was expelled from the dragon’s mouth. Naked and wet, yet the baby did not cry.
According to Chinese legend, what the dragon spat out should have been a priceless pearl, not a babe. My friend wondered. Was it irritation the dragon felt, or had it painstakingly hidden a treasure which it now took out to admire in secret? She felt the vision was somehow related to my birth.
When I was born, there was no thunder or dragon drama. It was a year of refugees flooding to Hong Kong in the wake of a new regime. My family was on the run, back and forth between our home village in Southern China and the island. My mother, pregnant with me, was taking care of my grandmother, who had been running for a year because of war. Finally, she could run no more because of a terminal disease.
Life in the Guangdong village had always been harsh. Most men sought work by going away, some to the cities and others abroad, leaving behind the weak, the old, and the women in the village. Naturally, women had to take up the responsibility of looking after the families. Being a dutiful daughter-in-law, mom nursed my grandmother to her last days.
The funeral struck mom hard. She also perceived the loss as a failure on her part. In the midst of grief and mourning, she returned to Hong Kong to give birth, hoping a new life would bring her consolation. Moreover, she wished to offer a gift to honour grandmother and our ancestors.
What? A Girl?
“What, a girl?” the old midwife cried. Mom had hoped to hear the gusty roar of a male voice, but she found only a small, wet female creature lying quietly beside her. Not even a whine.
The old women from our village soon flocked to chatter, “Poor thing, she worked so hard for her mother-in-law, but got no reward. What did she do wrong?” It was as if the dead should repay a woman by giving her a son.
A few years later the gossip was even more clamorous when one of my elder brothers and a younger brother died in an epidemic. “Shame! Why should she who is such a weakling survive, and not the boys?” they would exclaim. They speculated on the fortune, the fengshui of our family. A son can bear the family name; a girl would be a bundle of trouble; it is best to marry her off.
Being female was almost like breaking an unspoken rule—you could not bear the family honour and almost had to justify your existence. I was fortunate in that my parents did not conform to the tradition; however, the sense of shame and feeling of insignificance, like a birthmark, had already been stamped on me.
Books became a refuge. During my childhood, I was often ill, so I stayed home and read. I spent hours reading library books. I read to cats and pigeons; I read to the sky outside my window. Reading led me into another kingdom where adults would fight for justice and equality, creating a wonderful place for children to live. Reading inspired me to dream.
Being insignificant had its merits, for no one paid much attention to my whereabouts. Both reading and wandering the neighbourhood streets helped to lay the foundations for creative writing.
One memory stands out from my childhood wanderings.
On busy street corners in our neighbourhood, hawkers sold legendary characters made of colourful dough and folk musicians travelled in wagons playing gongs and drums and doing acrobatic movements in Kung Fu. Refugees asked for a few pennies by telling stories of how they escaped wars. Crowds always gathered around each street artist.
Yet when someone at the nearby public bathhouse yelled aloud, the crowds immediately followed the noise. Everybody knew that another “one” had been discarded.
Outside the bathhouse, lying against the wall, a small jelly-like creature could be found on top of a bed of rice papers. Everyone stood staring. I was in awe at the fine features, the translucent skin, and the delicate limbs. It was wet, yet pure as the first snow. To my child’s eye, the strange beauty was amazing—it had life!
Adults mumbled, “Shame! It must be a ‘she.’” Because it was a little girl, she could be disposed of. I was shocked to hear the adults’ verdict. This fetus had no choice. I admired her beauty and life and at the same time, I ached. (Many years later I first heard the word “abortion.”)
The scene haunted me. It was as if, being female, you would always be reminded of your flawed status. Feelings of unworthiness and fear seeped deep within me.
Writing in Secret and in Public
Writing in a diary, I found I could say whatever I liked and describe what I had observed without sanction. I may have been voiceless in life, but I could see my voice on paper.
In junior high school, a newspaper invited students to contribute, and I sent in poems and articles. When I first saw my poem printed with graphics, my heart leapt with joy. The first taste of sharing ignited a spark: it could be done in the open; I need not write in secret. The first remuneration was a delightful reward for which I could treat my friends to ice cream. Reading, writing, and sharing with friends had become a fun pastime which made those dry school years tolerable.
To most Chinese students, pursuing a career means studying to get a job and finding a professional ladder to climb. I understood my parents’ concern that I must fulfill expectations before pursuing my writing dream.
After I graduated from university in Canada, my desire to write didn’t fade; instead, it grew stronger. I got a job and worked hard to save money. My goal was to find a creative writing teacher. Since most of the authors I admired were in Taiwan, I applied for an internship at Campus Evangelical Fellowship. The experience was rewarding.
Finding a Mentor
One day, I visited a famous Christian writer who did not know me. I knocked at her door and it unlocked the gate of learning.
“Could you please teach me how to write?” I asked with sincerity and total naiveté. She did not immediately respond, but instead courteously invited me in. She talked about the bird in the tree outside her window, her 4-year-old daughter’s wish to be married, a drum she had found in an old village—anything except writing. I went back again and again.
From our excursions to places like the pre-dawn fish market, I learned that writing is about venturing into unfamiliar horizons—you write with your body, senses, and your whole person totally submitted in response to the moment.
To write, you need a mentor to inspire you. To publish, you can’t take off without an editor. A good editor will guide the writer each step of the way, from ideas to writing, and nurturing to full term, then midwifing the baby into the world.
Good editors are truly God-sent. I didn’t realize this until I encountered Josephine So. I first met her when she was starting Breakthrough Magazine to reach young people in Hong Kong.
Beginning a Writing Career
Josephine cordially invited me to stay with her for a few days. This turned into a writing camp. I had to submit an audio-visual script before being allowed out of her house. Because I wanted to attend a concert, I completed the assignment as quickly as possible. Little did I know that the script was for a media production that was to be shown at an international conference and, subsequently, on many other occasions.
Those few days were the beginning of a deep relationship which changed my life.
Josephine assigned me many writing projects. For each piece, she gave constructive critique and asked me to rewrite up to five or six drafts until it was ready to be published. No work comes out perfect the first time.
Josephine was also a writer. She wrote many articles, several novels, and some theatrical works. Because she suffered with cancer for twenty years, she could not be both an editor and a prolific writer at the same time. Yet she founded several magazines for youth and deliberately chose the role of nurturing writers and training young editors.
Without her, I would not have had the courage to continue. She initiated the publishing of my short stories and prose. She shared the joy of giving birth to my first book. My best gift to her is to write and nurture other writers and editors.
Accepting—and Celebrating—the Past
I couldn’t choose my birth. My writing will forever be interwoven with my upbringing. In retrospect, I grew to appreciate “shame.” Without the childhood pains, I would not have written. Without the sense of shame, I wouldn’t have struggled to find my voice and make sense of my world. In the process, I discovered I was not alone. I have heard many stories—the contents might be different, but the feelings are similar: pain and torment under the dark shadow of our fears. For those who are Chinese, fear stems mostly from shame. The more I listen, the more I wish to write. How we women wish to be valued and not to be spat out by the dragon!
A greater story I have learned is one of shame turned into glory: an unmarried, young girl, in quietness and serene surrender to the Spirit, gave birth to a baby Redeemer to bring new hope. Pure joy and grace, it is a story full of mystery and wonder.
Similarly, with our writings we are often haunted by shortcomings and shame. Yet in the dark moments, we see the warming light showering to lift us up, affirming our worth as his precious pearls: “In your nakedness, I give you clothes, in your shamefulness, I give you my jewels” (Ezekiel 16:8-11).
In many places such as China, Christian writers still cannot publish openly. Yet more than a few are persevering despite uncertainties. Most work long hours for meager incomes to support their families; they struggle for time and space to cultivate good writing. Writing for non-believers requires skill and wisdom to identify a language and topic that communicates without being censored. They need to save money or raise funds to buy a book license from a publisher who is willing to take the risk.
One lay pastor was released from detention and continued his research on house churches for over a decade; he then wrote a valuable document. Another composed plays and staged them at Christmas and other festive occasions to attract people to church.
Some writers are so good that they are being recognized openly in the public domain. Others have turned to overseas publishers and sent their products home after publication. China itself now has over four hundred Christian magazines and journals circulated privately and through churches, providing platforms for writers and training grounds for younger ones. These are truly the precious jewels of the dragon kingdom.
Every day in Hong Kong I see people from China flocking to buy jewelry and other luxuries. Those who rush to buy the baubles of the world will soon be disillusioned by these counterfeits. I ask myself: Where can people find the real? I am determined to tell stories in the spirit of the parable of the one pearl of great price (Matthew 13:46).
That Pearl overcomes the dragon and the dark powers of this world, for his kingdom surpasses all and his story is ours to proclaim.
(Portions of this edited article are based on the chapter “Jewels from the Dragon Kingdom,” first published in An Asian Pallette: Personal Journeys of Christian Writers, edited by Bernice Cheng, and published by Armour Publishing Pte Ltd., Singapore, in 1998.)