Bian Yunbo – A Poet for the Unknown Christian

Bian Yunbo – A Poet for the Unknown Christian

 

When, in 1943, Japanese soldiers occupied a rural area of the province of Hebei, China, eighteen-year-old Bian Yunbo walked over six hundred miles south-east to Yang County, where a high school accepted refugee students. There, he first heard the gospel from a missionary from the China Inland Mission (CIM), Doris E. Onion.

            Onion impressed Bian with her concern for his soul and her fervent prayers for him, particularly at a time when he entertained thoughts of jumping into the Han River. She didn’t know about this temptation, but was awakened in the middle of the night by a voice that sounded like Bian’s, and prayed for him.

            “She was quite thin,” Bian wrote, “wore the clothes of a Chinese peasant woman, did not speak Chinese well, but like an elderly mother she had a face full of kindness. She didn’t say a lot, but she left you with the feeling that you just had to listen to her counsel. I was led to put my faith in the Lord through her.”[1]

            This conversion took place after he understood the pervasiveness of sin and the “pain and bitterness” it produced. He was baptized in the same river where he had contemplated death. “Thanks to God,” he wrote, “that stretch of river did not become my grave, but rather became the place symbolizing my death, burial, and resurrection in the Lord.”[2]

            Keeping up his studies with limited resources was not easy, but Bian worked hard. In 1944, he was admitted into the largest university in China. Although he became a leader in the Christian Student Fellowship, his ultimate goal was to become a famous playwright. It took a bad case of pneumonia, at a time when no medications were available, to wake him up to his selfishness and pride.

            A few months later, he decided to devote his life to spread the gospel. He returned to Yang County, where he discovered that Onion had left due to poor health. He then determined to continue her work, in spite of his worsening pneumonia. To his surprise, the hardships of his itinerant life didn’t impact his health. Instead, the pneumonia cleared up completely.

            Following the advice of his church elders, in 1946 he went back to university to be better prepared to preach. He declined, however, an offer to study at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and another offer to co-author a research with a professor. His mind was, at that time, focused on the work in China.

            But this local work was not without disappointments, particularly when he discovered that some Chinese were preaching for financial profit, and others liked to cause dissension. He tried to comfort himself by singing some hymns, “but some of the normally deeply moving verses became expressions of resentful, tear-filled complaint.”[3]

 

A Life-Changing Poem

            It was a group of Christians known as the Northwest Spiritual Movement that helped to rekindle Bian’s passion for spreading the gospel. To encourage himself to keep going, he wrote a long poem in memory of unsung Christians who had been preaching before him. He never planned to write 100 lines, but he could not put down his pen.

            “The deeds and images of many, many nameless preachers seemed to appear before my eyes, and I wept with them, shared their past defeats and victories, giving thanks together, calling out to one another to run the race set before us. It was as if hand in hand with them, heart melded

to heart, in mute communication, they detailed one after another testimony and experience. I felt just like a chronicler, using line after line of poetry, to record a series of scenes, and a language of the heart rarely known to men. During those few days I was completely exhausted, lost my appetite and any desire for sleep and when I reached halfway, it was quite clear that this was not

being written just to give me encouragement, but was a work entrusted from God, and only when I had written the last line did I feel free of a heavy burden.”[4]

            The poem opens with a realistic look at the Christian life:

 

Just before the break of dawn

The world looms dark, difficult, and dreary......

The autumn winds and rain

Dash your sleepy dreams,

A troublesome and melancholy net

Shrouds your heart.

Looking back along the trodden path

The whole is full of potholes and rough patches,

 Some defeats

 Some victories

Many stone-cold heartaches

And yet, so many shouts of praise.[5]

 

            It is a difficult, “indentured road” which the evangelist takes, not for lack of choice, but “boldly” using his freedom.

 

Remember that day,

 You suddenly felt so alone!

Old friends were long estranged,

 And fellow believers likewise cold and aloof!

Toward the world you felt pity and sorrow,

 But in return came scoffing and mockery

You showed unbridled enthusiasm to the brothers and sisters,

 But they bequeathed you only a spiritually

 Unbearable, oppressive sadness;

No one understood,

And no one took notice;

Despair crushed your heart,

Grief stifled your breath!

Although you diligently attended your daily work,

Deep in the night you often wept silently before the Lord!

So Alone! In this world, other than your own shadow,

It seemed as if no other companion walked your path,

Therefore, as you felt oppressed,

You couldn’t help but begin to hesitate……

Yet, just at that instant,

 You remembered anew the moment of your call!

 Lying in waste, the fields were white and ripe for harvest,

 Your fellow countrymen, under fire of war, were like lost sheep

 Crying out! Weeping in sorrow![6]

 

            It’s this thought of the Lord’s call and example that keeps the unknown evangelist going through pain and difficulties.

 

Today,

 We will raise our banners high!

 Let them wave,

 Let them fly,

 Let them face the sun,

 Let them welcome the bright and shining King!

Yes,

Let the tempest quickly come!

Because,

 When the world looms ever more dark, difficult, and dreary

 We yet firmly believe, in the distance

 The dawn is visible!

 The dawn is visible![7]

 

            And that’s how Bian finished his poem, just before dawn, on October 30, 1948. He entitled it “To the Unknown Evangelist, My Brother.” He never signed it and didn’t plan to publish it but three years later he discovered a copy published with his name. He was not pleased. Since the poem was dedicated to the unknown evangelist, he thought the author’s name should also remain unknown. “Even today, I don’t know how the original publishers obtained the manuscript, or how they ascertained the author’s name,” he said. That is something I’ll know when I see the Lord.”[8]

 

Persecution

            After this, he left with other “unknown evangelists” to preach the gospel among the Miao people in southwest Yunnan. He stayed there until 1953, when he heard rumors that he was about to be arrested. Then he returned to Hebei, where he took care of his mother and dealt with some family matters. It was around this time, during a visit to Beijing, that he met Wang Mingdao[9], pastor of the well-known Christian Tabernacle, and worked alongside him, assisting him in his writing ministry.

            When Mingdao was arrested in 1955 for refusing to adhere to the only church allowed by the government (a church that openly denied justification by faith alone), Bian was implicated by association and charged with starting an illegal gathering of Christians in his home. Released the following year, he married Bai Yaoxuan, a Christian he had met at Wang’s church three years earlier. They lived in Tianjin, where they both worked as teachers, and had three children.

            Bian and Bai continued to be persecuted for their faith, particularly during the Cultural Revolution, when Bian was occasionally sent to labor camps with other teachers. Later, he sent his children to study abroad. He moved to the US in the 1990s, where he continued to write and speak while serving in Chinese churches. He also encouraged western Christians to take advantage of their freedom by spreading the gospel and meeting regularly for worship on the Lord’s Day.

            His weak lungs failed once again in 2003, when he started coughing up blood again. This time, his condition was so serious that he was in a coma for over three weeks. Much to his doctors’ surprise, however, he recovered and lived another 15 years. At age 93, he returned to his homeland to spend his last days there. He died on February 14, 2018, in Ningbo, Zhejiang.

            Besides his poem, some of his most important writings include his Chinese dictionaries of the Old and New Testament and a memoir entitled Recalling History in My Declining Years[10], which provides a valuable account of the Chinese house churches, how they had been persecuted, and how some of them kept their faith alive by worshiping in caves, cellars, tunnels, forests, desert islands, and on boats.

            Bian’s legacy continues in the lives of many Christians all over the world who find courage and inspiration in his writings and example.

 



[1] Brian Yunbo, To the Unknown Evangelist, My Brother, transl. by Glenn Woodfin, Monterey Park, CA: The Unknown Evangelist English Publication Ministry, 2013, 34. https://img.sermonindex.net/pdf/ToTheUnknownEvangelist.pdf

[2] Ibid, 35.

[3] Ibid., 42

[4] Ibid., 43-44

[5] Ibid., 12

[6] Ibid., 18

[7] Ibid., 33

[8] Ibid., 44

[9] For a sketch of Wang Mingdao’s life and thought, see https://www.placefortruth.org/blog/wang-mingdao-against-the-christless-c...

[10] Available only in Chinese.

 

Simonetta Carr

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