Death and Life in Taiwan

Review of Jennifer Su, Dead Women Walking. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Monarch Books, 2007. ISBN 978-0-8254-6158-3. 432 pages, paper.

“You are the God most worthy to be praised!” Mei prays, her voice soaring confidently above the sound of the rushing stream. “You’ve conquered my past, you’ve conquered the spirits, and you’ve conquered Satan! Lord, we ask you to let your glory fall on this place … for this is YOUR land!”

This hard-won cry of victory comes on the last page of what must be one of the most gripping books I have ever read. If you want to know the real impact of what is blandly termed “popular Chinese religion,” Dead Women Walking is for you. Though based upon true stories from Taiwan, it could just as well describe the plight of millions of Chinese on the mainland, as traditional religions experience resurgence in a post-Mao society.

Jennifer Su frankly acknowledges at the outset that many of her Western readers “may find some of the stories contained in this book difficult to believe” because of our automatic rejection – or at least neglect – of demon possession as a current reality. “But Eastern society operates very differently … In fact, missionaries have found that most Taiwanese people, especially those belonging to the less-educated working class, unfalteringly believe in an active spirit world.”

And participate in that world, too, as the next 400-plus pages vividly demonstrate. By alternately narrating the dramatic histories of three Taiwanese women and one Western missionary, Su plunges us into the sordid, saddening morass of superstition, spirit-worship, and bondage to demons that lurks just beneath the surface of “modern” life in a developed Asian society.

Along the way, the stark realities of the dark side of urban existence in Taiwan – and, one should add, China – are thrust before our eyes. You want to turn away, but can’t, because you have to face the facts. Gambling, prostitution, drugs, and the gangs that often thrive upon them weave a deadly web of slavery and fear. Parental neglect and disdain kindle a desperate longing to belong and to be loved. Envy and greed breed a lust for money and all that it can buy. Sexual passions overwhelm men and women alike, with the women usually washed up on the shores of abandonment - battered, used, despising themselves, and hating the men who have abused them for their own pleasure.

Horrid voices in the night strike terror into the hearts of those who seek freedom from the “gods” they had previously trusted. Vivid visions both awe and frighten. Temporary victories turn into fresh defeat, as the old masters return to claim what was once theirs.

It’s not so easy for these women to run away and start all over again somewhere else. Boyfriends and bosses trace them down, demanding allegiance again. Brief encounters with Christians bring rays of light, but aren’t enough to set them free. And always, the demons return, evoking ancient fears and playing upon persistent patterns of unwise choices and their baneful consequences.

Is there any hope for these victims of idolatry and ignorance? Yes, because Su has seen formerly “dead” women “walking.” As they come into the sphere of the Gospel, the warmth and light of God’s truth and love begin to enfold them. They see where they have been deceived, and learn that they do not need to fear “gods” that are not gods at all.

Elisabeth Weinmann, a missionary with OMF International, faithfully visits women who work in department stores, greeting them with a friendly smile that communicates sincere concern; listening to their sorrowful tales; and leaving behind literature that points toward life and liberty. Slowly, these working-class girls begin to trust her. Some attend Bible studies she leads. Others turn away, but then welcome her later. Always she persists, praying that God Almighty will set these people free and reclaim them from Satan’s domain.

By living among them, and then inviting some to live with her, Elisabeth imitates the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. Perhaps for the first time in their lives, the women come into contact with real love; they hear a message that rings true; they begin to feel a power greater than that of the evil spirits.

Gradually, the former lies seem less and less credible. Better habits of handling money, relating to men, and facing the stresses of life start to take hold. They find a new family in the community that has grown up around Elisabeth and those who have trusted in Christ through her ministry. Inevitably, some other professing believers prove to be inconsistent and irritating, and seem to discredit the Gospel they profess to believe; some even turn out to be false followers of Jesus, and fall away.

In the end, however, God wins out. The risen Christ proves his vastly superior might. The resident Holy Spirit works progressive transformation. Demon-worshipers turn into disciples of Christ. Devotees of idols become defenders of the truth. Deliverance, though incomplete, is real and lasting. Life replaces death, light expels darkness, and the triumphant cry quoted above testifies to the resurrection power of Christ in the lives of all who trust in him for salvation.

G. Wright Doyle
October, 2010