MIPodcast #96—The untold story of Lin Zhao, a martyr in Mao’s China, with Xi Lian
One of the most outspoken critics of Chairman Mao’s cultural revolution was a young poet and journalist named Lin Zhao. She was a Christian convert, then a member of the Communist Party, then an enemy of the state who paid for her opposition with her life. She was executed by firing squad. And her story would have vanished—along with the lives of some two million other Chinese who were killed during the cultural revolution—but she left a record. She wrote her witness in her own blood. In this episode you’ll encounter one of Christianity’s most remarkable martyrs of the twentieth century.
Professor Xi Lian joins us to discuss his latest book, Blood Letters: The Untold Story of Lin Zhao, A Martyr in Mao’s China.
XI LIAN, Professor of World Christianity at Duke Divinity School, is the author of Blood Letters: The Untold Story of Lin Zhao, A Martyr in Mao’s China (2018). His other books include The Conversion of Missionaries: Liberalism in American Protestant Missions in China, 1907-1932 (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997) and Redeemed by Fire: The Rise of Popular Christianity in Modern China (Yale University Press, 2010). Dr. Lian’s other research projects include the flourishing of Christianity among minority peoples on the margins of the Chinese state and the emergence of Protestant elites and their prominent, if also precarious, role in the search for civil society in today’s China.
BLAIR HODGES: One of the most outspoken critics of Chairman Mao’s cultural revolution in China was a young poet and journalist named Lin Zhao. She was a Christian convert, then a member of the communist party, then an enemy of the state who paid for her opposition with her life. She was executed by firing squad.
And her story would have vanished, along with the lives of millions of other Chinese who were killed during the cultural revolution, but she left a record. She wrote her witness in her own blood. In this episode you’ll encounter one of Christianity’s most remarkable martyrs of the twentieth century.
Professor Xi Lian is our guest. He’s Professor of World Christianity at Duke Divinity School, and we’re talking about his remarkable new book Blood Letters: The Untold Story of Lin Zhao, A Martyr in Mao’s China. Send questions or comments about this episode to me at email@example.com.
HODGES: Xi Lian joins us today at the Maxwell Institute. He’s a professor of World Christianity at Duke Divinity School, and he wrote a fascinating book that I give my highest recommendation. Blood Letters: The Untold Story of Lin Zhao, A Martyr in Mao’s China.
Xi, thank you so much for being here today.
XI LIAN: Thanks for having me.
HODGES: I should also let people know you’re giving a guest lecture here later today, so by the time this episode comes out people will be able to watch that lecture on the Maxwell Institute’s YouTube channel.
Let’s start off, Xi, by painting a picture of China’s political environment when Lin Zhao was born in 1932.
LIAN: Lin Zhao was really born into a turbulent time. It was a post-dynastic China. The imperial system, that lasted for some two thousand years, had just collapsed back in 1911. So, it was in the post-dynastic transitional period with a lot of warlord-ism and foreign encroachment.
The year she was born, 1932, China had just recently come together—nominally come together—under the rule of Kuomintang, the Nationalist government. So, it was a time of rebuilding. The Nationalists were trying to rebuild the country, which is why her father took the examination, passed examinations, and then was chosen as the county magistrate.
HODGES: These examinations were directed by the Nationalist government to basically say, “We want to find the people in China who can help lead this new direction for the country”?
LIAN: That’s right. They were trying to modernize the country, including modernizing the bureaucracy.
HODGES: Yeah. I mean, this was an enormous task. China is an enormous country and to bring together a country under a particular governing body, it seems like an enormous task.
What were her parents like? Were they progressive minded? Were they traditional? What kind of things would they have instilled in her in her childhood?
LIAN: Well, both her parents were quite progressive. Her father was also quite steeped in the Chinese traditional culture. That’s where a lot of Lin Zhao’s influence came from. She was steeped in the Confucian classics and all that, and that very much came from her father. But on the other hand, her father was also educated in this new university, and he was studying things like constitutionalism, and was very much hoping to bring that to China. And the failure that her father experienced also reflected the frustrations that China was having at the time, trying to rebuild. To build this modern state.
HODGES: Yes, Lin Zhao’s story isn’t the only tragic story in the book, obviously, and the fate that her father eventually succumbs to is a tragedy as well.
As Lin Zhao is being raised here, she’s in a family that is pretty well off, then. She has educated parents. What was the class system like? Where would she be situated in terms of class?
LIAN: She was clearly born into a well-to-do family. Her father being a county magistrate—briefly—meant that they did have some resources. Her mother was quite an accomplished woman, quite a social activist. Eventually, her mother also became quite a successful businesswoman. She ran a bus company. So that was what enabled the family to send her to this mission school, Laura Haygood Memorial School for Girls. It was a school for the privileged class.
HODGES: Yeah this school, Laura Haygood Memorial School, perhaps is not the kind of name you’d expect for a school in China. What was that school about? This is in 1947 when she was sent here. She was fifteen years old?
LIAN: Fifteen, yes.
HODGES: So, what was that about?
LIAN: The typical image we have of mission schools in China, from the nineteenth century, was always mission schools for poor people. They had to attract children from poor families to these mission schools to be exposed to Christian influence. But that’s no longer the case in the early twentieth century, and certainly not the case with Laura Haygood. It was a school for the upper class. Only rich people could send their children to this school. And many, actually, many children came from non-Christian families just because of the reputation of the school.
HODGES: So this would basically be a Christian mission organization that would set up in China, and part of their efforts would be to educate Chinese people, and hopefully to converts as well, perhaps, through those efforts?
LIAN: That’s right. Initially it was set up with a goal of cultivating a kind of modern Christian womanhood, in contrast to traditional Chinese womanhood. Because in traditional Chinese society, women were not given the opportunity to receive formal education. So this was quite new. Its curriculum was very new. But of course, Christian influence was also important.
But it’s important to recognize that by the time Lin Zhao entered Laura Haygood in 1947, the chapel attendance, religious activities, and conversion had all been made optional for about two decades. So she could perfectly go through the entire education without becoming a Christian. So it was her choice to be baptized as a Christian there.
HODGES: And we’ll talk about why she made that choice, and before we do, with these Christian organizations—How did they get into China to begin with? Was it controversial at first? Was there resistance from the people of China or from the Nationalist government? What was the thinking about, bringing in these foreign groups to come into the country?
LIAN: Yes, it’s a long story. It goes back to the 1880s with this Southern Methodist missionary by the name of Laura Haygood. And she herself had benefited from women’s education. She graduated from Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. That was the very first college for women in the world. Having benefited herself from that, she wanted to pass along the benefits of education for women to the Chinese.
So she sailed out to China in the 1880’s, but at the time it was still in the late period of the Qing dynasty. And given the unequal treaties, the Qing government did not have much choice when mission schools were established. They were established in Shanghai. That became the first school she founded, it became quite a prestigious school for girls. And they just continued the tradition after she died in 1900. Then they built this Laura Haygood in Suzhou three years later.
HODGES: So it seems like—I mean, we’re setting up a point of tension here, which is Christianity entered the country at a time when it was possible for them to do that. Not necessarily because the people who would become the rulers of China would have wanted them there, and that’s going to become a problem as China moves forward.
Okay, so Lin Zhao is at the Laura Haygood Memorial for Girls. This is a Christian school. She doesn’t necessarily have to convert. This is about helping educate women. This is about modernizing. This is even about changing bodily practices for women in China, as well.
LIAN: That’s right.
HODGES: Things like overcoming foot binding and things like that. What kind of changes? Describe foot binding.
LIAN: You see from some of the historical pictures, photos we have of Laura Haygood and the girls there, one thing is quite clear: no girls there had bound feet. Even though in the early twentieth century there were still women with bound feet, but the missionaries, of course, got rid of foot binding.
HODGES: What was that practice like? What would they do?
LIAN: Oh, it’s a terrible practice that went back more than a thousand years. When the ideal was to bind women’s feet so that they would be no more than three inches long. So basically, you have to break the arch for that to happen because the feet will continue to grow. And foot binding happens at about the age of three. Ironically, it’s the mother that used to do that.
But in any case, that tradition had lasted just unimaginably for a thousand years and it was the missionaries who came who then militated against that kind of torture. But that was not realized as torture for so many years.
HODGES: It seems like Lin Zhao is really in a good spot here. She has a family who is well off. She’s going to a prestigious school. And she decides to become baptized as a Christian. How did she reach that decision?
LIAN: I wish we had more information about that. Lin Zhao in her prison writings talked about the Christian humanitarian influence, and she talks about the efficiency—this ideal of freedom that she was exposed to in mission schools. But she did not quite explain why she was baptized. What we do know is that she was baptized by her missionary teacher, one of her missionary teachers.
And another thing we do know is she sank much deeper roots than she realized at the time. She had only spent two years at Laura Haygood. We know how deep that influence—that Christian influence—was on her only from her later prison writings, because later in prison cells she was deprived of any religious reading—no Bible, no hymn book. But she was able to recall those Biblical passages and hymns from the time when she was at Laura Haygood.
HODGES: And when she was baptized, would that decision have been considered a radical one? Would people around her—friends or people that are associated with her family, or maybe even her parents—would they have seen a conversion to Christianity as a betrayal of her Chinese heritage or something that was politically subversive at all?
LIAN: We do know that many parents who send their young daughters to this kind of school—or boys to all boys schools—they would sometimes tell their children, I mean, “You can just go ahead, get your Western education, but do not get Western God.” So it is quite possible that Lin Zhao’s parents were disappointed or were upset by the conversion. But apparently, they did not prevent her baptism.
HODGES: So, she’s baptized Christian, she’s going to Laura Haygood, but soon enough Lin Zhao is also now drawn to communism and at age sixteen, she secretly joined the Communist Party of China—and we’ll say the CCP here on out, so the CCP is the Communist Party of China. How did she get drawn to communism?
LIAN: Well, we know that the Communist party at the time, in the 1940s, was very active in the underground operation and they operated their cells in a lot of schools. They targeted young children and they knew how excitable young people were, and radical. So they used these Communist cells to bring some Communist party members to become teachers in schools, in mission schools. And apparently, Lin Zhao became a Communist under the influence of some of these teachers. So they arranged for her to become an underground of the Communist party.
HODGES: And how did the Party fit into China’s culture at that time? Was it a recognized political party? What was it?
LIAN: Well, she joined the Communist party in the summer of 1948. That was toward the last years of the Chinese Civil War. So, the Nationalists and the Communists were fighting out after the second World War was over and Japanese occupation was over. So to become a Communist was to—to put it mildly—to join the insurgency. And if you’re caught, then you’ll be thrown into prison and in some cases, you may be killed. In fact, Lin Zhao’s uncle, who was a Communist activist, was murdered for being a Communist.
HODGES: What about Christians? What were the Christians thinking about the Communist party? Were they trying to stay out of the factions or were they trying to stay out of the Civil War? Or did they side with one or the other?
LIAN: The established church and the missionaries in general, by and large, were very skeptical about communism. Some were sympathetic with Communist goals, but they mostly were opposed to its violent means. And so, in mission schools, for instance, the school administrators and the teachers would warn against communism.
And in my book, I quote a passage from Lin Zhao’s teacher, one of her missionary teachers, who used this metaphor of a frying pan. She said because people in China were so desperate to get out of this fire that was burning in China, they would be happy to get into a frying pan that was communism. And so that was the general suspicious they had of communism. But on the other hand, there were some people within the Christian circles who became very radical, who saw communism as taking people even further than Christian reformism.
HODGES: Hmm. So it’s complicated. It’s a really fascinating time. She sort of right in the middle of all of these changes that are happening and she joins the Party secretly—which is a radical decision—and she’s very dedicated to the CCP. But just as the Party is starting to overtake the Nationalist Party, her membership gets revoked. And you talk about this in the book. How did this happen to her?
LIAN: Well, because of her activities for the Party, she was probably printing mimeographed propaganda—those leaflets for the Party—and she also got active in other ways. So, for a combination of reasons she was blacklisted. And—
HODGES: She was being dangerous? That’s kind of it? Like, “Hey, careful now!”
LIAN: That’s right. She was blacklisted by the Nationalists—the police. And so, she was actually, the Party decided that her life was in danger. the Party gave the order for those young student Communist party members to evacuate Suzhou. But Lin Zhao ignored that. She thought that because her mother was a representative to the National congress—it’s the equivalent of a Congresswoman—she thought she was safe, so she just ignored the Party’s order. And the Party would tolerate no disobedience. So because of that disobedience her membership was revoked.
HODGES: That must’ve been kind of heartbreaking for her. This was something that she had really dedicated herself to, and even though she was young, she was very passionate about this and felt like she was doing things for the good of the Party. But because she didn’t follow the Party’s instructions, then she’s kicked out.
LIAN: That’s why, and it was particularly traumatic for her. Because she lost her party membership just on the eve of the Communist victory. So, when the Party came to power, there she was, having devoted herself to the revolutionary cause, now she has lost her party membership.
HODGES: And what’s interesting is losing her membership didn’t make her persona non grata with the Party. It didn’t mean that the Party was going to prevent her from being involved in certain ways.
In fact, she sent to the South Jung Su Journalism Vocational School. So the Party still has an interest in what she’s doing and in fact, sends her to a journalism school. And you have a chapter here called, “Exchanging Leather Shoes for Straw Sandals,” that’s the name of this chapter. Give us an idea of why the Party sent her to this school and what she was going to do there.
LIAN: Well, as you can imagine, as a party coming to power, they needed all kinds of talents. And the Party has been very good at propaganda and the Party knew that it needs to train propagandists. So they created these journalism schools to train, not just reporters, propagandists, but as fomenters of the revolution. So they would also do the job of spreading the gospel of communism throughout China.
Regardless of your backgrounds—in fact, in the early days of the Communist victory, they retained many of the government officials from the previous government. They retained many of the talents. The Communists were quite pragmatic at the time so regardless of their political affiliation they wanted the best talents and they recruited the best talents. So Lin Zhao was recruited.
HODGES: And so if performs well, ostensibly, she could rejoin the Party?
LIAN: That’s right. And that was actually Lin Zhao’s goal; she wanted to rejoin the Party. And so she redoubled her efforts to work hard for the Party.
HODGES: So she’s got to prove herself. What about the title “Exchanging Leather Shoes for Straw Sandals”? What does that represent?
LIAN: That’s Lin Zhao’s own language. She used that later in her letter to People’s Daily to describe the kind of changes that she went though. At the time, many educated young people like Lin Zhao, they exchanged their leather shoes for straw sandals when they gave up their privileged social status and their comfortable life to go into the countryside to do the work for the Party.
And that was particularly a reference to the “Land Reform” program that the Party had unleashed. It was a program of land redistribution, grains requisitions for the Party. And so she did that and to go to the countryside, you take off your leather shoes and you change into straw sandals. And here she points to the irony of what happens on the other end as those Communist cadres with peasant backgrounds, they change out of their straw sandals and step into leather shoes.
HODGES: There’s this dynamic in the book where they’re trying to flatten society. They’re trying to bring greater equality. Power to the masses. And part of this, then, is the elite people stepping down and humbling themselves and seeking greater equality by giving up some of their privilege. But then you also have the flip-side of people that come into power start to understand what it’s like to have power and kind of become extreme the other direction.
LIAN: Absolutely. In these we now catch glimpses of the irony of this revolution that proclaims it’s going to make an egalitarian society, but in fact, the Communist cadres, they were quickly becoming a new ruling class.
HODGES: Does it seem strange to you that the Party would still—to some like Lin Zhao, that the Party would still use her in the way that they did? It seems that they did trust people like Lin Zhao at this time. That there was hope for them to rejoin. They didn’t just exile them right now. They didn’t get rid of them at this point.
LIAN: That’s right. And a part of the reason for that—not just because the Party was being pragmatic, but also because young people like Lin Zhao, they really wanted to help the Party rebuild the country, to build this perfect utopian society that the Party had promised.
HODGES: What was preventing her from rejoining it then? What are the dynamics that she faced? Why, given that she was spending her time—she went to the vocational school, she was going to the Land Reform Movement after school so that she could get down in the earth, with the people and help do these land redistribution projects and educate peasants and things—why not just let her rejoin?
LIAN: Once the Party took power, it did want to raise the threshold for joining the Party. So, they wanted to make sure that they did recruit those who were most fervently supportive of the Party—those whose thinking had been remade, thoughts had been sort of molded. And Lin Zhao failed that test, that last test. While she was completely willing to sacrifice herself to support of the Party, actually, she had to cope with tuberculosis when she joined the Land Reform team. Sometimes she was running a fever, but she refused to stop working. She would still carry on her work out of utter devotion to the Party. But then what the Party demanded was total surrender of your own thinking to the Party’s thinking. And this unquestioning support for the Party. That’s the test that Lin Zhao failed.
One of the ways she failed that test, that she quickly noticed and also was willing to point out the hypocrisy of some of the Party cadres. It was very common for some of those cadres with peasant backgrounds, now they are in power, now they have many of these city girls working under them and they would take advantage of these city girls. Many of them would abandon their wives back in the countryside and marry these city girls. Lin Zhao pointed out, she confronted her own work team leader and exposed that kind of hypocrisy.
HODGES: How would she? Would she confront them in person? Was she writing things? How was she going about—
LIAN: She confronted them in person with a lot of sarcasm. That did not go well with them. [laughter]
HODGES: Give some examples of that because it really shines through some of the things in the book where she had a sharp edge to her that could be pretty to the point in a way that would make people uncomfortable.
LIAN: At one point, it was close to midnight, and she went to her friends’ storm, the women’s quarters. There she found one of the male team leaders lying in the bed of one of those girls, and then that person, he was surprised by Lin Zhao coming.
HODGES: “You’re not supposed to be in here!”
LIAN: So he started chiding Lin Zhao. “What are you doing here? You don’t belong to this particular team. Why are you here?” And Lin Zhao said, “Well, but it’s not as bad as a male showing up in the women’s quarters at midnight!”
HODGES: Yeah she wasn’t very shy, it seems like. [laughing]
LIAN: That’s right.
HODGES: So she’s being prevented from rejoining the Party. She has critiques to make, but she still wants to be a Communist at this point.
LIAN: That’s right. It’s really striking how much she wanted to believe in the Party. She wrote to her dear friends at the time, “Even though these party cadres had sort of failed me, but the Party has not. I still want to believe in the Party.”
HODGES: Yeah she would kind of say, “Well the leaders of the Party aren’t perfect, but the Party itself is perfect,” and she maintained her allegiance that way.
LIAN: That’s right. “The Party is above reproach. And Chairman Mao is above reproach.” And she would say that she would silently call out the name of her dear father.
HODGES: Yeah Chairman Mao.
LIAN: Which was Chairman Mao, yeah.
HODGES: That’s interesting for a Christian to do that, too. It seems like if she came to that point that she’s towing the Party line that strongly, that seems to contradict Christian values like worshipping only God and that sort of thing. I mean, in a way, Mao becomes a God of sorts to members of the Party.
LIAN: That’s right. Mao was becoming a God for all of China. What happened to Lin Zhao’s Christian faith?
Now we have this new evidence that she ever gave up her faith. What seems to have happened, she did drift away from the church in the early 1950s when she was fervently pursuing the revolution, but it’s also quite clear she never stopped being a Christian, because we will see that later on when she was denounced as a writer, we’ll see her back in the church with her fiancé.
HODGES: That’s Xi Lian. We’re talking with him today about the book Blood Letters: The Untold Story of Lin Zhao, A Martyr in Mao’s China.” Xi is a professor of World Christianity at Duke Divinity school and he’s visiting us today at the Maxwell Institute here at Brigham Young University.
Alright Xi, let’s talk about what happens to her next. She’s doing work as a newspaper editor and a reporter now. What is that work like for her? As she’s left the vocational school, now she’s actually working as an editor and reporter, and not yet a member of the Party.
LIAN: That’s right. She worked as a reporter and editor for a local newspaper, and her job was to serve as a propagandist.
HODGES: Did they call it that? Did they use that word?
LIAN: Actually, the Party was not shy about the word propaganda, and there is actually a Chinese Department of Propaganda.
HODGES: Did the word not have the same edge to it? The connotation to us today, obviously, is like “propaganda is just misinformation meant to mislead people.” Did propaganda become that word because it was originally used in a different context? In other words, it seems weird that they would call it that. It’s like, “Hey this is the department of baloney!”
LIAN: That’s right. And again, it’s quite striking that the Party has never been shy about their term and they still have the propaganda department. [laughter]
HODGES: Did the word originally have different meanings? Or did they just say, “We’re going to call propaganda. That’s what it is”?
LIAN: I think the reason that the term “propaganda” was hardly ever a problem for the Chinese is that there has not been this Western Enlightenment tradition, or at least not a mainstream tradition, of individuals thinking for themselves. So there is this idea, and that is if the Communist Party has the truth, what’s the problem with the holders of truth propagating the truth?
HODGES: Okay, so the basic word propagation. Good. That one was hard for me to wrap my head around.
So, she’s working as a newspaper editor and a reporter and she doesn’t do that for very long, though. She’s going to move to Peking University in 1954. Why the transition for her?
LIAN: Well, we can see that, initially, when she graduated from high school she could have gone to college directly. She chose not to. She chose instead—and it was to great disappointment of her parents—she chose to go to a Party-run journalism school. But eventually, I think, once things settled down, she realized her own passion. She had extraordinary training in traditional Chinese literature. Which is why she eventually left the newspaper to sit for the examination in 1954 and then she was admitted because of her grades.
HODGES: It must have been a really exciting time for her. She’s taking a step forward. She probably feels like she’s getting closer to rejoining the Party. But she’s also noticing that the Party’s becoming increasingly totalitarian. She starts to become disturbed by some of the things, instead of seeing one of the leaders in a women’s dorm room, she’s starting to become aware of greater atrocities. What’s happening? What’s the Party doing now?
LIAN: Well, that took her awhile to realize. Now, in 1954 when she was admitted to Peking University—and that was the premiere university in China, it was the most prestigious university—so that was a high point in her life, and the young people were so full of idealism and confidence, and so she continues, she thrived in college as a poet, as a journalist. And all went well until 1957. That was the turning point.
That came because of what Mao had done at the time—Mao, back in 1956, had launched this so-called “Hundred Flowers Campaign,” calling on intellectuals to speak out, to criticize the Party, to help the Party improve its work. At first intellectuals were relatively silent and cautious. But then in early 1957, Mao again promised intellectuals, “All of you speak out! You will not be punished for no matter what criticisms you make of the Party.”
HODGES: This seems hard, because for all this time everyone pledged allegiance to the Party and was seeing it as perfect. Basically, seeing it as this great thing, and so it seems like Mao’s trying to correct that a little bit, that he’s trying to say, “Okay, maybe we’ve gone a little bit too far. We need criticism. In fact, criticism can help us. So speak your minds. What do you see that’s going wrong? This can help the Party improve, come on out, give us your best.”
Did he mean that?
LIAN: There’s actually a sort of historical controversy over that. One school of thought is the Mao was sort of was muddling through this program. At first, he invited people to criticize. He was very confident that those criticisms would be mild. But then when the criticism became much harsher than he realized, then he was shocked. And then he turned back—
HODGES: What kind of criticisms were they making? What were people saying that crossed the line for him?
LIAN: Oh, the kind of comments and criticisms that crossed the line came from—They all came from intellectuals. Some from college students, from Lin Zhao’s university, some from the so-called Democratic parties. And a lot of that focused on the Party’s increasingly totalitarian kind of control. Some from the Democratic parties called on the Party to share power, which the Party had promised before 1949. So that’s the kind of criticism that caught Mao by surprise.
The other kind of explanation is that, as Mao himself said, he said it was an open conspiracy. Mao knew all along what he was going to do. So, he invited people to criticize. He said, “Well, let’s entice those snakes out of their lair. And once they come out, we can kill them.”
HODGES: So, two schools of thought. One—that he really wanted some criticism. Then it got out of control and he decided, “Oh, the fire’s too hot, let’s tamp this down.” The other is, that he thought, “This is a way to flush out critics. This is the way to have people show their true colors. We’ll find out who the true believers in the Party are, and then we’ll be able to separate them out in terrible ways.”
HODGES: So, Lin Zhao’s starting to see the “Hundred Flowers”—which is a lovely name for what became a terrible situation—she’s starting, at this point, to become more disenchanted with the Party itself, it seems, for the first time. Is that right?
LIAN: That was the turning point. And it took her awhile. At first, it was hard for her to believe that that was what was happening. She was hoping that the Party would correct its mistakes, because within a few weeks of Mao’s promise, telling people that, “You don’t need to worry about your criticism,” you know, within weeks of that, Mao had turned around and then started to crack down on these intellectuals.
HODGES: Like, making arrests?
LIAN: Making arrests. Some were sent to prison. Others were sent to labor camps. And Lin Zhao was really shocked by that. And eventually, by January of 1958, she herself was put on that dreaded list.
HODGES: Was there something in particular that she had done that landed her on that list? And they were called “Rightists,” like, people on the Right. What did she do?
LIAN: And it became what was known as the anti-Rightist Campaign. So, she became a Rightist. Now, to become a Rightist, it’s filled with ironies and was almost like a farce in some cases, because Mao set a quota for a percentage of the people who were Rightist.
HODGES: Yeah, this is like very Bureaucratic. He said, “There’s this many. We need to find them.”
LIAN: That’s right. Mao says somewhere between one percent and ten percent were Rightist. So, the Party functionaries, those leaders, said, “Okay, if Mao has said that then it should be five percent.” So, they make sure that you will catch five percent of Rightists in every university, on every work unit.
And in Lin Zhao’s case, two reasons why she was added to that list of Rightists. One, she had spoken out against the Party and in support of her fellow students who had called for democracy. So, that was one reason. She was actually denounced by some as this “black hand behind the scene.”
HODGES: She had helped publish something right? There was actually a publication that she’d had her hand in?
LIAN: That’s right. And she supported her friends who put up these big protest posters. So, there was one reason.
Another reason seems to be that Peking University, by January of 1958, had not quite met the quota that Mao set. So they needed a few more Rightists and Lin Zhao was added as one of those!
HODGES: What was her initial reaction to that?
LIAN: She could not believe the Party had turned against her that way. That the Party had betrayed her and had betrayed all these other well-meaning students that way. Because these people were really loyalists! They were so loyal in the criticism of the Party.
So the shock was such that she attempted suicide. She scraped tops from matches and swallowed them.
HODGES: Your write about how she had matches and she thought that this could poison her, and she survived!
And then, not only did she survive, but intellectual life in China all around her is changing. What happened? They call this “The Great Leap Forward”, which is such an ironic name.
LIAN: That’s right. Once the intellectuals were all silenced, then Mao could do whatever he wanted to do without encountering any significant opposition. Which is what happened in 1958 when Mao launched this Great Leap Forward, trying to—in Mao’s own thinking—trying to overtake Great Britain in its industrial production and to catch up with the United States.
HODGES: And that would be by providing food and products and exports and a strong economy, presumably?
LIAN: It was through a, sort of, two-fold effort. In the countryside it was to collectivize—go through this complete agricultural collectivization. So then the Party state would then take control of all the grains. And so that was one.
And then they also wanted to industrialize at the same time. And Mao had this very crude thinking of a way to measure industrial progress—that’s the tonnage of steel they could produce. And since China did not have the capacity to produce steel, he called on people to build their backyard furnaces to produce steel.
And so in the meantime, Lin Zhao had been sent to this, what was called, the Re-education Through Labor Program.
HODGES: Basically, break their spirits. Make them do hard labor until they change.
LIAN: That’s right. To become “re-educated,” and to be humiliated and to become re-educated. So, their thinking will be purged, their thoughts would be purged.
HODGES: Lin Zhao’s thoughts were going to be easily purged though, as your book shows. But she ends up in prison as a result. How does she end up in prison?
LIAN: Well, she started writing. When she saw her friends being sent to camps and prisons and punished, she embarked on writing. She wrote two long poems. One’s called “Seagull,” and the other is entitled, “A Day in Prometheus’s Passion.” And these two long poems, in both these poems, she chastised Mao for his cruelty. And she also mocked Mao in “A Day in Prometheus’s Passion” she mocked Mao as this villainous Zeus who was filled impotent rage.
HODGES: Yeah, she’s drawing on classical literature to paint Mao as this evil God, so to speak!
LIAN: That’s right! And in that poem, Mao was the Zeus and he told Prometheus “You have to take back the fire that you’ve stolen from Heaven. This fire of freedom, you have to extinguish that fire,” and Lin Zhao says, “How could that happen?” You know?
HODGES: I mean, Lin Zhao seems brilliant. What she’s doing here is she’s saying, “Oh, you think you’re God? Here, you are! You are. Here’s the God that you are.” It’s not just insults, it’s a very reasoned, thoughtful, informed, and biting critique that she’s making, and that doesn’t go over well, so she’s imprisoned as a result of that.
Now, your book is called Blood Letters cause when she’s imprisoned, she can’t stop writing once she’s there. And she starts to write things in blood. What’s that about?
LIAN: Well, when she was arrested and she was made to go through this Thought Reform Program, she was also being interrogated. The reason for her arrest—one of them—was her writing, her poems. But also, she had collaborated with other Rightists in launching this underground journal called A Spark of Fire. So when she was interrogated, she was presumably a part of this counter-revolutionary clique and she had to write these confessions to expose other counter-revolutionaries. So as she was going through this interrogation, they, at one point, took away her writing instruments. So, she has nothing to write with, except her own blood.
HODGES: And so, how would she do it? How did it actually work?
LIAN: Well, she would prick herself, prick her fingers with whatever sharp object she could lay her hands on. A sharpened bamboo, sometimes her hairclip, or even the plastic handle of her toothbrush after she would ground it against the concrete floor. And so using that she would prick her fingers and wrote.
HODGES: And she would write these letters and critiques, she would write some poetry. One of the things you mention, too, is that this isn’t an idea she just came up with on her own. Blood writing had a history.
LIAN: That’s right. It goes all the way back, as far back as at least to the sixth century AD, and has to do with this tradition of Buddhist devotees sort of manifesting their devotion, religious devotion, through their blood writings as an act of utmost sincerity and devotion. But eventually, this all bled into popular culture, and so Lin Zhao was quite aware of that tradition of blood writing as a way to show one’s utmost sincerity.
HODGES: And as she’s doing this, how is she being treated by the guards? What is prison life like?
LIAN: Well, it’s full of irony also. What she did caught the guards by surprise. Not only did she do blood writings; she wrote protest letters at the time when she was in under torture and interrogation in the Shanghai #1 Detention House. She wrote blood letters addressed to the mayor of Shanghai protesting this unjust imprisonment, and she did it in her own blood. So she handed the letters to the guards and the guards didn’t know what to do with it! The guard told her eventually, “We cannot send this in the mail.” [laughter] So, the guards plop it back into her cell through this little window in her very heavy wooden door.
HODGES: And it seemed through her tortures—because they had these horrible ways of handcuffing people, handcuffing hands behind the back in straining positions and leaving them that way for extended periods of time, and other methods of torture—that at times it seemed like Lin Zhao even started to lose her grip on reality sometimes.
In fact, this mayor that you mentioned, he died. He died kind of mysteriously, or unexpectedly, and Lin Zhao heard about this because they would give them the news in prison as part of their re-education. So she heard about this and then started to kind of—it seemed like she was losing her grip on reality, thinking that she had some kind of relationship with this mayor?
LIAN: That’s right. That happened at the time when she was in solitary confinement. She was in this tiny cell the size of a double bed with no windows for about six months. But, even during that period, the inmates still had to undergo political re-education, so they would still have newspapers. So she read about the death of this mayor called Cushinshou, in the newspaper. Then she began to suspect that Mao had murdered the mayor because she imagined that her blood letters to the mayor had landed on his desk, and he had exploded in rage over this mistreatment of an innocent intellectual and had protested to Mao, and Mao then, out of jealously—and to her maybe Mao was entertaining these sexual dreams, fantasies toward Lin Zhao—and she imagined that Mao had murdered Cushinshou.
So as a result of that she performed what was called a spirit marriage. This also goes back to the Chinese tradition when a woman would then be married to the spirit of a deceased man. That’s what she did. She performed that ritual of spirit marriage in prison.
HODGES: There’s an interesting hybrid of her Chinese culture and her Christian culture beginning to come together during her time in prison, because while she’s there she’s also beginning to really let her Christianity come out again in her letters.
I actually have an excerpt from one of the “declarations” that she wrote that I’d like you to read. It’s from the book here. This is part of her religious manifesto here.
LIAN: Yes. This passage is from her letter to People’s Daily, to the editors of People’s Daily.
HODGES: That’s “the people’s” newspaper.
LIAN: Which was the Party’s mouthpiece. She wrote that after she was sentenced to twenty years in prison for her writing. She was protesting against what she called the tyranny and slavery of Chinese communism. But she was also making it very clear that her resistance would be non-violent because she was a Christian. So that brought us to this point.
“As a Christian, my life belongs to my God. In order to stick to my path, or rather my line, the line of a servant of God, the political line of Christ, this young person paid a grievous price. I have come to see more clearly and deeply the many terrifying and shocking evils committed by your demonic political party. I grieved and wept for them.
Yet, even when I touched the darkest, the most terrifying, the bloodiest and the most savage center of your power, the core of evil, I still glimpsed—I did not completely overlook the occasional sparks of humanity in you. Then I cried in even greater anguish. I cried for your blood-smeared souls, which are unable to rid themselves of evil and are dragged by its terrifying weight ever deeper into the swamp of death.
Most likely, you will feel quite indifferent when you read this line, but as I write this, hot tears are rushing into my eyes. Gentlemen, those who enslave others can never be free. What a merciless, but certain truth in your case.”
HODGES: That’s a beautiful and horrible writing. Did you translate the letters yourself?
LIAN: I did.
HODGES: So as you’re doing that, how did that affect you personally? Because this is such a difficult story to tell. Did it bother you? I’ve spoken with people who have written on the Holocaust or other things and they would have dreams. They would have bad dreams, or they would kind of carry it with them. How was it for you?
LIAN: I was really caught in with all these mixed feelings. On one hand, this was so depressing, and reading through all her prison writings was so depressing to see the kind of torture, the cruelty that she was subjected to. But on the other hand, there were passages like this that really lift one’s spirit. You know? I felt as if I was able to glimpse at the boundary of the human spirit and its capacity for endurance, for hope, and for compassion like this. And so I also found it to be very beautiful.
HODGES: You talk a little about how she was even aware of some of the other injustices globally. She wasn’t just focused on China. She knew about John F. Kennedy for example and hoped that he was this beacon of freedom that she admired and looked to.
What are some other comparisons that you would draw? People that have written in similar ways? Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Martin Luther King Jr. How do her prison writings compare to some of these other famous prison writings?
LIAN: I do compare Lin Zhao to people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
HODGES: The Russian.
LIAN: That’s right. One thing that’s striking about these people is what their Christian faith enabled them to do to take the moral stand. Of course, in the modern world, Martin Luther King comes to mind also.
Particularly, for Lin Zhao, at her time, we have to recognize that there was this whole generation of Chinese intellectuals who were silenced after the anti-Rightist campaign. Many of them had been exposed to Western Enlightenment ideas, but we have not seen any other examples of people holding out and sticking to their beliefs. I think what makes a difference here is that Lin Zhao’s Christian belief gave her the kind of moral convictions, these unshaken moral convictions, to see herself doing this—not just as a matter of enlightenment beliefs in human rights and democracy, but also as defending, as she put it in her own words, “My God-given human rights.”
So I think it is that faith that really supported her, that carried her through this kind of struggle.
HODGES: It was inspiring to me, and difficult to me, because that very faith, then, also brought her to the point where she was going to be put to death. If she would have bended, it’s possible she could have escaped this fate.
In fact, I can’t remember the exact wording, but there’s one part where she basically says, “I’m like an egg being thrown up against a rock.” Yes, it’s not going to break that rock, but you know what? Maybe there’s going to be egg after egg after egg after egg, for however many times it takes, and that eventually something might change.
LIAN: That’s right. On the one hand, she was quite conscious of the futility of her opposition to communism. But then on the other hand, she saw this as her Christian duty. Since this is the “political line of Christ,” as a Christian she had no choice but to stay with this.
And then toward the end of her prison time, and in her letter to her mother, she said—well actually, she said the same thing to her mother about the importance of her faith to her opposition, but in her letter to the People’s Daily, she actually said, “If God wants me to live on, I know I will be able to live on with this twenty year prison sentence. But if God wants me to become a willing martyr, then I see it as my honor to become one.”
HODGES: And how did that eventually happen?
LIAN: Well eventually she was martyred. Now for most people, under her circumstances, if you are given a twenty-year prison sentence, what you would do is to bend. You would just accept this fought reform.
And in fact, in my book I talk about a parallel story. A story of a Yale-educated Shakespearean scholar who was a literature professor at Shanghai Fudan University. He was actually put into the same prison as Lin Zhao. There was one point during the cultural revolution when he told the guard, “I’m too busy. I have no time to write my thought confessions”—which every prisoner should write—he said, “I have not time to write my confessions because I’m so busy copying Chairman Mao’s works every day!”
That’s the kind of route that most people chose for their own survival. And Lin Zhao did not take that road.
HODGES: Is it possible that there were other Lin Zhao’s that are lost to history? It almost seems happenstantial that—I mean it seems amazing, really, that her writing survived.
LIAN: It is possible that there are voices like Lin Zhao’s that we have not uncovered. On the other hand, we’re now fifty years after, more than fifty years after, the outbreak of the cultural revolution and we have not seen anything like that. We have seen some so-called dissidents—the voices of dissidents from the cultural revolution, and but those were the kind of criticisms directed at the Party or Mao for deviating from “true” communism. So, they did not constitute the actual political dissent that we find in Lin Zhao. Because of her Christian belief she rejected communism. It’s a completely rejected communist ideology.
HODGES: As a result of that, the people that were overseeing her prison sentence came to recognize that was how it was going to be, and so they pursued, through their legal channels, an execution order and she was shot.
LIAN: Yes. But also China at the time had descended further into chaos. So what happened after 1967 was those revolutionary committees took over, and they were typically made up of the army personnel. They took control of the prison system, the legal system also. And so, they did sort of a perfunctory legal process. They changed her twenty-year sentence to the death penalty.
HODGES: It’s interesting that they even had to do that, though. I mean, they didn’t just say, “You know what? We’re done with this. Take her out and take care of it.” They still tried to do this pretense of order.
LIAN: That’s right, that’s right. They still wanted to put on this facade of some legal process.
HODGES: That’s Xi Lian. We’re talking with him today about the book Blood Letters: The Untold Story of Lin Zhao, a Martyr in Mao’s China. And Xi Lian is a professor of World Christianity at Duke Divinity School.
So, Xi, you’ve spent how many years on this project?
LIAN: I became aware of Lin Zhao’s story in 2011 and then I started researching this book in 2012, and so the book got published last year [in 2018].
HODGES: So, you’ve spent a lot of time with her, through her writings and digging through whatever writings you could find. But if you could sit down with Lian Zhao, what questions remain for you? What would you want to know from her?
LIAN: You know, one thing I was really struck by in my research was the kind of hope that she kept up. You know, in some of her last writings, in some of her blood letters to her mother, she told her mother how she would like a future collection of her prison writings to be called. She told her mother, “I’m going to call them ‘Freedom Writings.'” So if I were given the chance to interview Lian Zhao, I would ask her, “How could you have that kind of hope? Who gave you that kind of hope?”
It was insanity. Because every single piece of writing that the inmates did would be confiscated. There were these searches, unannounced searches, of cells all the time. You know, guards would show up and everybody would say, “Stand up!” And then they would search through the inmate’s belongings and took up everything. In the face of that, how could she believe that her writings would survive? And what’s amazing then, is of course, they did survive!
HODGES: How?! How did they?
LIAN: That’s another irony in that story. And that is, this totalitarian system was also so rigid that nobody felt that they had the freedom to take initiative to do whatever made sense. So, in her case, what happened is that the prison officials, once they took possession of Lian Zhao’s writings—no matter how damning they were, how much atrocity and all the cruel treatments and tortures of the prisoners Lian Zhao’s writings have exposed—they could not do anything with the writings, because the prison rules were that all the inmates’ writings had to be put into the inmate’s file. They were called “counterrevolutionaries.” So, they would have these files collecting all their crimes, evidence of the crimes. So Lian Zhao’s writings all went into the files as evidence of her crime.
But then came—of course, then Mao died in 1976. And in the early years of Deng Xiaoping’s reform era, there was an attempt, the Party made an attempt to correct some of his mistakes, because there were so many people who had been wrongly accused, persecuted, or killed—
HODGES: How many people do you think died? Is there an estimate? In addition to the people that died in famines that were caused by the disasters of the Great Leap Forward—
LIAN: Well, we know at least thirty-six million people died from the famine between 1959-1961. For the cultural revolution, we don’t have a firm figure, but the consensus in the historical circles are somewhere between one and two million victims of the cultural revolution.
So, in the early 1980s the Party was trying to bring about what was called a “political rehabilitation” of those who had been wrongly persecuted. And so you would have these judges who were assigned to different cases. And I interviewed this judge who was assigned to Lian Zhao’s case, and he was responsible, he told me, for more than two hundred and seventy cases of these wrongful persecutions. And Lian Zhao was just one of those cases. And so he decided to return her prison writings.
HODGES: And he didn’t have to do that? Was that part of, sort of, trying to atone a little bit? Or to make something right? Because she still had descendants, right? These went back to her family?
LIAN: At the time the judge could use his judgement. He could decide what to do with the papers. And he told me there are two files for each inmate. One was called the “primary file,” one was the “secondary file.” The primary file, anything in the primary file, would not be returned to the family. They would contain thing like interrogation records.
HODGES: Yeah, so as they’re beating people and interrogating them, they would keep records of that. And that was sealed?
LIAN: That’s right, that would go into the primary file. And I suspect that maybe some of Lin Zhao’s blood writings are still in that primary file that’s still locked away. It’s sealed.
HODGES: Is there any hope for that to be unsealed at any point?
LIAN: Well, the Party states, their proclaimed rules are that those files will be sealed for fifty years. But then, a couple years back there were researchers in China who approached officials and said, “Well, wait a minute, we are now approaching the fifty-year time limit.” And the answer was, “Well, we still don’t have instructions from above to do anything.”
HODGES: Oh, okay.
LIAN: So, that’s one file. But then there was a secondary file. The judge apparently decided that many of Lin Zhao’s prison writings could go into the secondary file. Her blood letters to her mother, for instance. They would go into the secondary file. And there was this play that Lin Zhao wrote that kind of doubled as a kind of journal that she kept, that would also go into the secondary file. And those were returned.
HODGES: Did her mother get those letters that she was trying to send her? I don’t remember.
LIAN: Her mother did get some of her letters. Lin Zhao at the time, writing to her mother, she was never quite sure whether any of those letters would ever reach her mother. And so she was surprised that some of those letters did—but not the blood letters. She copied, after she wrote the blood letters. She would copy everything in ink.
HODGES: Okay. So in the 1980s, as you were talking about the Chinese government revisiting the past and trying to reckon with some of the things that had happened, and the Shanghai People’s Court in 1981 actually revoked her death sentence—
HODGES: —which is a symbolic gesture, obviously. What did they hope to accomplish by doing that?
LIAN: Again, it was part of the nationwide effort at political rehabilitation. So, if someone was still alive then there’s the hope of getting back your job. So for people who had already been put to death, at least the idea is that your name, your reputation would be rehabilitated.
HODGES: She had hoped for that. If she didn’t survive, I remember from the book, she wanted her writings to eventually get to the U.N. and, as you said, she told her mom she wanted them published. Are the collected letters that are actually available, is there a plan to publish a collection of those? Like, we have Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. Are there are any plans to do a collection of hers?
LIAN: I’m sure many people would like her writings to be published, but there are considerable difficulties and there are complications that I cannot go into. But one thing we do know is that inside China there is no hope for her writings to be published. So my book was based on this collection of Lin Zhao’s writing called Lin Zhao wenji, or Collected Writings of Lin Zhao. It was put together by a group of very dedicated friends and former classmates and researchers inside China. So what they were able to do in 2013 was to privately print this collection and circulate that among a very small circle.
HODGES: Was is dangerous for them to do that?
LIAN: I’m not exactly sure. Certainly, the government does not like that. On the other hand, there is nothing that’s immediately illegal in that act. I think it’s sort of this gray area. So, it was printed. But what we do also know is that there’s no chance whatsoever for such writing to be formally published inside China.
HODGES: What does the communist state think of Lin Zhao now, to the extent that anyone there is aware of her? Like, if they caught wind that a book was being published in America, for example.
LIAN: Well, you would think that for someone who has been completely rehabilitated—who has been declared by Shanghai’s High People’s Court as innocent, whose death sentence has been thrown out—you would think that it is now okay, it is now fine for people to pay their respects to her. But that is not the case. Her tomb is just outside the city of Suzhou and her tomb has become a pilgrimage site for the democracy activists inside China, particularly since 2004.
In that year, a documentary film about Lin Zhao was made, it’s called Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul. And it’s not formally released inside China, but it’s been circulated among those who care about democracy, about building civil society in China. So ever since then, there has been this annual, sort of, ritual of people gathering on April 29th, which is the anniversary of her execution, to pay respects to her. And then in recent years, particularly after 2008—which was the year of the Beijing Olympics games—people have come each year and police have shown up dutifully each year to break up the crowd, to detain people, to throw some people into jail or even—
Because it threatens. Lin Zhao has become a symbol that threatens the legitimacy of the communist party.
HODGES: We spoke for a minute, Xi, before the interview and we talked a little bit about our backgrounds. You mentioned that you’re a Christian yourself. As a believer then, you did a project here about another Christian, and you published it as an academic book. I’m interested to hear your thoughts about the intersection between the scholarship you do and the personal faith that you have.
LIAN: Thank you for that question. I do find it deeply personal, as I worked on this book, and for a variety of reasons.
One of which is that over the years, there have been lots of articles online inside China about Lin Zhao, but I find some real limits in the way people commemorate Lin Zhao. One is that they did not have access to her writings, to many of her prison writings, and that’s the limitation. Another limitation is that not too many people realize how important, how essential, how central her faith was to her resistance. This unbending opposition to communism. And as a Christian I was able to feel that spirit, and of course I’ve had plenty of evidence, textual evidence, her own writing proving that. I mean, she made it very clear that it was because of her Christian faith that she could not bend. And this is something that those who do not have Lin Zhao’s faith often fail to appreciate. So I’m glad I was able to see the importance and to bring out the importance of her faith in this book.
Another thing that struck me is the tenacity of this young woman’s Christian faith under the most impossible circumstances. You know, in this prison cell that was stripped of any reading material, let alone religious material—any material except for party propaganda—she would conduct what she would call “Grand Church Service” every Sunday morning starting promptly at 9:30. Singing hymns, reading those biblical passages that she called to mind. And that kind of faith is almost unimaginable to me.
But one thing I do know for sure. If we were to put this question to Lin Zhao about whether God has been faithful to her, I think her answer would be, “Absolutely. God has been faithful to me. My hope in God was not in vain.”
HODGES: That’s Xi Lian. He’s a professor of World Christianity at Duke Divinity School and author of the new book, Blood Letters: The Untold Story of Lin Zhao, a Martyr in Mao’s China. And again I want to say as we’re leaving here, I highly recommend this book. It’s a book that I could not put down.
Thank you so much for writing this Xi. I really, truly enjoyed it.
LIAN: Thank you for having me here.
HODGES: It’s our pleasure. And I remind listeners that people will be able to see Xi Lian’s guest lecture through the Maxwell Institute on our YouTube channel. Thanks for coming in, Xi.
LIAN: Thank you again.
HODGES: And thank you for listening to another episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m looking through some of the reviews we got in Apple Podcasts over the past month or so. I see one from Ben Schilaty, it says the show is “excellent, top-notch guests, wonderful content, engaging and insightful.”
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