It is the 29th of April 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1968.
It was the year that the world saw the newly proclaimed Cultural Revolution devolve into a military dictatorship. The horrors of 20th century China seem to be, similar to the Khmer Rouge, regularly overlooked when we do the roll call for 20th-century evil. The death count for Mao varies depending on the source and methods, but it is usual to see around 40 million deaths attributed to his Great Leap Forward starting in 1958.
There are many questions we can ask about this tragedy. Still, I want to focus on one woman’s dissenting voice, a voice from the invisible multitude of saints, and a Christian martyr in Mao’s China for our purposes today.
Lin Zhao was born in 1932 near Shanghai to middle-class parents with communist sympathies. But in 1932, Communist sympathies could make you an enemy of the state. For context, the KMT, or Kuomintang led by Sun Yat-Sen and Chiang Kai-Shek, were in power as the “Nationalists” in opposition to the Communists bested in a civil war. Lin Zhao’s family had been communist sympathizers and had seen friends and family harassed, arrested, and disappear.
Lin Zhao was sent to a prestigious all-girls school set up by Methodist missionaries under the Qing dynasty in the previous century. The mandate for many of the girls at the school, set by their families, was to “accept the western education but reject the western god.” Lin Zhao would become good at breaking the rules. This would be the first big break as she was baptized at the age of 15.
But then the story takes a zig when you think it might zag; the following year, she officially joined the Chinese Communist Party. The year was 1948. Lin Zhao was like many idealistic young people looking to create a state that served the needs of all the Chinese, not just the elite or those with the correct ideology. Before the terrors of Mao, many sincere Chinese people, Christians among them, believed that a political system that started with the lowest classes was the ideal system.
Lin Zhao was a budding star amongst the communists and was sent to the prestigious University of Peking. She began her academic career, just as Mao and the CCP took control of the country in 1949.
She was a participant in the famously bizarre Hundred Flowers Campaign when intellectuals were encouraged to criticize the government.
[Oh man… this is nuts, and we’re going to have to leave it here, but real quick: Either Mao genuinely thought that allowing criticism was healthy and then had a change of mind and arrested them OR this was a devious trick from the beginning to get public enemies out in the open and then into jail.]
This is where things start to fall apart for Lin Zhao. She believed that a kind of communism (remember, multiple strands are floating around!) and her Christian faith were compatible. That is if indeed the motives of those in power were true to lift the peasantry. When she began to see the glaring inconsistencies in how the party spoke and then acted, she began to be a little more critical in her writing. She was labeled a “rightist” and arrested with scores of intellectuals in 1960. Most of the detained accepted reeducation, recanted and went back to work. But this is where we see Lin Zhao’s faith, no longer in a system but in Jesus, sustain her through unimaginable torture. Her father committed suicide the day after she was arrested. She was routinely tortured for continuing to write articles and poetry against Mao and totalitarianism. She was once bound for 180 days with her hands behind her back such that she could not write. When paper and writing utensils were taken, she began composing her ‘blood letters’. Here, using an old Chinese tradition, she would prick herself and literally write out letters, prayers, parts of the Bible, and Hymns that she had remembered in her blood. Lin Zhao’s faith which sustained her during political disillusion and strife, would not waver, even as her mental state did. According to records now available, Lin Zhao was executed with a single bullet on this, the 29th of April in 1968.
This story is so fascinating and just being explored in the past few years. Xi Lian has written a book, Blood Letters the Untold Story of Lin Zhao. A documentary is currently making the rounds in the festival circuit based on Lin Zhao. The film is called “5 cent life” as the only way her mom knew that she had been killed was when the government came to collect the 5 cent fee for the bullet used to kill her daughter.
Let’s get a nice cleanse to wind today up, a word from the sometimes wild and woolly Revelation to St. John, the very last chapter:
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also, he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty, I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God, and they will be my children.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 29th of April 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by Christopher Gillespie, now without MSG. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis whose cat might be a communist, as all she does is Mao. You can catch us here every day, and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. Everything is going to be ok.