Blood Letters of a Martyr9 min read

Ting Guo talks to Lian Xi about his new biography of Lin Zhao

On May 31, 1965, 33-year-old Lin Zhao was tried in Shanghai and sentenced to 20 years of imprisonment. She was charged as the lead member of a counter-revolutionary clique that had published an underground journal decrying communist misrule and Mao’s Great Leap Forward, a collectivization campaign that caused an unprecedented famine and claimed at least 36 million lives between 1959 and 1961.

“This is a shameful ruling!” Lin Zhao wrote on the back of the verdict the next day, in her own blood. Three years later, she was executed by firing squad under specific instructions from Chairman Mao himself.

Lin Zhao’s father committed suicide a month after Lin’s arrest, and her mother died a while  after her execution. In Shanghai, where I grew up and where Lin was tried, imprisoned and killed, the story (the sort told only in private) goes that Lin’s mother was asked to pay for the bullets that killed her daughter. It is also said (in private) that in the years that followed, at the Bund, the former International Settlement on the Huangpu River, one could see Lin’s mother crying and asking for Lin’s return.

Throughout Lin’s imprisonment, where she was subjected to extreme torture, she wrote thousands of letters and essays in her own blood. Those letters are now kept at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University. Lin’s story has and continues to touch and change lives. Gan Cui, Lin’s fiancé, spent four months hand-copying Lin’s blood letters when they first became available to Lin’s siblings, her only remaining family. These hand-copied documents later provided the historical and autobiographical material for Hu Jie, the director of the 2004 documentary Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul (寻找林昭的灵魂), who quit his job and used his personal savings to make  the documentary. Followers of Lin Zhao visit her grave each year on Tomb-Sweeping Day and on the anniversary of her death, even as they face increasing surveillance, harassment and even arrest. In 2005, the Independent Chinese PEN Center established the Lin Zhao Memorial Award, and in November 2018, ChinaAid, a non-governmental Christian organization dedicated to human rights issues in China, announced Lin Zhao Freedom Award in her honor. To this day, Lin Zhao remains one of the most poignant and inspiring figures in modern Chinese history, often regarded as a Chinese martyr in the Christian sense.

Lian Xi’s book Blood Letters: The Untold Story of Lin Zhao, a Martyr in Mao’s China is not a hagiography, yet it is more than a biography. Lian Xi, a professor of world Christianity at Duke Divinity School, emphasizes the role of the religious in heroic struggles against totalitarian systems and compares Lin to famous Christian prisoners such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but he also admits that it is her human spirit, human dignity, and tenacity which bring out our highest reverence and awe for her.

Like Lian Xi, I first came across the name Lin Zhao and her story through Hu Jie’s film. Reading Lian Xi’s book reminded me of that deeply moving documentary, and the physical and emotional impact it had on me. Lin was the first person to openly challenge Mao’s authority since 1949. As Lian Xi records in his book, Lin wrote an appeal to the United Nations in 1966 asking to testify in person about her torture and about human rights abuses in China. The UN never received the appeal – none of Lin Zhao’s letters reached beyond the prison walls in her lifetime. Liu Xiaobo, the late Nobel Peace laureate, called Lin Zhao “the only voice of freedom left for contemporary China.”

I spoke with Lian Xi about Lin Zhao’s life and legacy.

Ting Guo: Lin Zhao is both well-known and nameless: She is well-known within certain Christian and liberal circles in China, but her stories have been largely repressed. How did you get to know about Lin Zhao’s story initially, and what was it about her story that touched you most?

Lian Xi: I came to Lin Zhao’s story quite by chance and relatively late, in 2011. A friend mentioned Hu Jie’s 2004 film Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul to me. I watched it and was speechless by the extremity of what she endured as a political prisoner. Later I came upon her prison writings, especially her blood letters to her mother, in which she detailed her unbending resistance under the bleakest circumstances imaginable. Reading them, you peer into the boundaries of the human spirit and see its radiance.

Lin Zhao grew up in a Christian family and went to a mission school, and was fond of the school’s liberal humanitarian spirit. But as you insightfully point out, activism at her school was contained within genteel boundaries and detached from the social realities at the time, and the school even carried a Victorian ethos. This, in part, sheds light on why the infiltration of communism could be so successful among young students. Could this tell us more about the situation of mission schools and the Communist Party’s recruitment strategy at the time?

The failure of mission schools to quench the utopian thirst of patriotic students in the late 1940s is not surprising. Bound by their reformist visions and their abhorrence of revolutionary violence, mission schools taught students to fulfill their social responsibility by promoting public hygiene, literacy, liberation of women, compassion for the poor, and the like. As civil war raged on, the economy collapsed, and the authoritarian Nationalist rule turned increasingly corrupt and repressive, that kind of Christian reformism often felt like “trying to put out a burning cartload of firewood with a cup of water,” as the Chinese saying goes. To many progressive students, only the Communist revolution promised a complete deliverance from the miseries of a post-dynastic, war-ravaged China. The CCP was very adept at recruiting radical students in mission schools with the help of underground party cells. One of Lin Zhao’s missionary teachers observed at the time that – given the chaos and deprivation – many young students “would welcome a frying pan as escape from the fire, especially a frying pan so full of Utopian promises.”

Why did Lin Zhao choose to write letters in blood, which also became the namesake of your book?

Lin Zhao’s choice to write in her own blood was initially a matter of necessity. When she was handcuffed and deprived of writing instruments, the only way for her to write was to poke her own fingers and compose blood-inked protest poems. However, blood writing for her was also an extreme form of protest, which is why she later continued it after pen and paper were returned to her. During her last months in prison, not knowing that her initial 20-year sentence had been secretly changed to the death penalty, she produced a stream of blood letters to her mother to protest her mistreatment in prison and to attest to her Christian faith and her undying hope for freedom.

Lin Zhao was not the only one who converted (back) to Christianity after having been inspired by or committed to socialist/communist ideas. Do you think there is a theological or ideological explanation for that? Are there things in common between communism and Christianity that attracted people, especially young people?

During the second quarter of the 20th century, many progressive Christians and patriotic students in mission schools were drawn to the communist vision of a liberated and just society. They saw the communists as fighting the same enemy of systemic evil as they were – perhaps more heroically, because they risked their lives. You would come across stories of “red” pastors working for the revolution. Yenching University’s chancellor, Wu Leichuan, called Jesus a “revolutionary” and urged the church to seek the kingdom of God in a “new social order.” Some of those progressive Christians were cured of their radicalism by the bloody turn of events at the time and went back to an otherworldly faith; others like Lin Zhao waded much deeper into the revolution and had to find out for themselves that the communist revolution had no place for them. 

I found the courage of Lin Zhao particularly moving as a woman. Was it unusual at the time for a young woman to be so certain about her ideas and beliefs? Do you think her fragile appearance, her illness, and the fact that she was a young woman contrasted with her strong will and made it more poignant?

Lin Zhao apparently inherited the feisty, independent spirit of her mother. The communist movement she joined as a teen also promoted a particular kind of gender equality: women and men were equal cogs in the revolutionary machine. Like men, women would become foot soldiers of the revolution, so there developed a kind of revolutionary feminism, which I think affected Lin Zhao and her writing style during the 1950s. But Lin Zhao’s moral autonomy as well as her sense of self-worth and social responsibility as a woman went beyond revolutionary feminism. They predated her encounter with communism. The mission school she attended – Laura Haygood Memorial School for Girls – cultivated a strong sense of modern Christian womanhood, so that she felt quite free as a woman in her subsequent pursuits, both political and romantic. After her arrest, she was adamant in asserting her rights and dignity as a female political prisoner. Her revulsion against abuse and sexual harassment in prison helped fuel her indignation and harden her resistance. ∎

Lian Xi, Blood Letters: The Untold Story of Lin Zhao, a Martyr in Mao’s China (Basic Books, 2018). Header image: Lin Zhao at the graves of Gao Junyu and Shi Pingmei, Beijing, 1959 (Wikimedia)