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"Oh, that I might be found worthy of martyrdom!" | From the Introduction to The Red Book of Chinese Martyrs | Gerolamo Fazzini | Ignatius Insight

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In a historic moment like the present, when the eyes of the West are turned toward gigantic China, viewed both as a formidable economic rival and as a promising future market, what point is there in drawing attention to stories of Christian persecution that, for the most part, took place decades ago during the darkest days of Maoism? Doesn't that run the risk of going against the mainstream and, ultimately, of being anachronistic? This sense of "disorientation" might increase as the reader goes on to encounter a spirituality seemingly light-years away from that of present-day Western believers. Gertrude Li, for example, a young Chinese laywoman whose experience of persecution is narrated in the fourth chapter of this volume, expresses herself in a letter from February 1952 in language that today we might find somewhat bewildering, if not disturbing: "It pleases God to water his harvest with the blood of martyrs. Oh, that I might be found worthy of martyrdom!"

We are nevertheless convinced—for reasons to be set forth shortly—that this book will prove to be invaluable for those who read it, believers and unbelievers alike: provided that they are able to consider the events narrated in these accounts carefully, with open hearts and without prejudices. On the one hand, the testimonies collected here are tragically eloquent documents of remarkable historical value; on the other hand, they are spiritual reading of the highest quality. Without fear of rhetorical exaggeration, we do not hesitate to describe them as authentic jewels.

The Protagonists of the Stories

In the strict sense of the term, none of the events recorded here has been recognized solemnly by the Church as a "martyrdom". Nonetheless—the reader will recognize this immediately—the horrific sufferings experienced by the protagonists of these stories, the evangelical patience with which they were accepted and endured and, above all, the faithful witness to Christ that they represent, guarantee that they all have good reason to be included in The Red Book of Chinese Martyrs. Two of the texts that make up this volume—the autobiography of Father Tan Tiande and that of Father Huang Yongmu—are diaries of the imprisonment and forced labor, which lasted thirty and twenty-five years, respectively, of two priests (the former is still living [as of 2006]).

The third document, Spring Rain, is the life story of a priest, Father Li Chang, who died in 198 I; the compilation and publication of this account (in Hong Kong in 1990) were made possible by his cousin, Li Daomingo This is followed by the autobiographical narrative of the young Catholic woman mentioned before, Gertrude Li Minwen, who was also the object of Maoist hostility for being a fervent Catholic and a friend to the missionaries. The manuscript made its way out of China in an improbable manner: the author penned her story on extremely thin pieces of paper that had been cut out in the shape of the sole of a shoe. This made it possible for her account to travel to the West, thanks to a PIME [1] missionary priest, Father Giovanni Carbone, who hid the pages in the traditional silk shoes that he put on at the moment of his expulsion from China at the end of 1952.

This collection concludes with a sobering report of what can be described without exaggeration as a missionary epic, namely, the martyrdom of thirty-three Cistercian monks of the Strict Observance (Trappists) from the monastery of Yangjiaping, which took place in 1947 at the end of a genuine Via Crucis.

Maoism Seen from the Inside

These extraordinary documents report on a span of time that begins with the war between the Communists and the Nationalists (in the mid-1940s—the same period in which the tragedy of the Yangjiaping monastery unfolds). They are concerned primarily with the first period of Maoist religious persecution (from 1949 to the mid-1950s) and continue as far as 1983, the year of Father Tan Tiande's liberation, and the first phase of the "modernization" promoted by Deng Xiaoping upon coming to power after the death of Mao. In perusing these accounts, the reader reviews four crucial decades of contemporary Chinese history, taking as travel companions eyewitnesses of the events in question. (The historical timeline provided in the appendix is a useful compass to help orient the reader in the complex series of events in twentieth-century China.)

In other words, the following pages are the memoirs of persons who have experienced in their own flesh how far the violence of a power blinded by ideology can go, a power which—after winning its battle against an armed enemy (Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists)—had decided to exterminate its "enemies without guns", as Mao in a famous speech described intellectuals, believers, and opponents of civil society. From the historical perspective these are contributions of great value, especially for anyone who wants to learn about the injustices and brutality of Maoism. Only in recent years have non-specialists had access to autobiographical testimonies concerning the laogai, [2] the Chinese forced labor camps. I am thinking, for example, of Chen Ming's Nubi nere s'addensano (Black clouds thicken), recently published in Italy (by Marsilio Press, 2006) but still banned in China. Several years ago Harry Wu, one of the most famous Chinese dissidents, documented the number, characteristics, and function of the labor camps in his book Laogai: The Chinese Gulag (1992). But we have a long way to go before we know about life in the Chinese labor camps in as much detail as we know about the Soviet gulags, thanks to Solzhenitsyn. The Red Book of Chinese Martyrs partially fills this gap. It is a gap that originated in precise politico-cultural circumstances which explain why a book of this sort has never seen the light of day until now.

The Cloak of Ideology

The reason can be summed up in a few words. For a long time a cloak of ideology has weighed heavily upon the real Chinese history of the last half century (as well as upon the living conditions of those who oppose the Communist regime), and it has prevented a calm rereading of entire chapters of recent history. "Every true story, every personal case, offends us with the audacity of its lived reality. It's as if we just keep repeating, 'We already know it all, we already know it all.... ', and yet we know nothing at all. We have refused to listen to those who tell their stories, and we continue to do so." Such forthright venting—"or, if you will, self-critique"—was written by Renata Pisu, the well-known correspondent for the newspaper Repubblica, in her beautiful preface to a book entitled L'allodola e il drago (The skylark and the dragon), [3] which received a warm reception when it appeared in 1993. Written by Wang Xiaoling, a Catholic woman whose real name is Catherine Li Kunyi, recently deceased, the book tells of the more than twenty years she spent in the Chinese gulag before her long-awaited liberation and settlement in the United States. The journalist Pisu was among the rank and file of those who fell in love with Maoism during the sixties; in time, however, once the horrors of the Revolution were disclosed, she abandoned such views. Pisu writes:
This self-critique applies to me personally, as it does to all of us in the West who for years lied to ourselves and to others about China. Yet perhaps—and this is worse in light of what we understand today—many knew that they were lies, but told them "for the right reasons". These were the people—like us?—who considered themselves "friends of the Chinese people". Some friends! ... I broke with this way of thinking in 1978 when I was editing (and writing a preface for) the Italian translation of Jean Pasqualini's book, Prisoner of Mao: raised in China, he was imprisoned for unspecified counterrevolutionary crimes during the same period in which Catherine Li lost her freedom. In 1964, Pasqualini managed to obtain a French passport and took refuge in France, where he wrote about the sentence that he had served in a Chinese labor camp, the first testimony ever given about the universe of the Chinese gulags. Well, none of the intellectuals believed him, and the French sinologists joined forces against him, claiming that he was in the pay of the American secret services, a CIA agent.
The ideological mortgage encumbering historiography and journalism on the subject of China has severely limited the opportunities for learning about and publicizing these stories of Christian persecution and martyrdom. Not that there haven't been attempts, of course. In the early 1950S, a series of firsthand accounts from missionaries expelled from China were published (see the bibliography at the end of this volume). In 1956, on the heels of the events that are narrated in these pages, Áncora Press published Alberto Galter's The Red Book of the Persecuted Church, which is dedicated to the Communist countries, obviously including China. And more recently, in the early 1990S, the Italian Missionary Press (Editrice missionaria italiana, EMI) published several eyewitness accounts of anti-Christian persecution in China. In each case, however, the books have not had a significant impact on public opinion, nor have they succeeded in making a dent in the Maoist myth.

The Red Book of Chinese Martyrs, which was printed in the original Italian edition within a few weeks of the thirtieth anniversary of Mao's death (September 9, 1976), intends to be (also) a denunciation of Maoism and its crimes. Although the aging and nostalgic fans of the "Great Helmsman" [4] (who are willing to allow him a thirty percent margin of error) may still be putting up a pathetic resistance, a critical reappraisal of Mao and of his epoch has been underway for some time now in the West. (This is not yet the case in China: the present leadership has preferred thus far to sideline the unwieldy figure and to avoid coming to terms with history.) After decades of ideologically skewed propaganda, a "demythologization of Mao", of his ideology and of his methods, is finally taking place.

A decisive contribution along these lines was made recently by the monumental biography by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday entitled, Mao: The Unknown Story (2005). If we consider the simple data contained in this and other works (for example, Jasper Becker's exhaustively documented Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine [1996]), it is no exaggeration to state that Mao Zedong, the "Red Sun", is directly or indirectly responsible for crimes which—in terms of cruelty, intensity and duration—are equal to or even worse than those of Stalin or of Hitler himself. Does this sound like a joke? Far from it. Chen Yizi, a former Party leader who escaped abroad, declares that he saw an internal Communist Party document that put the death toll from "non-natural causes" at eighty million, most of these deaths occurring during the "Great Leap Forward" (1958-1961).

While The Red Book of Chinese Martyrs—and this bears repeating—is in no way inspired by political concerns, one cannot help but notice while reading it what a moral, political, and economic tragedy the long season of Maoism proved to be. For example, Father Joseph Li observes,
The Cultural Revolution had thrown the country into complete and utter chaos. No one worked any more. Young and old, without distinction, spent all their time either in "mass meetings" or in "warfare sessions". People were dragged by force onto platforms where they endured barrage after barrage of accusations and abuse by the crowd. It didn't matter that the charges were contradictory and baseless: they had to stand up there anyway, motionless, while every detail of their private lives was put on display and made known to all. Among the many who were unable to endure the violence of this moral lynching, some later developed symptoms of mental imbalance, while others committed suicide. It is not far from the truth to say that in those years the whole country had turned into a colossal insane asylum. . . . The Cultural Revolution spread such a climate of mistrust and suspicion that it threatened to suffocate completely the modicum of natural goodness inherent in every human being.
The point is that whereas in Europe in the 1960s the Maoist program was touted as the "good face" of Communism, enlisting sympathizers even in Catholic circles, in China the cult of the "Great Helmsman" was imposed ruthlessly, by force, so as to subjugate individual consciences and the masses alike. In his autobiography, Father John Huang recalls:
From the time we woke up each morning until we lay down at night, we were compelled to assemble seven or eight times a day in front of Mao's image and to bow repeatedly as a sign of veneration. . . . Before this image we were obliged to ask forgiveness for our crimes, shouting, "We are all guilty!" And then, raising our heads up to his image, we had to cry out three times "Long live Mao!" . . . Thinking back on it now, it's enough to make you laugh! But not at the time, because this comedy had some serious political consequences.
Indeed. In the present cultural climate, which has changed its attitude toward the past, a volume such as The Red Book of Chinese Martyrs has a chance of finding a favorable reception—which is our hope—even among readers and intellectual circles that are not particularly interested in religious discussions but have the dignity of man and a passion for freedom at heart.


[1] Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missionaries.

[2] Laogai: an abbreviation of laodong gaizao, a Mandarin expression meaning "reform through labor"—TRANS.

[3] Originally published in English as Many Waters: Experience of a Chinese Woman Prisoner of Conscience (Hong Kong: Caritas Printing Training Centre, 1988).

[4] "Great Helmsman" and "Red Sun" are two of the titles attributed to Mao by the personality cult of which he was made the object.

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Gerolamo Fazzini, a professional journalist, is the co-director of the monthly magazine World and Mission of PIME (Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions), and an editorial writer for the daily newspaper Avvenire. An expert on international topics and religion news, he coordinates the Italian Federation of the Missionary Press which represents about forty missionary publications. He has reported on various stories in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and China.

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