By DONAL FOLEY
The Red Book of Chinese Martyrs: Testimonies and Autobiographical Accounts by Gerolamo Fazzini (Ignatius Press, 374 pages; sale prices $14.41 print, $11.02 e-book). Order through Ignatius Press, at www.ignatius.com, or call 1-800-651-1531 (web discounts do not apply to phone orders).
This book is a sobering account of the persecution, and in some cases martyrdom, of Chinese Catholics, mainly during the time of Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung), from the mid-1940s until the early 1980s. The author, Gerolamo Fazzini, is Italian and the Ignatius Press edition is a translation from the Italian. Fazzini is associated with PIME, the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions.
After Mao’s Communist forces had defeated the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek in 1949, and gained power in China, they gradually began to move against all opposing forces in the country, including the Catholic Church, which was accused of “imperialism.”
At this point, there were about three and a half million Catholics in China, including over 5,000 priests, nearly half of whom were native Chinese. There were even more nuns, in excess of 300 seminarians, and over 100 dioceses or archdioceses. The Church was responsible for a large social apostolate, including over 200 hospitals and nursing homes, three universities, and nearly 200 high schools. In addition, the Legion of Mary had a strong and growing presence.
But gradually, the Communists moved to repress “counterrevolutionary activities,” and developed a propaganda campaign against the Church, involving repeated mass campaigns, such that by 1951, persecution of Catholics was taking place all over the country, with the aim of exercising total government control over all religious activities. There were numerous arrests, and schools, convents, and seminaries were closed, while foreign missionaries were forced to leave China or face imprisonment or expulsion.
In October 1951, large numbers of Chinese and foreign clergy in Peking were arrested, leading to trials and in some cases death sentences. By the end of the year, there were 22 bishops in prison, and over 1,000 foreign missionaries had been expelled. By the mid-1950s, the Church in China was “almost completely confined to the prisons and labor camps.”
That is the background to the experiences of the particular individuals whose stories are recounted in this book, and they comprise three priests and a laywoman, as well as a large community of Trappist monks. Only the monks actually died, but the long-term sufferings of some of the priests in prisons and labor camps were a veritable martyrdom in themselves.
The first two accounts, those of Fr. Tan Tiande and Fr. John Huang Yongmu, are autobiographical and consist of diaries recording their imprisonment, including forced labor, which lasted 30 and 25 years respectively. There is also a short biography of another priest, and an autobiographical account from a young woman, Gertrude Li Minwen, which was smuggled out of the country in the shoes of an Italian missionary.
The final section is a harrowing account of the martyrdom of the 33 Cistercian monks from Yangjiaping, who were literally “marched to death” in 1947.
One of the big obstacles to such accounts becoming better known has been the ideological bias in favor of Chinese Communism displayed by Maoist sympathizers in the West, so this book performs a very useful service in giving us the unvarnished truth about the sufferings of Catholics under Mao, the self-styled “Great Helmsman.”
Indeed, a case can be made that Mao ranks as the foremost mass-murderer of all time, given that an internal Communist Party document puts the number of “non-natural” deaths during the “Great Leap Forward,” which took place from 1958-1961, at 80 million.
For the Catholics imprisoned under Mao — those in the category of “enemies without guns” — the regime was very harsh, and included a “reeducation” process. This often involved endless interrogations, mass meetings, indoctrination courses, and forced public confessions of guilt, with the whole thing designed to break down the resistance of the prisoner.
It is interesting to note that as part of Fr. John Huang Yongmu’s reeducation program in prison, not only did he have to study the historical development of socialism, but he was also indoctrinated in the theory of evolution. He was instructed that mankind is descended from apes, in teaching expressly designed to deny the existence of God.
He describes what life in the camps was like:
“During the ‘Great Leap Forward’ we worked shifts of twelve hours a day and often more, so that I was completely exhausted. . . . We were permitted to rest only five or six hours per day. Despite this, I always recited five decades of the Rosary each day and the litanies of Our Lady for the souls in purgatory. Once I had been put in prison, I used to recite mentally the whole Mass from memory while lying down in bed.”
Fr. Tan Tiande underwent nearly 30 years of hard labor in a cold northeastern province of China. He describes how on occasion he was locked up “in an extremely small and narrow room. All day long the only thing I could do was to remain seated with my legs crossed. . . . I was not allowed to speak to anyone at all, . . . otherwise I would be subjected to a painful tongue lashing.”
But the harshness of his treatment did not break his spirit, or quench his zeal for the faith, and on his release he carried out an extensive pastoral ministry well into his 90s. One foreign missionary, who knew him after his release, said: “To encounter him is a blessing; one sees how fidelity to Christ and a complete and undivided love for Him can make a life beautiful.”
The Cistercian monks of Our Lady of Consolation Monastery at Yangjiaping had to endure particularly appalling treatment. They were forced out of their monastery on a “long march” for months on end, on the steep paths of the northern mountains, in the heat of summer, the rains of autumn, and the cold of winter.
Their hands were tied behind their backs with wire, they were forced to carry the baggage of the soldiers, and they were subject to constant brutality and ridicule. One by one they died along the way, while six were executed during this tragic “Way of the Cross.”
The situation for the Church did not really begin to improve until well after the Cultural Revolution of the mid to late 1960s, and the death of Mao, in 1976. There are various estimates as to the number of Catholics in China today, but a figure in excess of 10 million seems probable, so once again we see a fulfillment of Tertullian’s saying that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.
The book has a preface by Joseph Cardinal Zen, the emeritus bishop of Hong Kong, and it certainly makes good lenten reading. The number of those in China who had to shoulder Christ’s cross of suffering was not insignificant, and we should realize that our fellow Christians are likewise undergoing persecution in many parts of the world — as indeed some still are in China today.
And it is not impossible that we in the West could face persecution ourselves at some point in the future.
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(Donal Anthony Foley is the author of a number of books on Marian Apparitions, and maintains a related web site at www.theotokos.org.uk.)