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The Promethean Passion of Lin Zhao

“It is not the torture, but the cause which makes the martyr.” – St. Augustine

In reading Lian Xi’s Blood Letters: The Untold Story of Lin Zhao, A Martyr In Mao’s China, the aforementioned words of the great doctor of the Church raised the question for me: for what cause did Lin Zhao, the fervent Communist-turned-Freedom Fighter, die? She was thirty-three years old when she was tried in the Jing’an District People’s Court in Shanghai as a counter-revolutionary and enemy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). She was executed three years later.

So, for what did Zhao die, and for what did she live? Though she was baptized and attended a Methodist school, this impetuous and zealous daughter of Nationalist parents took up the cause of the class struggle of the proletariat with gusto. She ran away from home and severed ties with her family to attend a CCP-propagandist school of journalism at age sixteen and became a steadfast worker for the Party as the lessons of her Christian schooling faded into the background.

The ideals of Maoism, which assumed violence as a means of the revolution — “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” said Mao — did not put off the young Zhao. During her time in land-reform work, she witnessed the torture and deaths of landowners, which she regarded as necessary and justified. She spoke poetically of her overwhelming love for and devotion to the Motherland. When her Party membership was at one point revoked (highlighting the fickleness and suspicious nature of the heavy handed CCP), it was her greatest point of shame, and she doubled her efforts to reclaim it as her “golden crown.”

Her fall from the good graces of the Party came as she attended Peking University to study journalism. During that time, she took part in the Hundred Flowers Movement, initiated by Mao himself, which invited discussion and criticism from those who might have been skeptics of Communism. Idealistically and perhaps somewhat naively, Zhao submitted her own critiques, thinking that it would be for the good of the party; she found out too late that the invitation was, in fact, a trap to flush out would-be dissidents.

At the age of twenty six, Zhao was labeled as a Rightist and became a political pariah. “I cannot bear the party’s misunderstanding of me,” she wrote to a family member, “all that has held me together has now collapsed.” She attempted suicide as a result, but lived.

The love of the Motherland was initially synonymous with Communism. But Zhao’s sympathies with student dissidents grew, and the brutal collectivism and unkept promises of the Party became disillusioning. After being reduced to a Rightist, Zhao returned to religious worship in 1958. The seeds of her Christian faith had remained latent during her Party days, but when co-mingled with her recognition of the failure of the Communists to “govern wisely and rule with justice,” she changed course entirely, becoming an ardent anti-Communist. As she spent months and years behind bars as a political prisoner, her sanity at times feeling as though it was slipping away, the “unlimited individualism” of her Christian faith, as Troeltsch described it, was a balm to her human dignity — a dignity the CCP had no regard for.

Her faith was not complicated, but it was fervent, and gave her fortitude in her final days. In the eighteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel, the Lord Christ tells this parable: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’ For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’” (Lk 18:1-4).

Lin Zhao was that bothersome widow, and a relentless gnat in the CCP’s porridge. She took every opportunity to denounce them, along with Communism as a whole, to the point of shouting with a kind of bold madness that invited ire. As the Psalmist writes, “I hate them with a perfect hate” (Ps. 139:22). As she began to realize the unlikelihood of democratic reform in her beloved China, or the conversion of Mao, she became more reflective, recalling her personal sins and failings, her humanness and weaknesses as a lover of meat and drink and romance. She also reconsidered the temptation towards “otherworldly pietism” from a past encounter with a preacher who dissuaded her from getting too involved in politics. Freedom (now a kind of inner freedom) took on a more prominent theme. “So beautiful is the flight of a free soul…the rare one who stood upright in an era when the entire country prostrated themselves.”

However, her life to that point had “hardened her for the fight.” Though she had never gained the coveted crown of reclaiming her Party membership, it no longer mattered to her. Communism stood as the enemy to what she had once and now again believed, and she awaited another crown. Her Saul of Tarsus moment, perhaps aided by her unique temperament, compelled her to keep fighting to her last breath. In the end, after months of hunger strikes and the effects of tuberculosis, she fell under Mao’s “barrel of a gun.” She weighed 70 pounds at the time of her execution. In the fitting exactitude of the Communist party, her mother was charged five cents for the bullet which ended her life as a demeaning way of driving home the supposed meaninglessness and futility of her life and resistance.

“I wish to consign my worries to the jade-studded zither, but few understand the music,” writes the poet Yue Fei in the twelfth century AD. “When the string snaps, who is there to hear?” Lin Zhao, the poet, former-Communist, and dissident, died as a Christian. But did she die in hatred of the faith, or as a political dissident? For the Communists, she was a Rightist counter-revolutionary, one of millions killed during Mao’s reign, and a kind of lone, futile voice against an absolute juggernaut of brutality, antithetical to the dignity of man.

“Mr. Lu Xun once said, a road is what people make by treading,” Zhao wrote in 1957. “If there is not a first person, there will not be others, and there will still be no road. The first one who sets his eyes on the light of the distant fire and walks on where there is no road until he falls–he who marks the road with his own blood for those coming after him–will always, always earn our respect.”

Did she die for political reform? Would she have survived with such fortitude in prison for so long if she did not have her faith? These questions linger in the mind, especially for an American reader like myself who regards freedom with such reflexive assurance. We can’t put our heads in the sand with “other-worldly pietism” when freedom is threatened; at the same time the division between the things of faith and politics is not always neat and tidy. “So beautiful is the flight of a free soul,” Zhao wrote, in one of her many ‘blood letters’ written by pricking her finger with a bamboo shard, “the rare one who stood upright in an era when the entire country prostrated themselves.”

Though her allegorical Promethean passion of seeming futility, which seemed to exact no real change, and her utter abandonment — as a political pariah and a true Christian in a country in which it is regarded as a curious madness — one thing is for certain: she did not leave this life without scars.

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