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Lessons learned 50 years since turmoil began

In China, Catholics see Cultural Revolution as tragedy, and test of faith
Lessons learned 50 years since turmoil began

A crowd denounces priests during a struggle session in Tianjin, China, in 1966. (Anthony E. Clarke, private collection Whitworth University)

Published: May 20, 2016 04:46 AM GMT
Updated: May 20, 2016 04:46 AM GMT

When the grandfather of Sima Hui, the pen name of a Catholic priest in Shaanxi, worked as a doctor in the 1960s, two Red Guards would stand outside the door of his clinic throughout the day. Only at night was he sure no one was watching. The doctor would lock his door, unfold a secretly stashed portrait of Our Lady of Lourdes, then pin the image to a board before starting to pray.

"Many years later, the pin holes on the portrait showed how faith was maintained during this difficult era," Sima told ucanews.com. "This faith was the most precious thing he left us."

This was the Cultural Revolution, a decade of violent upheaval that swept across China as Red Guards attacked, tortured and killed Chinese on the orders of Chairman Mao Zedong. An estimated 2 million people are believed to have perished. Groups deemed “counter-revolutionary” to the ultra-socialist wave of the time were singled out for cruel punishment — the faithful were among them.

As China this week quietly marks 50 years since the Cultural Revolution started, few say they look back at this decade of turmoil with anything other than horror. But Chinese Catholics say important lessons emerged from this time, so too hope.

Many prominent Catholics had already been sent away to prisons long before the Cultural Revolution kicked off in May 1966. In the early 1950s, a few years after Chairman Mao’s Communists seized Beijing, party newspapers including the Liberation Daily began printing cartoons inciting hatred toward Catholics.

Red Guards destroy church objects, including Bibles, outside Xilai church in Tianjin in 1966. (Anthony E. Clarke, private collection Whitworth University)


Nuns were labeled “baby killers.” The Virgin Mary was depicted as the protector of China’s enemies — the United States in particular — during the Korean War. Soon priests and bishops began disappearing into China’s growing network of labor camps.

In 1955, then Father Joseph Fan of Shanghai was sent away to a prison in Qinghai province where he was forced to carry the bodies of the dead. The same year, Bishop Ignatius Gong Pin-mei was imprisoned along with dozens of priests.

Five years later, after defying attempts by the Communists to control the church through the Beijing-sanctioned Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, Bishop Gong was sentenced to life imprisonment for counter-revolutionary crimes.

“In many ways, [this period during the 1950s] was as bad as the Cultural Revolution,” said Anthony Clarke, an associate professor of Chinese history at the U.S.-based Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington State.

With many bishops and priests already jailed, the Communist Party’s Red Guards went about targeting those Catholics who remained, gutting churches across the country. A series of remarkable images from this period Clarke collected from Catholics in China and further afield show the extent of the humiliation Catholics faced.

Franciscan Missionaries of Mary face a struggle session in Beijing in 1966. (Anthony E. Clarke, private collection Whitworth University)


In one picture taken in Beijing in the summer of 1966, a row of nuns dressed all in white bow their heads as ordinary Chinese surround them, thrusting copies of Chairman Mao's Little Red Book above their heads, fists clenched. Many that organized the struggle session that day look barely into their teenage years.

Other images show a struggle session in Tianjin where priests were tied up on a stage wearing their vestments, again encircled by a baying mob of Red Guards. A different picture of the Xikai Church in Tianjin shows a portrait of Mao erected above the main doorway flanked with Communist slogans of the time including hei jiao meaning “black church.” A man in the foreground can be seen with a spade but it’s unclear whether he’s shoveling up the mess or trying to restart a dying fire. The ashes of Bibles and other church property scatter the pavement.

“They would go inside the church, they would gut all of its statues,” said Clark. “Typically one of the first targets was the tabernacle. They would bring the tabernacle out onto the steps and would destroy it.”

Many ordinary Catholics were not spared as the Communists forced them to denounce their faith. Some pronounced they were no longer Christians during struggle sessions. Others prayed in secret: doing so in the open was simply too dangerous.

“I come from a Catholic family of several generations,” said Father Sun Zongde of Xichang in Sichuan province. “My grandparents died in suffering.”

Out of the extreme pain of this period, many Chinese Catholics recalled a new hope once the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, and Chairman Mao himself passed away.

Remembering the deaths of his own parents, Sun's father opposed his stated ambition to enter the seminary. But Sun said he never let go of his ambition despite his father's objections.

"It wasn't until 2003 that he finally accepted me to be ordained a priest," said Sun.

Many Catholics died, perhaps tens of thousands according to some estimates, said Clarke. But many also survived, often in remarkable circumstances. Father Joseph Fan of Shanghai came out of prison in remote Qinghai province after 20 years. Bishop Ignatius Gong spent 30 years in prison and survived.

Their incarceration prior to the Cultural Revolution proved to be a blessing in disguise, an elderly Shanghai Catholic told ucanews.com on condition of anonymity.

“The labor camps became a 'safe box' that protected them as there was a rule that there should not be any violence in these places,” said the source.

Although Gong and Fan continued to face harassment from authorities throughout their long lives, both men later resumed long and successful — if sometimes difficult — careers with the church. Gong became a cardinal and lived until the age of 98. His passing in 2000 led to Fan taking over as bishop who in turn lived to the age of 96.

In a bid to hold onto the memories — and lessons — of the Cultural Revolution, many churches quietly preserve key artifacts until this day. At Beijing's West Church, Maoist slogans from 50 years ago can still be seen, preserved by a succession of priests, a reminder of what passed before in Communist-ruled China.

"Catholics I know are extremely committed to preserving the memory," said Clark. “There are renewed anxieties about political policies restoring — not necessarily the Cultural Revolution, I can't imagine that happening again — but certainly the sentiments about religion.”

A crowd denounces priests (on stage) during a struggle session in 1966 in Tianjin, China. (Anthony E. Clarke, private collection Whitworth University)

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