Autumn 2016 Vol. 36 - No. 182  50 Years After the Start of the Cultural Revolution in China

The Fate of Catholics during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976)

Sergio Ticozzi, PIME


        Five decades have passed since the start of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (for short CR) in 1966, but documents and reports of this sensitive period were destroyed or remain classified in the Chinese archives. Consequently, it becomes very difficult to write a full history of the events of the CR and it is even harder to clarify the fate of religious believers during those years. In my contacts with Catholics in China, I always encourage them to collect memories of people who suffered during the recent period of Chinese history, taking advantage of the still living witnesses. Recently once again I invited a few Chinese friends to collect some information on the topic. The present paper reports their findings, with the addition of some testimonies, which Catholics who lived through the tragedy of the CR, had already published. However, it is surely not a complete picture of the fate of Catholics during those years.

The political context

        The first objective of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was specified by the Circular issued on May 16, 1966, which launched the attack against cultural products and literary texts: it was indeed the start of a political struggle against those whom Mao considered his enemies and called“monsters and demons”(牛鬼蛇神, niugui sheshen). The term was used to vilify all people who opposed the communist ideology and Mao’s point of view, namely political enemies, intellectuals, landowners, counter-revolutionaries and religious believers. After the publication, on June 1, 1966, of the People's Daily editorial "Sweep Away All Monsters and Demons," the Red Guards undertook a huge purge which swept the whole country. They arrested and persecuted all those they considered as belonging to the above-mentioned categories. On August 4, 1966, Mao Zedong displayed his dazibao “Bombard the General Headquarters.”On August 11, the Sixteen Points Decision established the guidelines for the revolution, which was termed, a“new stage of the Socialist Revolution,”or a “cultural revolution.” Its purpose was to create a“new culture and a new man.”Soon after, a campaign was launched to eradicate the Fours Olds: old customs, old habits, old culture and old thinking. The campaign received a great boost on August 18, when, with the blessing of Chairman Mao, Red Guards from all over the country gathered in Tiananmen Square. As a result, the Red Guards immediately started to use the slogan to attack any individuals and institutions they desired to attack. Religious buildings, articles and people became their first targets. Those years were marked by a systematic suppression of religion and a radical elimination of all religious symbols.

Persecution of Christianity

        Due to a lack of public documentation, even the most detailed histories of Christianity in China summarize the period of the CR in just a few paragraphs. Jean-Pierre Charbonnier writes:

The Cultural Revolution targeted Christians who were always suspected of counterrevolutionary activities. All the churches were closed and destroyed or turned into warehouses, prisons, workshops or storeroom. All bishops, priests, and members of religious orders, whether they were patriotic or not, were arrested, insulted, and sent to hard labour camp or to prison. Many suffered a miserable death as a result of ill treatment. Christian families were undermined by an odious system of mutual denunciation, and lapsed into silence. Religious books were burned, though some of the Sacred Texts survived by being buried or walled up…[1]

        James T. Myers provides more information, but he summarizes it in general terms:

The Red Guards were quick to move against those remnants of the Church which were still operating in August of 1966. Churches were attacked and stripped of their religious symbols. Stone crosses, statuary and other architectural features were chiseled or blasted from the exteriors of churches in an attempt to remove any religious identification. Virtually all the churches were ransacked and looted, and most were converted into warehouses, workshops, or the like...[2]

        The commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the CR seems a good time to provide more details about its events, in order to remember in a more respectful way the sacrifice of many brothers and sisters, who suffered and even gave their lives for our Christian faith.

Christians, “enemies of the people”

        During the first year of the Cultural Revolution, Chinese Catholics were targeted as “enemies of the people.” Many lay Catholics, all bishops, priests, sisters, and seminarians, even members of the Patriotic Association who were still able to publicly operate, were forcibly assembled, subjected to criticism, beaten, paraded on the streets and sent to labour camp or prison. The slogan was“Eradicate religion.”

        Lay Catholics were also targeted, chased out of their homes, which were searched, robbed and damaged. Here follows the experience of a family, surnamed Ho, in Shanghai:

In September 1966, about a month after Mao had unleashed his lawless pack of Red Guards, Joseph and his family heard a loud banging on their front door. They dared not open it. Furious that their knocking had been ignored, the Red Guards, belligerent young men and women with red bands on their upper arms, broke down the door with axes…. For hours and hours, more than 60 of the enraged youths searched for treasure, such as jewelry and money, then destroyed everything in the house that represented the four olds of morality… All six Ho brothers – Paul 35, Joseph 33, Anthony 31, Michael 29, Lawrence 27, and Vincent 24 – were arrested, as was their 58-year-old mother, Mary. Joseph’s 60-year-old father, also baptized Joseph, had been already arrested in 1954, because of his Catholic faith, and had been sent away to Dafeng Prison Farm, in Jiangsu province, where he would remain until 1978. Within a month, Joseph’s mother and brothers were released but they were not able to return to their home, which had been sealed off. Instead, they all moved into a small, two-room apartment on the first floor of a three-story building…[3]

        A Catholic witness informs us: “Towards the end of 1966, I went to Beijing to visit relatives, and found the whole city in a violent nightmare. I saw a large number of people wearing high hats parading in the streets. My relative told me that the Red Guards had searched many homes, and killed many people.”

        A Catholic layman surnamed Li of Shenzhou village, in Hengshui Diocese, Hebei Province, told of the great suffering his family underwent during the Cultural Revolution, especially his aunt and his father. The Red Guards imprisoned the latter on December 1, 1967, and he died in prison in March 1973.

        Sr. Li, now 80, of Anyang Diocese, entered the novitiate just at the start of the CR, so she was sent back home. But she kept her vocation and made her religious profession after Deng Xiaoping’s “open door” policy came into effect. Together with her father, who was the parish catechist, and her sister, now a nun also, they were criticized and pressured to deny their faith. But, due to their endurance in preserving their faith, they were paraded both in the village and in the town for several days, wearing tall hats, which read “down with the antirevolutionary vermin, running dogs of the foreigners.” This accusation was also hung on the walls of the village and of the church. Both the church and their house were ransacked and all the religious vestments and articles taken out and burned.

Martyrs and true confessors of faith

        The following events are testified to by an eye-witness, who at the time was a student at a school in Baoding, Hebei Province:

Not long after the start of the so-called CR, that is, in August or September 1966, a group of Red Guards from the Second Middle School of Baoding, armed with sticks, rushed into the Catholic Church, located on Yuhua Street in the center of the city, in front of the ancient Lotus Flowers Pond (the Cathedral was dedicated to Sts. Peter and Paul). They gathered all the vestments, religious articles and books in the courtyard in front of the main door of the church and burned them. They led all the priests and Sisters in front of the church, cursing and beating them with pointed sticks. Fr. Anthony Liu Daoning, in the midst of the beatings, shouted at them: “We are patriotic” (that is, members of the Patriotic Association), but that violent rascal of a Red Guard continued to beat him and abused him with irony, saying: “Then I beat you as a patriotic!” Fr. Liu after some cries fainted, and the Red Guard threw him on the pyre, which was burning the religious articles and books. Another victim who was killed was Sr. Zhang Ergu, a member of the St. Joseph Congregation of Baoding. The Red Guards ordered her to tramp on an image of Our Lady, but she refused. Therefore, the Red Guards beat her to death with sticks.

        A Mr. So, now a 72-year old farmer in northern Henan, who, though qualified, was refused a job several times because he was a Catholic, remembers that on the afternoon of August 16, 1966, the Red Guards from the town Middle School went to the Catholic Church and destroyed the altar and all the sacred statues and images. They could not violate the Eucharist because the priest fortunately had previously consumed it. They carried all the vestments and sacred utensils outside the church, and set them on fire. They forced priests and nuns to kneel very close to the fire in order to cause harm to them. An old priest, who could move only with difficulty, had both legs burnt, and was brought back home. After a few days, he passed away. Another priest, younger and stronger, was forced to wear the sacred vestments and, together with the nuns, was paraded through the streets. A good Catholic was forced to march at the head of the procession beating the gong. It was August and the weather was very hot. They survived because some good-hearted people offered them some water in a small courtyard. But, the Red Guards later beat to death the youth who helped them.

        In June 1966, Bp. Xi Minyuan (郗民援), who was ordained bishop of Luoyang in July 1962, was arrested and imprisoned on charges of counter-revolutionary activities and treasonous relations with foreign countries. He died in prison.

        In Kaifeng, Sr. Wang Qian (王芡) had been attacked and persecuted since 1964 during the Campaign for Socialist Education because she did not join the Patriotic Association. During the CR, she was tied up and taken away by the Red Guards. According to accounts by the local people, she was buried alive.

        A Catholic eye-witness related that the Bishop of Xianxian, Zhao Zhensheng (1894-1968) happened to be in the bishop's house in Baoding. His hair was already white. A group of Red Guards got hold of him, and beat him with sticks. Then, they led him to a balcony some meters above the ground and threw him down, cursing and joking the whole time. They repeated this action several times. The bishop did not die on that occasion. He died on October 15, 1968, after he was put in prison in his own diocese of Xianxian.

        Anthony Clark provides plenty of information about the excesses of the CR against Catholics.[4] He reports that during a visit to Beijing, while admiring the monumental fa?ade of the North Cathedral, he noticed a gardener paying particular attention to a spot beside a tree, as if he was attending to a sacred site. The gardener confided to him the stirring account of a Red Guard attack against an elderly priest on that very spot during the summer of 1966. When a large crowd of teenage Red Guards arrived at the church, the elderly Chinese priest met them near the entrance. The priest was forced to kneel down while his arms were contorted in a position above his head; in this painful state he was subjected to ridicule and ordered to give up his Catholic faith. He refused. The Red Guards threatened him, and finally they buried him alive right on that very spot.

        In Taiyuan, during one of the sessions to “eradicate religion,” Father Wang Shiwei exhorted the Catholics to remain faithful. Because of that, he was arrested by a group of Red Guards and put into a prison.

        That prison was popularly called the “prison of death,” writes Anthony Clark, quoting the author of Father Wang's biography. “His feet and hands were shackled in chains so that he was unable to stand erect, and another chain linked his body to a beam above his head so that he could not lie down to sleep. He was restrained in this fashion in his prison cell for several months. In January 1969, Father Wang was sentenced to death for defying the government and for resisting “intellectual reform”; in short, he refused to deny his Catholic faith and support Communism. On February 15, 1970, Wang was beaten in his prison cell, and then taken to a public stage where he was shot and killed.”

        The same writer described also the “passion” of Fr. Hu Daguo, then a young and committed priest (later a Bishop).

At that time, 300 Red Guards arrested Father Hu, bound him in cords, placed a tall white dunce cap on his head, and presented him to a crowd for humiliation. He was denounced and physically abused. The mob demanded that he renounce his beliefs, and he was imprisoned for more than 20 years for refusing to do so. In prison, Father Hu was not allowed to practice any aspect of his faith. Like all Chinese priests who refused to apostatize during the Cultural Revolution, Hu was made to endure four methods of "re-education." First, he had to attend classes on Marxist thought; second, the government presented an attractive woman for him to marry; third, he was offered a high-salaried position in the Party; fourth, he was physically tortured. Father Hu stayed steadfast in his faith, remained a celibate priest, and endured his tortures, which left him crippled and unable to stand erect.

        Bishop Matthias Duan Yinming of Wanxian Diocese, whom Pope Pius XII appointed a bishop in 1949, suffered severe persecution for his faith during the Cultural Revolution (photo on p. 72). The Red Guards rushed into his cathedral, took down a statue of Our Lady, put an axe in his hand, and ordered the Bishop to chop off the head of her image. He refused, exclaiming, “You can chop off my head, but I will never give up my faith.” He was tortured, imprisoned, and placed in a labour-reform camp until 1979.

Treatment of Catholics in labour camps

        The effects of the Cultural Revolution were felt even more intensely in the labour camps. For religious believers kept there, in particular for Catholics, it meant experiencing a chain reaction of struggle, violence, and killings that created total chaos and despair. In their fanaticism, the cadres in charge picked out a different target every day for “criticism-struggle.” These were mainly religious believers. During the “mass meetings”or“struggle sessions,”the cadres dragged people by force onto platforms, where they had to endure a barrage of accusations by the crowds, as well as abuses and beatings by the cadres.

        Catholics, whose memoirs of the painful experiences suffered during the CR have already been published, are Archbishop Dominic Tang Yi-Ming (Deng Yiming) of Guangzhou,[5] Fr. Francis Xavier Chu Shu-Teh,[6] Fr. Francis Tan Tiande,[7] Fr. John Huang Yongmu,[8] Fr. Li Chang,[9] Margaret Chu, the niece of Card. Ignatius Gong Pinmei and Ignatius Chu,[10] Joseph Ho and Wang Xiaoling (Catherine Ho),[11] Philip Chen Wenli,[12] John Liao Shouji and Teresa Mo.[13]

        Wang Xiaolin (Catherine Ho) wrote: “Prisoners and detainees had to take part in the ‘criticism-struggle’ meetings and even engage in beating, kicking and torturing others in order to cover their own fears. As for the cadres, the more cruelty they showed to the ‘monsters and demons’ the more loyalty they displayed to Mao Zedong. Then the standard of living in the camp dropped, the workload was increased, relationships became more contentious and conflicts were provoked in order to get the detainees and prisoners to criticize one another, to beat, to fetter and to torture one another…”

        Archbishop Tang recorded: “During the CR very many cadres came from other provinces to find out about the situation from me. Some came from as far away as Heilongjiang. They asked me about the affairs of other dioceses, e.g. Shanghai, Tianjin and Beijing, and about the affairs of the bishops who had left China… But I did not know those who came to interrogate me… At first, they were very polite, thinking that I could provide them with much information. In the end, they were disappointed, and their tone changed to anger… This kind of questioning was extremely bothersome!”[14]

        Fr. John Huang Yongmu recalled: “In our prison the instructor insisted on forcing the prisoners’ minds to accept the thought of Chairman Mao. 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. It was almost a religious act! Before this image we were obliged to ask forgiveness for our crimes, shouting, ‘We are all guilty.’”[15]

Destruction of Churches and religious buildings

        The report A History of Catholic Church Properties in Ningbo City informs us:

After the CR began, the church faced total destruction, and the clergy were sent to re-education through labour camps. The priests and the Sisters who resided at the church on Yaohang Street were sent to Seven Pagoda Temple to live together with the monks. At that time, all church activities ceased, and all the historical records, books, and sacred objects were destroyed. All the church properties were confiscated. The Jiangbei Church was first transformed into a kindergarten, and later into a factory for military use. Houses adjacent to the Bishop's House were occupied or destroyed. The living quarters and offices of the priests and Sisters and the adjacent rooms, were allotted to people as public housing. The interior of the church at Yaohang Street was divided into two floors for the troupe of the Yueju Opera Theatre. They demolished the bell tower because its foundations were sinking. The original two-floor rectory was used as primary school. The House of Divine Mercy has undergone several changes in its use since 1951. During the CR, an area of 2,837.9 square meters within the House was demolished by the Municipal Bureau of Cultural Affairs to build the Municipal Exhibition Hall. The remaining quarters of the House were used respectively by various municipal and art bureaus.[16]

In Xiamen, a former Red Guard confessed:

When the “destroy the four olds team” went to the little island of Gulangyu to desecrate the graves of Christians, I stayed away, pretending illness. Afterward I went over to take a look. In one graveyard where mostly foreigners were buried, the crosses on the tombstones were broken off, the inscriptions either obliterated with cement or smeared with paints, and the little garden nearby was destroyed… When I learned that the church my mother used to attend was sacked and all seven members of the minister’s family were forced to leave their three-story residence to go to live in a thatched hut, I let my mother know…[17]

        A Catholic man from Anyang remembers this incident: “In 1964, I went to Nanyang for business, and I visited Jinjiagang (more recently, Jingang), which had always been the residence of the Bishop. There was the cemetery of bishops, missionaries, local priests, and local and foreign Sisters. However, the bishop’s residence and other buildings were empty. No one was living in them. However, everything was in order. Several families lived in the village. In 1968, I went back to Nanyang again for business reasons. What desolation I witnessed! The cemetery had disappeared, the buildings had been pulled down, and everything was in disarray. It was the work of the Gang of Four during the Cultural Revolution. Our villages and tombs had also all been destroyed. The land was flattened, and no sign of the ancient tombs was left.”

        The Catholic church in Nanyang city was divided into three floors to accommodate about thirty families from the local opera troupe.

        On August 24, 1966, the Red Guards searched all the churches in Shanghai, destroying the crosses, sacred images, and burning all the religious books. On August 29, the Red Guards ransacked and damaged the cathedral in Guangzhou, detaining the priests and Sisters.

Expulsion of the last foreign nuns

        The tragedy most well known outside of China concerning the Catholic Church during the CR happened on August 24, 1966. That day, a mob of fanatic Red Guards rang the doorbell of the Sacred Heart Catholic School in Beijing, which was run by Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Mary for the children of foreign diplomats. A large group of young people rushed in through the front door, shouting and screaming, and brandishing knives, sticks, hatchets, hammers and whips. They stormed into every room, destroying whatever stood in their way and screaming obscenities. The eight foreign, and about 70 Chinese nuns were dragged to a lower floor, and were beaten and kicked repeatedly. An elderly nun was lashed across the face with a whip with such force that her eyes were almost knocked out. A few days later, a mock trial was held in front of a large crowd of frenzied people. The foreign nuns were pronounced guilty and were labelled “counter-revolutionary.” The Chinese sisters were sentenced to 20 years in prison. Then, the foreign nuns were expelled from China. They faced a daunting 40-hour journey to Guangzhou, followed by another three hour train trip to the border at Lowu. A team of Red Guards accompanied them. The train arrived in Guangzhou at 2 p.m. of August 30. Sr. Molly O’Sullivan was seriously ill with high fever. When the train approached the bridge at Lowu, Sr. Molly was barely conscious. The Sisters left the train, and started to walk towards the border, carrying their suitcases. But almost immediately Sr. Molly collapsed on the ground. A few Chinese soldiers lifted and threw her facedown onto a baggage trolley. With difficulty, the other nuns managed to push the trolley across the bridge. British soldiers, priests and Sisters welcomed the weary travelers on Hong Kong side. An ambulance was soon called, and Sr. Molly was rushed to St. Teresa’s Hospital, where at 6:45 the following morning, she passed to her eternal reward. Little is known about what happened to the Chinese nuns of the Sacred Heart School. They simply disappeared into prisons.[18]


        Although the worst period of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution took place during the first three years, it lasted for 10 years, until 1976, when Chairman Mao Zedong died, and the Gang of Four fell from power. The whole period was officially judged as “Ten Years of Catastrophe.”

        After the CR period was over, in the late 1970s, a wave of literature emerged reflecting on how people were victimized by this political movement. It was given the name, "Scar Literature." However, confessions of former Red Guards are still very rare. Only a few have come forward to apologize for the crimes they committed during the CR. These few have related their own personal negative experiences.[19] But, not everyone in China is happy with such frankness. They feel no need for it, and they want to forget it. Cases of religious persecution are causes for even greater fear. Many Catholic victims consider the ten years of the CR as the most intense era of Catholic persecution and martyrdom. However, the topic of the official atrocities, which they experienced, still remain “too sensitive” to express publicly. Catholics, whose relatives or friends were victims at that time, are also still reluctant to talk about it. Why? A priest from Shaanxi sadly admitted:

Speaking sincerely from the heart, I cannot express my feelings when questioned about this time of great suffering, because given the present conditions of the Church, such a painful situation has not yet ended, and still persists. Maybe the threat against the truth of the faith of our Mother Church is even deeper and subtler now, than the one suffered by previous generations. We must pray that the Lord strengthen us, and give us the courage to bear witness to our faith in Jesus today.  

Endnote :
  1. Jean-Pierre Charbonnier, Christians in China (San Francisco: Ignatius Press 2007), p. 443.
  2. James T. Myers, Enemies Without Guns (New York: Paragon House, 1991), pp. 229-231.
  3. Theresa M. Moreau, Misery and Virtue (Los Angeles: Veritas est Libertas 2014), pp. 149-150.
  4. Clark on China,“China's Modern Martyrs: From Mao to Now” (Part 3), March 25, 2014,
  5. D. Tang, How Inscrutable His Ways! Memoirs (Hong Kong: Condor Production, 3rd Ed., 1994).
  6. If the Grain of Wheat dies… Fr. Francis Xavier Chu Shu-Teh (Hong Kong, 1984)
  7. G. Fazzini, The Red Book of Chinese Martyrs (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009), pp. 41-85.
  8. Ibid, pp. 87-136, especially 128-133.
  9. Ibid. pp. 137-223, especially pp. 194-205; Li Daoming, Spring Rain (Hong Kong, Holy Spirit Study Centre, 1990).
  10. In Meyer, Enemies Without Guns, op.cit., pp. 251-260.
  11. Catherine Ho, The Lark and the Dragon (Hong Kong: Caritas Printing Centre, 1996, especially pp. 145-178 in which she writes also about ‘Xiaolong’, Margaret Chu, her companion in the labour camp): the original Chinese text was published under the name of Wang Xiaoling. See also Theresa M. Moreau, Misery and Virtue, op.cit., pp. 131-185.
  12. Theresa M. Moreau, Misery and Virtue, op.cit., pp. 191-269. It also reports the experience of Bishop Gong Pinmei during the CR, as well as of Fr. Matthew Zhang Xiping and other Catholics in Shanghai Tilanqiao prison.
  13. G. Liao Shouji, La mia Vita nel Gulag (Bologna: EMI, 1992; Inside China, Experiences of a Chinese Catholic, 1948-1980, 6th ed. 1989).
  14. D. Tang, How inscrutable His Ways!, op.cit., pp. 139-40.
  15. G. Fazzini, The Red Book, op.cit., p. 129.
  16. Catholic Diocese of Ningbo, November 1, 2010, pp. 3-4. 8-10.
  17. Ken Ling, The Revenge of Heaven, New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1972, pp. 47.48.
  18. For further details of the episode, see Paul Hattaway, China's Christian Martyrs (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2007), pp. 443-449.
  19. Xu Ming, “Repentance of Red Guards is still rare,” Global Times, 2016-3-3.

Back to The Index

 Copyright© Holy Spirit Study Centre. All Rights Reserved.