China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2016/Jun

The bleakest month of the Cultural Revolution

August 1966 was the month when the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution reached its political peak, but threatening omens had appeared much earlier in the year.

May saw violent criticisms of literary and cultural works called poisonous weeds. On May 16, a circular was released to launch the political struggle against those whom Chairman Mao Zedong considered enemies that he called monsters and demons (牛鬼蛇神).

The term was used to vilify anyone who opposed Communist ideology and control by the party. Intellectuals, landowners, counter-revolutionaries and religious believers were singled out and placed in this category.

After a 1 June 1966 People’s Daily editorial, Sweep Away All Monsters and Demons, the Red Guards started a huge purge which swept the whole country. They arrested and prosecuted anyone they considered to be an intellectual, landowner, counter-revolutionary or religious believer.

Then, August 1966 arrived. On August 4, Mao posted his dazibao: Bombard the General Headquarters. On August 11, the Sixteen Points Decision put forward guidelines for the Cultural Revolution as a new stage in the socialist revolution, describing it as “a cultural revolution in order to create a new culture and a new man.”

Soon after, the campaign to eradicate the Fours Olds (old customs, old habits, old culture and old thinking) was announced.

On August 18, another mass rally of Red Guards, coming from all over the country, took place in Tiananmen Square with the blessing of Mao.

The vice-chairperson, Lin Biao, who spoke on his behalf, repeated the need to eliminate the Four Olds and entrusted the job to the Red Guards.

Consequently, they made use of the slogan to attack individuals and institutions they wanted to condemn.

The full force of the chaos of the Cultural Revolution was most especially felt during the first three years. Then the ultra-leftist disorder was brought under control with the restoration of Mao’s supremacy at the Ninth Party Congress in April 1969.

However, tragedies and injustices continued to take place.

Persecution of Christians

From the 1950s, religion and believers came under attack and quite a number were imprisoned.

The Cultural Revolution followed along the same lines and was a continuation of previous campaigns. It had the objective of eliminating all vestiges of religion.

Jean-Pierre Charbonnier wrote in Christians in China:

The Cultural Revolution targeted Christians who were always suspected of counter-revolutionary activities. All the churches were closed and destroyed or turned into warehouses, prisons, workshops or storerooms.

All bishops, priests and members of religious orders, whether they were patriotic or not, were arrested, insulted and sent to hard labour, 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 they lapsed into silence. Religious books were burnt, although some of the Sacred Texts survived by being buried or walled up.

One Catholic eyewitness relates: “Towards the end of August 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 have searched many houses and killed many people …”

Red Guards chased Catholics out of their houses, forcing them to live in poor dwellings or in huts. Then, they pillaged and robbed whatever they liked, destroying and burning what remained.

At the start of the Cultural Revolution, a lady from Anyang, Henan, with stable work in a textile factory, was fired because she was a Catholic and was subjected to criticism at home.

Soon after, the Red Guards sacked her house, since they suspected she was keeping religious articles from the Church. They even tore down the walls.

Then they paraded her, together with her mother and child, along the streets of the city, putting big hats on them bearing the sign down with the rightist.

Other Catholic houses in the village were pillaged and all religious articles were burned.

Destruction and death

In Baoding, in mid-August, just after the start of the Cultural Revolution, a group of Red Guards from a secondary school armed with sticks, rushed into the cathedral in the city centre.

They gathered all the vestments, religious articles and books and burned them in the courtyard. They led out all the priests and sisters, cursing and beating them.

An old priest fainted and a Red Guard threw him on the pyre. Another victim was a sister, a member of the local Congregation of St. Joseph. The Red Guards ordered her to trample on an image of Our Lady. She refused and they beat her to death.

In northern Henan, on August 16, the Red Guards from a middle school performed similar deeds at a Catholic church. They destroyed the altar and all the sacred statues and images. They set fire to everything. They forced priests and sisters to kneel close to the pyre in order to cause them harm.

An old priest, who could move only with difficulty, had both legs burned. He was brought back home, but passed away after few days.

Another priest, younger and stronger, was forced to put on the sacred vestments and, together with the sisters, was paraded through the streets of the city.

A good Catholic had to lead the procession beating a gong. It was August and the weather was extremely hot.

They survived thanks to good-hearted people offering them some water in a small courtyard. However, the Red Guards later bludgeoned the young person who had helped them to death.

On August 24, Red Guards searched all the churches in Shanghai, destroying the crosses, sacred images and burning all the religious books.

On August 29, they damaged the cathedral in Guangzhou, detaining priests and sisters. Meanwhile, churches, such as those in Ningbo and Nanyang, were divided into mezzanine levels to become residences for the families of local opera troupes.

Anthony Clark reported that while admiring the monumental façade of the North Cathedral during a visit to Beijings, he noticed a gardener giving particular attention to an area beside a tree as if he was attending to a sacred site.

The gardener told him the stirring account of a Red Guard attack against an elderly priest on that exact spot during the summer of 1966.

When a large crowd of teenage Red Guards arrived at the church, an elderly Chinese priest met them near the entrance. The priest was forced to kneel while his arms were contorted above his head.

In this painful state he was subjected to ridicule and ordered to give up his religious beliefs. He refused to do so. The Red Guards threatened him and in the end buried him alive in that spot.

The expulsion of sisters

The most well known tragedy concerning the Catholic Church happened on August 24, when a mob of fanatical Red Guards rang the doorbell of the Sacred Heart Catholic School in Beijing, which was run by the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary for the children of foreign diplomatic staff.

A huge 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 sisters were dragged to a lower floor and repeatedly beaten and kicked.

The elderly Sister Molly O’Sullivan was lashed across the face with a whip with such a force that her eyes were almost knocked out of their sockets.

A few days later a mock trial was held before a large crowd of frenzied people. The foreign sisters were pronounced guilty and labelled counter-revolutionary enemies.

The Chinese sisters were sentenced to 20 years in prison. Then the foreign sisters were told they were to be expelled from China and endured a gruelling 40-hour journey to Guangzhou, followed by another three-hour trip to the border crossing into Hong Kong at Lowu.

A large team of Red Guards accompanied them on the trip. The train arrived in Guangzhou at 2.00 pm on August 30.

Sister O’Sullivan was seriously ill with a high fever. When the train approached the bridge at Lowu, she was barely conscious.

When the sisters got off the train, they started to walk with their suitcases. Almost at once Sister O’Sullivan collapsed to the ground.

A few Chinese soldiers lifted her up and threw her face down onto a baggage trolley. With difficulty, the other sisters managed to push it across the bridge.

British soldiers, priests and sisters welcomed the weary travellers on the Hong Kong side. An ambulance was called and Sister O’Sullivan was rushed to St. Teresa’s Hospital, where at 6.45 am the following day, she passed to her eternal reward.

Little is known about what happened to the Chinese sisters of the Sacred Heart School; they simply disappeared in prison.


The period of the Cultural Revolution was marked by the systematic suppression and destruction of religion.

The memory of the violence against many people, as well as those who were killed for their faith, remains in the hearts and minds of many people, both victims and persecutors. But it is kept hidden out of fear.

Only a few former Red Guards repented and confessed their crimes, while the victims are unfortunately extremely reluctant to speak out. Why is that?

A priest, who was invited to write about the persecutions experienced during the Cultural Revolution, sadly admitted:

“Speaking sincerely from the heart, I cannot express my feelings when I face this time of great suffering, because of the present conditions of the Church. Such a painful situation has not yet ended and still persists.

“Maybe the threats against the truth of the faith of our Holy Mother the Church are even deeper and subtler now than the ones suffered by the previous generation. We must pray that the Lord strengthens us and gives us the courage to continue witnessing to our faith in Jesus our Saviour.”

Father Sergio Ticozzi, PIME