China’s Modern Martyrs: From Mao to Now (Part 4)

The blood of martyrs has proven to be the seed of the Church in China, as vibrant communities thrive despite government interference and restrictions.

Part 4, Resurrection

“We should be glad and rejoice. As the Shanghai Catholic youths said: ‘We are greatly honored to have been born and lived at this important time.’” — Cardinal Kung Pin-mei, Sermon for Catholics in China (Rome, June 30, 1991)


When I published my book, China’s Saints, in 2011, I thought that only a few interested scholars would read it. I wrote it, after all, as an academic study, a work for curmudgeonly professors like myself more inclined to read objective history than pious hagiography. So I was surprised when a Jesuit priest mentioned to a large crowd of academics and ecclesiastics recently gathered in Chicago that he had been reading my book “for his daily devotions.”

Results seldom match expectations, and that is the theme of my final entry in this four-part series on China’s Catholic martyrs from Mao to now. In truth, even the most objective historian—secular or religious—must admit that decades of suppression, persecution, and suffering have resulted in a vibrant Catholic community. I shall here outline the “ongoing growth of these communities,” as Father Jeremy Clarke puts it, “even in spite of attempts to make them disappear.”[1]

In the first three installments of this series I focused on a very dark era in the history of Chinese Catholicism: the attack against Yangjiaping Trappist Abbey and the massacre of many holy monks, Chairman Mao’s malicious media campaign against the Church, the wave of arrests that followed, and the atrocious martyrdoms of such priests as Father Beda Chang and Father Wang Shiwei. I have also recounted the Maoist destruction of Catholic churches during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and more recent efforts to suppress popular Catholic devotions in China, such as the annual pilgrimage to honor Our Lady of China at Donglü. No one can deny the genuine suffering that Christians have encountered in China in recent decades, but as St. Augustine famously asserted, “God had a son on earth who was without sin, but he never had one without suffering.”

Still, China’s Christians have an optimistic view of their experiences. Elderly Catholics use the word chiku (吃苦) to describe their lives during the Maoist period (1949-1976), which literally means “having tasted bitterness.” One priest noted, “When we were bombarded with anti-Christian propaganda, we had tasted bitterness. We did not swallow it. We survived.”[2] China’s Catholics have done more than survive; they have flourished. Over the years I have travelled in China by mule, train, plane, boat, taxi, bicycle, and long distances on foot to visit important places in the history of Christianity in China, and each year I am astonished by the unprecedented progress of the Church there.

Bishops, priests, sisters, and common faithful have told me their stories—and so have atheists, agnostics, and party members. In fact, party members have informed me that there are many persons in positions of influence who view religion as a “healthy human expression.” I have learned that while there are villains in the world, one is often surprised to learn that suspected villains are sometimes advocates. One party member carefully drew a Christian cross on a handmade card he gave me during Christmas, with the message, “God bless China and the US.” The same person has a Catholic image of Mary in his living room, not too far from a shelf of books containing Marxist writings.

I am not, of course, advocating or downplaying Communism, but I cannot help but recognize the signs of faith appearing in unlikely places. My task here, then, is to provide some concluding remarks on the “now” part of this series, and I shall do so by addressing what has happened to Catholic communities in China that are gathered in areas of previous persecution and martyrdom. I now turn to some promising signs of resurrection in China today, centering on three of the country’s most Catholic dioceses.

the six chinese priests before being consecrated bishops by pope puis xi at the vatican in 1926. source: archives des missions etrangères de paris (paris).

Always two sides

Among the ironies of Catholic history in China is that the Church, which has experienced severe restrictions since the advent of Communism, has also experienced dramatic growth. Research shows that two reasons lie behind this development: first, it appears that Tertullian was correct when he asserted that martyrdom is the seed of Christianity; and second, truth demands the recognition that China’s Church had too long been confined by Western imperialism. No other country has been so long identified as a “mission.” Christianity has existed in China since 635, only two centuries after the Christianization of Ireland. Certainly, the history of the Church in China has encountered more state persecution than in many Western countries, but unlike other countries, missionaries aggressively resisted allowing China to develop its own hierarchy until the Vatican finally intervened in 1926, when six Chinese priests were taken to Rome and consecrated in St. Peter’s by Pope Pius XI (r. 1922-1939) himself.[3] When Communist officials came to power in 1949 they were aware of this, and also had access to several missionary documents that revealed a deep sense of Western superiority among many, perhaps the majority, of European clergy.

In a book written by Scheut missionary Father Louis Kervyn, we find an example of what was commonly believed in China’s early modern mission. “Does not the enfeebling of the intellectual, moral, and physical powers that we have been studying in the country of China persuade us that we find ourselves in China in the presence of a clearly inferior nature!”[4] Not only was Kervyn’s popular opinion hurtfully anti-Chinese, he also argued that the China suffered from an extra amount of original sin than the West. The Vatican was not pleased with such ideas, and in 1919 Pope Benedict XV (r. 1914-1922) published Maximum Illud, in which he excoriated imperialistic attitudes among the mission clergy. His most pressing call was for indigenous clergy to be prepared to become bishops so that the local Church could govern itself, still under obedience to the Holy See. When he wrote that encyclical all of China’s bishops were European, mostly French. One thing the “underground” and “aboveground” Catholic communities in China agree upon most decisively is that once missionaries were expelled from China after the Communist victory in 1949, China benefitted from having an entirely native Catholic hierarchy. Chinese priests and bishops attract more Chinese to join the Church.

There are thus two sides to the current situation of the Church in China; on the one hand, China’s faithful lament the Vatican’s lack of explicit control over China’s Church, while on the other hand, the Vatican has finally gotten its way. China’s Catholics appreciate a hierarchy that better understands them—as Chinese. With Chinese bishops in place and a growing awareness and devotion to the “blood of the martyrs,” China’s Church continues to flourish, despite the real and often violent challenges it faces.

Beijing Diocese

I have written much about the history of martyrdom in China’s capital city. During the Boxer Uprising (1898-1900), Catholics throughout the city were tortured and massacred, and during the Maoist era they were forced underground while their churches were occupied by state officials and reused as restaurants, warehouses, and factories. Priests and nuns were “struggled against” during the 1960s while massive crowds of radicals observed their torments. Today, these churches have all been returned to the Church and Masses are usually overcrowded with faithful. The official number of Catholics in the Diocese of Beijing today is more than 60,000, which probably accounts for less than one-third of the actual number if one counts the “underground” community. The bishop, Li Shan, oversees 80 priests (all Chinese), a seminary for the diocese, and a separate seminary that serves the entire country. In terms of property, the diocese’s churches are constantly under restoration, and the former bishop’s residence, which was reallocated to be a state school, has been given back to the Church and is being restored, at great expense, to its former use. Once finished, this massive complex will include four grand courtyards and a restored private chapel, and will function as the new residence of Beijing’s influential bishop.

Catholic bookstores are now open in each of Beijing’s four major churches, which include the works of past and present popes. Organized pilgrimages again regularly depart from the area’s churches, and each year thousands of Catholics crowd the diocesan cemetery, where the bishop offers Mass on All Souls Day. Beijing’s North Church—the city’s largest and oldest parish—is where I most often attend Mass while living in China, and for one week every month the Blessed Sacrament is exposed for adoration; adoration is scheduled at the other churches throughout the month so that Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is available to the city’s Catholics at all times.

During my last trip to China I carried holy cards blessed by Pope Benedict XVI to give young Catholics I see in city coffee shops reading Sacred Scripture, organizing Catholic youth events, or discussing liturgy—a new and popular interest among China’s young faithful. I am no longer surprised by the openness and observable comfort with which Catholics today live and practice their faith. They are not naïve to the persistent complexities that afflict the Church in China, but they are clearly part of the renaissance of Christian belief.

Shanghai Diocese

Catholic Shanghai in recent years has been often in the international news; Bishop Thadeus Ma Daqin was arrested in 2012 for refusing to bow to the Patriotic Association, and in 2013 Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian (1916-2013), China’s most influential Catholic leader, died in his late 90s. In part 3 of this series I discussed the tragic stories of Fr. Beda Chang (1905-1951) and Bishop Gong Pinmei (1901-2000), both of whom suffered terribly under state persecution. Shanghai is perhaps China’s most complicated Catholic diocese today, for it is both tightly constrained by party control and spiritually thriving, with more churches and financial resources than any other Catholic region.

Bishop Gong set the tone for Shanghai’s Catholic reconstruction in his first sermon after his release from prison; he recommended prayer to the “Holy Mother of Mount She” (Shenshan Shengmu 佘山聖母). He desired that Shanghai’s Catholics turn to her, “protector of the faithful, that she may bestow upon us the same mind and spirit, so that the great design of the Good Lord may be gloriously accomplished on our national soil for generations and generations to come.”[5] Gong’s homily was an emotional plea for the Church in Shanghai to rely on Our Lady of Sheshan, whose basilica is just outside Shanghai, to help restore and nourish the Church of his “native soil.” This sense of local Chinese pride was precisely what Bishop Jin Luxian relied upon as he tirelessly sought international support to build one of the most robust dioceses in the world.

In a small booklet Bishop Jin gave to me during a visit to his impressive new chancery, there is a pictorial account of the many dignitaries who visited him to see first-hand his successful reconstruction of Shanghai’s Catholic community: Mother Teresa of Calcutta, President Bill Clinton, Cardinal John O’Connor, Rev. Billy Graham, and the presidents and royal families of numerous countries. Most remarkable, however, is the considerable growth of people and properties attached to the Shanghai Church. In addition to restoring the churches lost to the diocese during the Maoist era, the Diocese of Shanghai now boasts a prosperous church dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes in Pu Dong, the Sheshan Seminary, the Qing Pu Catholic Preparatory School, the Holy Mother Convent for elderly sisters, the Congregation of the Presentation of Mary, the Xu Guangqi Catholic Research Center, and various other Catholic facilities, such as a press and active retreat center.[6]

While Shanghai’s churches continue to attract large numbers of tourists and Sunday worshippers, the clergy are forced to conduct their pastoral work under constraints and the severe scrutiny of the local government. The diocese is still without the leadership of Bishop Ma, who was to succeed Bishop Jin after his death in 2013; after Jin’s death the Catholic Patriotic Association officially described the Diocese of Shanghai as “sede vacante.” The Vatican insists that Ma should now be leading the diocese, and many of Shanghai’s faithful wonder if he will be forced to spend his remaining years under house arrest. As was recently reported by AsiaNews, Ma is believed to have sent a message to Pope Francis: “Do not worry about me,” he said, “do not stop from preaching the truth.”[7] Bishop Ma was ordained a bishop on July 7, only two days before the Church celebrates the sacrifices of the martyr saints of China, and this year Shanghai’s Catholics remembered both Bishop Ma and the saints on that day. When asked how Shanghai’s Church flourishes despite the obstacles it faces, many local Catholics assert that it is because they remember to concentrate on God more than their own struggles. One of Bishop Jin Luxian’s favorite sayings of St. Ignatius was “Oportet illum crescere, me autem minui”—“He should grow and I should diminish.” The irony of this saying is that the number of faithful, in fact, is growing.

Tianjin Diocese

The Diocese of Tianjin has perhaps endured more strains than most other Catholic diocese in China. Neither the Western missionaries nor the local non-Christians have behaved particularly well over the centuries in Tianjin. On June 21, 1870, a massive local crowd attacked the Catholic mission in the city after hearing popular rumors that French Daughters of Charity were, among other false reports, enticing children into their possession through bribes, and then cutting out their eyes to turn into Western medicine.[8] Believing these accusations, local Chinese confronted the French authorities; the French consul responded by shooting the attendant of a Chinese official. An angry crowd then attacked the Catholic mission, killing 20 foreigners, including a priest, 10 religious sisters, businessmen, wives, and Western diplomats. The church was destroyed along with other Catholic properties.

This violence, provoked by baseless gossip, resulted in crippling indemnities imposed on Tianjin’s Chinese officials; the Church demanded a new and grander church be built at Chinese expense, and named it after Our Lady of Victories. Also at Chinese expense, the church’s extravagant reopening was accompanied by an entourage of foreign diplomats, a dozen Western gunboats stationed nearby, and a contingent of European marines. Father Alphonse Favier (1837-1905), the missionary architect who designed the new church, orchestrated this “ceremony of supreme reconciliation,” which was in fact a deliberate humiliation of Chinese pride.[9] Ernest Young describes this as a “muscular display” of Western egotism, which was common in Tianjin until 1950, when the missionaries were expelled from China.[10]

Tensions between the Catholic community and local non-Christians were widespread before the Maoist era, which ushered in new hardships to Tianjin’s Christians. Today, however, Tianjin is known to be one of China’s fastest growing Catholic communities, with more than 50,000 Catholics attending Masses in the city’s “sanctioned” churches. When I met the rector of the Tianjin cathedral, Father Zhang Liang, he suggested that much of the diocese’s past history is less important today than the daily concerns of spreading the faith. As I sat across from Father Zhang’s cluttered desk, parishioners persistently interrupted us, requesting Masses for their deceased relatives. “Oh, this is common,” he said, “we have a massive parish, and they are very devout. We’re terribly understaffed, and the church keeps growing.”[11]

Hong Kong’s Catholic newspaper, The Sunday Examiner, published a report in 2012, noting that 350 adults were received into the Catholic Church on December 10 at the small village church at Xiaohan, in the Tianjin diocese.[12] Churches throughout the entire diocese continue to confirm large numbers of adults each year, and the magnificent Tianjin cathedral, dedicated to St. Joseph, has more than 30,000 Catholics registered as parishioners. Fr. Zhang is fond of saying that Tianjin Catholics would rather devote their attention to the work of the Church than the activities of the government. “Why look always to the government? That would be like blaming the sun for not shining.” Zhang suggests that in his diocese they would rather look for a place “where sunshine can be found”; if one door is closed, then they must find an open door, one where Christ’s light shines through, and then to attract others to that radiance.

Chinese Catholic praying at a Marian grotto; such grottoes are found at nearly all Catholic churches in China. Source: Author’s private collection.

Continuation in complexity: The case of Bishop Melchior Shi Hongzhen

After the Vatican’s first apostolic delegate to China, Celso Costantini (1876-1958), left China for good in 1933, one of his continual remarks about the Church before 1949 was that Western Catholic missionaries, despite their good wishes, had planted missions in China but had not planted a Church.[13] Once Chinese bishops were installed in China’s dioceses, two results marked the Church there: it began to grow more robustly, and the new Chinese bishops were better equipped to carry the Church through its decades of persecution under Mao.

Tianjin’s coadjutor bishop, Melchior Shi Hongzhen, serves as a good example of how a native Chinese bishop is better able than a Westerner would be to navigate the complexities of Catholicism under Communist scrutiny. Shi recalls that when the six Chinese priests set out for Rome on September 10, 1926, to become China’s first Chinese bishops since bishop Gregory Luo Wenzao (1616-1691) served at Nanjing in the 17th century, they stopped in Tianjin before their departure. Kenneth Latourette describes the event: “Much publicity was given the bishops-elect on their way to Europe.” It was as if, Latourette continues, the Vatican was “eager to demonstrate to the world and especially China its desire for a truly Chinese Church.”[14] Rome’s efforts to create a Chinese hierarchy in China paid off. After Westerners were shipped out of China in the early 1950s, the only hope for the Church’s future there rested on its Chinese bishops, such as Bishop Shi Hongzhen, who knew much better than missionaries how to handle the unique challenges of Chinese culture and society.

Tianjin today has two bishops; both are approved by the Vatican, but neither are approved by the government. Bishop Stephen Li Side was appointed the ordinary of the Diocese of Tianjin in 1982, and he refused affiliation with the Catholic Patriotic Association. Li now lives under house arrest outside of Tianjin. The network of “underground” bishops in China has a complicated history, and Tianjin is among the most difficult to follow. In the 1980s an “underground” bishop from Hebei secretly consecrated Li Side to be the bishop of Tianjin; Li then consecrated Joseph Shi Hongchen (1928-2005), who had been arrested for performing religious services in a public park as an “underground” priest. Li later consecrated Shi Hongchen’s cousin, Melchior Shi Hongzhen, another “underground” priest, in 1982.[15] While Bishop Li now languishes in house arrest, Shi Hongzhen performs the function of Tianjin’s bishop. These native Chinese bishops, such as Shi, have been able to sustain the sacramental needs of a bishop only by “flying under the radar” of the authorities; Chinese bishops have been able, because they are Chinese, to safeguard China’s Church from dissolving under state pressures.

Bishop Melchior Shi Hongzhen is recognized by China’s government, not as a bishop, but as a simple parish priest at the Zhongxin Bridge Church in Tanggu district of Tianjin. He serves officially as “pastor” rather than bishop, as the state sees it, but his status as a bishop is well known to both the local faithful and the government, which tolerates his activities as long as he avoids open political criticisms. Shi’s refusal to join the Patriotic Association means that he will not be allowed to publically function as the diocese’s bishop. He is free to serve as a parish priest, but when Bishop Shi is called away to administer last rites, he is required to seek permission from the local police to leave the small area of his parish. St. Thomas More (1478-1535) is his patron, he says, because he died a martyr for refusing to renounce his loyalty to the pope under political pressure. For Shi, the example of the martyrs should be the example for all China’s Catholic faithful.

A recent article posted on UCANews notes that China’s new party chief, Xi Jinping, has pledged to consolidate party power and crackdown on voices that incite “subversion of state power.” This has resulted, among other things, in a renewed assertion that Christians adhere to state expectations.[16] How Xi’s plan to consolidate power, better manage public opinion, and control religious practice will affect the Church in China is yet to become clear. But one thing that is clear about China’s Catholics is that they are well equipped to survive and flourish no matter what pressures are laid upon them, and the blood of the martyrs, from Mao to now, nourishes and inspires their commitment to Christ, the Church, and the future of Christianity in their native China. When his tormenter slowly killed St. Xi Zhuzi (1882-1900) for refusing to deny his Christian faith, the martyr continued to exclaim, “Each drop of blood will tell you that I am a Christian.”[17] Richard Madsen has written, “During the Mao years, the main controversies were about the degree to which Catholic Church leaders could submit to the authority of the Communist government while still remaining in communion with the Holy See.”[18]

Today, I suggest, the main issue in China is less about Catholic submission to the Communist government or one’s relationship with the pope, but rather it is about following the example of the martyrs, who maintained their commitment to Christ above all, in order to plant the seeds of growth in the eternal Church.

[1] Jeremy Clarke, SJ, The Virgin Mary and Catholic Identities in Chinese History (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2013), 12.

[2] Quoted in Joseph Tse-Hei Lee, “Church-State Accommodation in China’s ‘Harmonious Society’,” in Anthony E. Clark, Ed., A Voluntary Exile: Chinese Christianity and Cultural Confluence Since 1552 (Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh University Press, 2014), 188.

[3] See Pascal M. D’Elia, SJ, Catholic Native Episcopacy in China (Shanghai: T’usewei Printing, 1927). A photograph of these six new Chinese bishops appears after page 86.

[4] Quoted in Ernest P. Young, Ecclesiastical Colony: China’s Catholic Church and the French Religious Protectorate (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 134.

[5] Quoted in Msgr. Stephen M. DiGiovanni, H.E.D., Ignatius: The Life of Ignatius Cardinal Kung Pin-Mei (Stamford, CT: Msgr. Stephen M. DiGiovanni, H.E.D., 2013), 206.

[6] For a description of the spectacular growth of the Shanghai Diocese after the Maoist era see Jinri Tianzhujiao Shanghai jiaoqu 今日天主教上海教區 [The Roman Catholic Church in Shanghai Today], Ed. Roman Catholic Diocese of Shanghai 上海天主教教區 (Shanghai 上海: Roman Catholic Diocese of Shanghai 上海天主教教區, 200).

[7] AsiaNews, July 10, 2014.

[8] See John K. Fairbank, “Patterns Behind the Tientsin Massacre,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, vol. 20, no. 3/4 (1957): 480–511.

[9] See Annales de la Congrégation de la Mission (Lazaristes), vol. 63 (1898: 80).

[10] Young, Ecclesiastical Colony, 4.

[11] Interview with Father Leo Zhang Liang 張良神父, at Xikai Cathedral, Tianjin, China, 26 October 2011.

[12] Sunday Examiner, 12 January 2012.

[13] Celso Costantini, Con i missionari in Cina (1922-1933): memorie di fatti e di idee, vol. 1 (Rome: Unione Missionaria del Clero in Italia, 1946), 484.

[14] Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christian Missions in China (New York: MacMillan, 1967), 727.

[15] See Richard Madsen, China’s Catholics: Tragedy and Hope in an Emerging Civil Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 45-46.

[16] See Carol Huang, “Under China’s Xi Jinping, Freedom is More Remote than Ever,” UCANews, July 10, 2014.

[17] Quoted in Anthony E. Clark, China’s Saints: Catholic Martyrdom During the Qing (1644-1900) (Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press, 2011), 152.

[18] Richard Madsen, “Beyond Orthodoxy: Catholicism as Chinese Folk Religion,” in China and Christianity: Burdened Past, Hopeful Future, Stephen Uhalley, Jr. and Wu Xiaoxin, Eds. (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2001), 233.

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About Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. 54 Articles
Anthony E. Clark is an associate professor of Chinese history at Whitworth University and the author of China’s Saints: Catholic Martyrdom During the Qing, 1644-1911. He is also the host of the EWTN television series The Saints of China: Martyrs of the Middle Kingdom.

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