When a ‘Chinese God’ Died – Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution (Part 3a)

As mentioned in the previous part of this article, the era of the Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966, saw incessant and vigorous efforts by Mao Zedong, the Gang of Four and the Red Guards under them to eliminate all traces of Chinese cultural heritage and substances of foreign origin. Indeed, all these were done based on the notion that anything traditionally Chinese or foreign in origin possessed the potential to “corrupt” the Chinese society with elements of feudalism and capitalism, thus impeding the Chinese Communist Party’s aspiration to build an entirely socialist republic.

If even Chinese culture could not escape the tides of the Cultural Revolution, all the more religions with significant following in China! Doubtless to say, during the execution of the Destruction of the Four Olds campaign, religion itself was also considered to be an element of the Four Olds. Religion, deemed to be backward-looking, superstitious, tools of foreign invasion and instruments of feudalistic control over the working classes, quickly became a major target of elimination by the revolutionists under Chairman Mao.

 A painting of Mao Zedong with a natural background

Buddhism, which has existed in China for over a millennium, became one of the primary spiritual targets of the revolutionists. Buddhism was frequently accused for spreading superstition, corruption and wastage amongst the people. The worship of Buddhist images was perceived by the revolutionists as silly acts of superstition and pure wastage, as Buddhist images require many valuable metals in making them. Buddhist teachings were also equated to poison brought in from India that had given its adherents nothing but misery and bondage.

As a result of such negative views towards Buddhism, Buddhist temples, shrines, images, scriptures and iconic landmarks immediately became objects of destruction. Images of Buddha in iconic places such as the Temple of Azure Clouds (碧云寺, Bìyún-sì), Temple of Recumbent Buddha (卧佛寺, Wòfó-sì) and Summer Palace (颐和园, Yíhé Yuán) in Beijing were shattered to pieces, while centuries-old Buddhist statues in the Longmen Grottoes (龙门石窟, Lóngmén Shíkū), Luoyang (洛阳, Luòyáng) were damaged beyond repair. Portraits of Mao Zedong then took over the places of the shattered Buddhist images as objects of worship and adoration.

 Buddhist images of worship being burnt in public under the Destruction of the Four Olds campaign

In some cases, the Red Guards did not completely destroy the Buddhist images that they found in temples and shrines. Instead, they were shipped away to smelting factories to be melted and reused for the production of other items. Even ancient bells, gongs and other historical artefacts from Buddhist temples were confiscated and sent for melting or sold as scrap metal. Buddhist statues that were made of more valuable metals such as gold, silver and copper were seized and such metals extracted to bring profit for the government.

Buddhist monks also did not escape punishment from the Red Guards. Many Buddhist monks were hurled out of their temples and accused of “crimes” of “teaching superstition” and “corrupting the minds of the people.” They were forced to surrender all Buddhist religious items in their possession under harsh torture and threats. Buddhist scriptures were torn and burned in public, while slogans supporting the destruction of the Four Olds were shouted. Furthermore, many Buddhist monks and nuns found themselves being forced out of their temples and monasteries to lead secular lives, some even being imprisoned or sent to government-sponsored “correction camps” to be brainwashed.

 A statue of Guanyin (观音, Guānyīn), the Goddess of Mercy and Compassion in Chinese Buddhism, being desecrated and denounced by zealous revolutionists

In Tibet (西藏, Xīzàng), where Buddhism is deeply ingrained into the lives of many of the region’s inhabitants, the burning of temples and monasteries became a common sight during the Cultural Revolution. Many Tibetan Buddhists, including monks and nuns, were compelled at gunpoint by the Red Guards to burn down their own temples and monasteries, and destroy culturally important Buddhist images and structures. The observation of Buddhist rites, the teaching of Buddhism and even the wearing of traditional Tibetan clothing were declared “serious crimes” punishable by torture and death in the hands of the Red Guards. Indeed, it was estimated that about 90% of Buddhist monasteries were burned to ashes, and tens of thousands of people mercilessly tortured to death during the Destruction of the Four Olds campaign.

 Public burning of Buddhist scriptures looted from a temple in Tibet

Besides Buddhism, Christianity became another major target of religious persecution under Mao Zedong’s Communist government. Due to historical and commonly perceived cultural ties to Western nations, Christianity was immediately labeled by the revolutionists as a foreign atrocity and a tool of Western colonization. Chinese Christians were considered unpatriotic and were often suspected of being agents of foreign colonial powers. Moreover, many Chinese Christians during the Cultural Revolution refused to acknowledge Mao Zedong’s god-like status and were consequently accused of opposing his revolutionary ideas.

A few months after the official declaration of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, propaganda posters were hung in Beijing, bearing the following words in Chinese:

“There is no God; there is no Spirit; there is no Jesus; there is no Mary; there is no Joseph. How can adults believe in these things? Priests live in luxury and suck the blood of the workers. Like Islam and Catholicism, Protestantism is a reactionary feudal ideology, the opium of the people, with foreign origins and contacts. We are atheists; we believe only in Mao Zedong. We call on all people to burn Bibles, destroy images, and disperse religious associations.”

With almost immediate effect after the launch of the Cultural Revolution, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (三自教会, Sānzì Jiàohuì), which is the state-sanctioned Protestant Christian organization in China, was outlawed and dismantled. Churches throughout China were forced to close and be surrendered to the government to be torn down or converted for other uses. As a result, many church buildings were converted into public halls for political gatherings or propaganda meetings. Some churches, such as the Saint Paul’s Church in Nanjing (南京圣保罗堂, Nánjīng Shèngbǎoluó Táng), were also turned into factories or grain stores.

 A church being converted into a place for Maoist worship, with slogans denouncing Christianity hung outside

Wherever they went, the Red Guards ransacked churches and the homes of Chinese Christians, confiscated all the Bibles and hymnbooks that they could find, and heaped them in public squares to be made into a bonfire. Biblical teachings were declared superstitious and thus worthy of eradication. Pastors, priests, church leaders and many Christians were hurled out of churches and homes before being forced to renounce their faith under threats and torture. Indeed, many refused to do so, and were subsequently beaten to death, imprisoned or sent to work in heavy labour camps for decades.

Doubtless to say, the Red Guards held no regard for human life as they employed a variety of gruesome and cannibalistic methods in torturing Christians to recant their faith. Christians were squeezed under a chair, hung upside down or exposed to harsh weather for hours in order to force them to deny their faith. Electric batons were also utilized to electrocute, paralyze and burn their tongues so that they could no longer call upon the name of the Lord Jesus for divine help. In one instance, a mother and son were severely tortured and buried alive in the same grave before having their body parts mutilated for the Red Guards’ meal of the day. In another instance, a prominent official in a town was reported to have been carrying on his shoulder a leg of a recently tortured person, which was to be brought home to make soup.

 Public humiliation and punishment of Chinese Christians conducted by the Red Guards

Many prominent church leaders were arrested, tortured, thrown into prison or sent to heavy labour camps. Even before the Cultural Revolution began, famous church leaders such as Pastor Wang Mingdao (王明道, Wáng Míngdào) (1900 – 1991) were imprisoned by the Communist government. After the Cultural Revolution began, many more church leaders found themselves landed in prison for refusing to deny their faith. One prominent example was Zhao Zichen (赵紫宸, Zhào Zĭchén) (1888 – 1979), one of the founding leaders of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, who was tortured, imprisoned and sent to heavy labour camp when he was in his eighties. His home and personal property were subsequently confiscated by the government.

Indeed, Jiang Qing herself once made a public vow to crush the Christian church within a day. She also made frequent declarations in front of foreign diplomats to China, saying that:

“Christianity in China has been confined to the history section of the museum.”

Even Islam was not spared during the Cultural Revolution. Islam was also declared superstitious under the Destruction of the Four Olds campaign and the fact that Muslim communities led different lifestyles made them obvious targets of persecution under Mao Zedong. In fact, Jiang Qing openly expressed her dislike for Muslim communities, particularly Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang (新疆, Xīnjiāng), whom she often labeled as “foreign invaders and aliens with outlandish songs and dances.” She detested the different lifestyles of Muslims in China and their stubbornness to bow down to government pressure to conform to the common practices of other Chinese, thus frequently ordering the Red Guards to organize attacks against Muslim communities throughout China.

 A pro-Revolution propaganda poster featuring Jiang Qing, bearing the slogan "Let the new socialist performing arts occupy every stage"

In many parts of China, especially regions with significant Muslim populations such as Xinjiang, Ningxia (宁夏, Níngxià) and Yunnan (云南, Yúnnán), Red Guards ransacked mosques and Islamic schools, forcing them to close down and destroying them. Numerous Qurans and Islamic literary works were confiscated and burned in public squares, while Muslims were forced to renounce their faith under threat and torture. As proof of renunciation, the Red Guards compelled Muslims to raise pigs within mosque compounds and consume them for daily meals. Daily quotas were even set by local authorities to ensure continuous production of pork from Muslim villages and towns, in which failure to meet these daily quotas resulted in severe punishment. Many undoubtedly resisted, and were subsequently killed in the thousands through merciless means.

Ahong (阿訇, āhōng), or Chinese imams, were often singled out by the Red Guards for extra humiliation and torture in order to serve as a deterrent for the other Muslims. Many elderly imams were publicly punished through harsh means and were forced to run large pig farms within mosque compounds under the watchful eyes of the Red Guards and local authorities. They were also forced to eat pork publicly to “show their support for the Chinese revolution” and to persuade others to follow suit. In some villages, aged imams were bullied into crawling on the ground and producing pig sounds before a large crowd. In others, they were splashed with paint and paraded around in the streets to be humiliated. Resistance on the part of the imams or Muslims in general often met with massacres, mass imprisonments or punishments of hard labour.

Perhaps the most infamous incident of persecution against Muslims during the Cultural Revolution was the Shadian Incident (沙甸事件, Shādiàn Shìjiàn), which took place in the predominantly Muslim village of Shadian in Yunnan Province. The village, which was home to thousands of Chinese Muslims, is located somewhere near the border between China and Burma. It began in 1967 when numerous Red Guards marched into the village, razed mosques and publicly burned copies of the Quran. Subsequently, they also banned the main Islamic religious organization of the region, known as Hizb Allah or ‘Party of God.’

 A mosque in Shadian (沙甸) built after the destruction of the village and massacring of Chinese Muslims during the Shadian Incident

Beginning from November 1968, government officials were sent into Shadian to spread propaganda among the Muslim villagers and turn them away from their faith to support Chairman Mao. As part of their activities, the government officials desecrated mosques by occupying them and having feasts of pork in them, after which the leftover pig bones were thrown into wells from which Muslims drew water for drinking and ablutions before prayer. Muslims in Shadian were forced to consume pork themselves, while the imams were humiliated and tortured in public on a regular basis.

Due to continuous persecution against Muslims in Shadian, the Muslim community there eventually formed a militant organization in December 1974 under the command of Ma Bohua (马伯华, Mǎ Bóhuá). The militant organization was formed after repeated failures to negotiate for religious freedom to be granted in the region. As a result, the Communist government mobilized as many as 50,000 troops from the People’s Liberation Army (人民解放军, Rénmín Jiĕfàngjūn), the official army of the Communist government, and converged these units just outside Shadian from May 1975 onwards.

After a series of failed negotiations to persuade the Chinese Muslim militia to surrender, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) issued official statements accusing them of forming an uprising to carve out an independent Islamic state, subsequently ordering massive attacks on the village. Flamethrowers, artillery and inflammable bombs were utilized in razing the entire village of Shadian to the ground, killing more than 900 Muslims and injuring at least 600 others in the process. Indeed, the PLA’s actions did not just stop there, as many other surrounding Muslim villages suffered the same fate as that of Shadian. Hundreds were massacred and many villages destroyed to serve as strict warnings to those who opposed Chairman Mao’s revolutionary movements and adhered to Islam.

Individuals accused by the Red Guards of being anti-revolutionists and anti-Mao were harshly treated and inhumanely punished during the Cultural Revolution

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