Blood Letters: The Untold Story of Lin Zhao, a Martyr in Mao’s China
by Lian Xi
Basic Books

In The New Class: An Analysis of the Communist System, published in 1957, Milovan Djilas pointed out the central paradox of communist ideology: once a party had consoli­dated its power base, it would display the same exploitative characteristics as the capitalist class system it claimed to be dismantling. The Yugoslav communist politician, political theorist and author added that it was the foot soldiers who tended to suffer the most. “Revolutionaries who accept the ideas and slogans of the revolution literally,” he wrote, “are usually liquidated.”

If Djilas’ book had been published earlier, it may have changed the life of Lin Zhao, a young political activist born Peng Lingzhao who met a tragic end 50 years ago on April 29, during the Cultural Revolution. The enthusiastic young revolutionary joined the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1948 and spent a decade as a loyal member before being arrested on suspicion of being a rightist, in January 1958.

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Djilas’ critique of communist ideology was published the same year that the far-left went on a murderous rampage across China in the name of Mao Zedong’s Anti-Rightist Campaign. As historian Lian Xi recalls in his new book Blood Letters: The Untold Story of Lin Zhao, a Martyr in Mao’s China, the campaign targeted so-called “leading rightists” across the then new communist state. It resulted in hundreds of thousands of intellectuals being killed, jailed or persecuted.

The purge of rightists was part of a cleansing operation across China during the early years of the Cultural Revolution, a decade-long nightmare that saw about 1.5 million people die in an orgy of ideological violence.

The party defined rightists as any individuals or groups who called on the CCP to share power with nominally demo­cratic parties. But as Xi’s meticulously researched book makes clear from the beginning, the Anti-Rightist Campaign would become the final nail in the coffin for any Chinese intellec­tuals or socialists who believed an independent and free-thinking China could be maintained under Mao.

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Xi’s book can essentially be separated into two sections. The first half documents Lin’s early life, family background, education at a Methodist mission school in Suzhou, and work as a journalist at Peking University dedicated to the communist cause. It explains how, in 1958, the party started targeting dissidents in university campuses across China. Fearing for their lives, almost all immediately made self criticisms.

Lin, though, was an exception. As Xi explains in the introduction: “Lin Zhao’s defiance of the regime was unparalleled in Mao’s China. The tens of millions who perished as the direct result of the CCP rule died as victims, their voices unheard.”

Lin’s initial punishment for defending friends denounced as rightists and refusing to comply with strict totalitarian socialist doctrine was three years in a labour re-education camp. But this failed to break her spirit or her thirst for individual freedom.

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The poet, journalist and writer was arrested again in 1960. This time she was charged with being the leader of a counter-revolutionary clique that published A Spark of Fire, a journal that was critical of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, the disastrous push for development that caused an unprecedented famine between
1959 and 1961, claiming at least 36 million lives.

Lin was singled out over a long poem she contributed to the journal. Titled A Day in Prometheus’ Passion, it mocked Mao by painting him as a villainous Zeus.

Blood Letters is a rewarding, extremely moving read, but it can be tough going. Especially the parts that document, in vivid detail, the physical and emotional abuse Lin was subjected to in the run up to her execution

It’s here that the second half – and most interesting section – of Blood Letters begins. It focuses on Lin’s years as a prisoner of conscience up to her execution, on April 29, 1968, when she was shot in Shanghai’s Tilanqiao Prison and, Xi writes, her family were likely made to pay for the bullet.

Blood Letters is a rewarding, extremely moving read, but it can be tough going. Especially the parts that document, in vivid detail, the physical and emotional abuse Lin was subjected to in the run up to her execution. Suffering from tuberculosis and coughing up blood, Lin was forced to wear a tight rubber hood called a “monkey cap”. Covering the prisoner’s entire face, the hood had narrow slits for the eyes and mouth. The purpose was to prevent outspoken prisoners from contaminating others with their ideology.

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The title of Xi’s book comes from the way Lin expressed her contempt for Mao’s regime – letters written in her own blood. These were addressed to her mother, the United Nations and, most frequently, the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the CCP. The letters probably never made it past the prison gates, but they were kept by the party’s bureaucratic machine as evidence.

Xi manages to keep a distance from his subject and strikes a balanced view of Lin’s emotive and fragile person­ality. Parallels can certainly be drawn to books such as Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom (1994), Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks (1926), The Diary of Bobby Sands (1981) and Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope (1989).

Xi explains that Lin was seen as a martyr by many, and the sustained emotional and physical abuse took its toll on the dissident. She attempted suicide many times and her letters – some of which are reproduced in the book – reveal her descent into madness. In her cell, for example, she built a makeshift altar to her late father and held daily conversations with him.

Xi has clearly done his homework and the book makes use of a wide range of historical sources. These include numerous interviews with friends, classmates, counter-revolu­tionaries and fellow dissident inmates – who were particularly valuable when piecing together Lin’s final days. Especially since her files remain under lock and key by the party today.

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A small collection of prison diaries and letters were returned to Lin’s family after her posthumous rehabilitation, in 1981, and Xi was given a copy of the privately printed Collected Writings of Lin Zhao in 2013. But Xi’s research also took him on a journey to the United Methodist archives in Madison, New Jersey; and to Lin’s tomb in Suzhou. As Xi notes in the book’s conclusion, surveillance cameras have been installed at the tomb in recent years to deter potential dissidents from paying their respects.

Xi ends Blood Letters with a subtle suggestion. Chinese citizens may now enjoy greater personal and political freedoms than they did during the Mao era, but the iron fist and watchful eye of the party are never far away, making this biography all the more important as we mark the 50th anniversary of Lin’s execution.