Book Review: Blood Letters by Lian Xi
Book Review: Blood Letters: The Untold Story of Lin Zhao, a Martyr in Mao’s China by Lian Xi
It’s been quite a while since I’ve written anything here, much less reviewed a book. I’ve been busy this year. Being a stay-at-home dad has been a lot more work than I thought! I’ve also spoken at two different conferences, put the finishing touches on my forthcoming book, and began plotting out a new book I hope to write this next year. I also spent the month of March traveling around the country (4 trips!) thinking about next steps in my career (more on that in the coming month!). All of that is to say, I haven’t made much time for blogging. But I have found a little time to read (mostly on airplanes and in airports).
One of the books I read last month was Lian Xi’s biography of Lin Zhao. For me, this was a fascinating look into the rise of communist China. Lin Zhao was a woman who grew up in China before and during the Communist revolution. She was born to a well-off family who paid for her to be educated at a Methodist women’s school. There, she converted to Christianity at a young age. Like so many young Chinese Christians of her time period, she had a second conversion to communism. The corruption of the nationalist government led many to believe that the communists offered a more just and equitable social vision. She joined the communist party as a young girl but had her membership revoked for disobedience. Even so, she opted to go to the communist journalism school instead of the university. There, she was trained in all of the methods of propaganda that formed the machinery for Mao’s China. After school, she continued to participate in the communist revolution, working to redistribute farmland from wealthy landowners to the peasant farmers. She tried really hard to be readmitted to the party; however, her contrarian personality made it hard for her simply be a good communist.
As Mao’s China became increasingly restrictive, Zhao saw that the vision of justice and equality that drew her to communism was being replaced with an authoritarian regime that feared dissent. At this point, Zhao became a dissident in Mao’s China, drawing on the resources of her renewed Christian faith as a means to articulate what was wrong.
Xi’s biography of Zhao presents Mao’s China with great attention to the cultural liturgies that made his authoritarian regime so powerful: iconic paintings of Mao on every wall, call-and-response readings from Mao’s Little Red Book, group singing, and the like. All of these produced a generation of communist party members with unquestioning loyalty to Mao. For Xi, what makes Zhao capable of resistance is her prior formation in a different set of liturgical practices as a Christian. Using unpublished letters from Zhao’s captivity, Xi gives us a picture of her life as a prisoner.