The People's Republic of China, the communist government of China, founded in 1949, was a world away from where it is today. The people had been through 13 years fighting off the Japanese and a four-year civil war with the Nationalist Party (Guomindang) of President Chiang Kai-shek. They were tired, beaten and hungry. They were looking with hope for better days.
Mao Zedong and his peasant armies seemed to fill the bill. His armies did not rape and steal from the peasants as had Chiang's army. They went from town to town, victory to victory singing. Singing the praises of the people, the peasants, the poor, forgotten ones who had become fodder for war.
Religious organizations were not troubled at first. Christians were a small minority and with all their money and missionaries gone were not a problem to the new regime.
Gradually in the late 1950s some churches were closed and when the Great Cultural Revolution broke out under the auspices of Chairman Mao's wife, all churches, missionary schools and hospitals, were raided and closed. Some, like the Grace Church (formerly Baptist) of Shanghai, became a printing factory. The Shanghai Muen Church (formerly Methodist) became a public school. The Community Church (Anglican) was used for local opera groups to practice.
The Cultural Revolution was not cultural nor revolutionary. It was great only in the death and destruction meted out to those thought to be Mao's enemies. It was a political stunt that got out of hand. Even the army could not contain the young Red Guards (hongwiebing, ages 8-30) that scrounged the cities and country destroying religious and foreign objects right and left.
This turmoil lasted for just over ten years, from 1966-76. The same time the United States was fighting a loosing war in Vietnam, and American youth were on a binge that made little sense – drugs, communes, free love, Woodstock.
Pastors, church workers and most families were split up and put to work in factories. Some told me of those days when they wondered if they would ever be allowed to go to church again. The unlearned and uneducated forced medical doctors to clean toilets. It was debasing to anyone who had any contacts with former missionaries or foreigners.
Many great writers and intellectuals died. Even the sitting president of the country, Liu Shaoqi, was left to die in a hospital. And Deng Xiaoping, who later led the country, was banished with his wife to the countryside. Deng's oldest son was thrown from a balcony and remained a cripple the rest of his life.
Mao was dying in 1976. Premier Zhou Enlai had died that January. Zhou was one of the men who kept Mao from being as bad as he could have been. Mao's wife and her cohorts, "the Gang of Four," were arrested and the reign of terror began to subside.
Churches began to be reopened in 1979. They petitioned the government to restore their property. It took time, but little by little they were given back. Grace Church had a huge bill as they cleaned the ink and smoke from the former tenant, a printing factory. Like all the others, the members paid for the repairs and rejoiced at being once again able to worship God in the sanctuary. More Roman Catholic priest suffered due to their ties to a foreign government, the Vatican in Rome. That is still a sticky problem for Catholics in China.
Now almost 45 years have passed since the Chinese people went through years of turmoil that almost killed the country. Provinces wanted to separate, leading thinkers had fled, schools shut down for years, a hopelessness engulfed them.
One day in 1981 a young man walked through the gates of the Jinling Theological Seminary in the heart of Nanjing. The school had just re-opened. He told the gateman, "Please, I must see someone here." The gatekeeper looked at him. He looked like thousands of others on the streets of the city. White shirt, blue cotton pants, well-worn sandals.
From the front steps professor Chen Zemin (the Dean) emerged and waved for the boy to come on in. It was evident the young man had been there before – but not under such circumstances. He stood before the white-haired professor, blurted out his name, fumbled with his hands that could not find anything to do. He begged the teacher's pardon for the intrusion.
Chen came down the steps and invited the young man to come in out of the sun. The boy looked at Chen and asked, "But, can you forgive me?"
The boy sat with his head in his hands as he tried to explain what burdened him. Fifteen years earlier, he had been one of the Red Guards that broke into the seminary and vandalized it. He helped throw library books from the second floor and making them into a huge bond fire.
He wanted to say more, but could only ask if he could be forgiven for such a crime. Chen let him pour out his heart. It was not a pleasant memory for either of them. Chen remembered the day the Red Guards came on the campus, set up headquarters and gave the school 48 hours to clear out. Faculty worked into the night to save as many books as they could cart away. Then the time was cut to 24 hours. Books and papers were destroyed. The place was no longer a place of peace and learning, but a base for misled youth to do carry on their "nation-cleansing." It was happening all over China.
Dean Chen Zemin offered him a cup of tea. "Yes," he said to the lad, "Those were days when wrong became right, and right became wrong. Nothing made sense." Being forgiven is a blessing and relief, the same as it is for those doing the forgiving. If you life is out of whack somewhere, peace begins with forgiveness.