`Blood Letters: The Untold Story of Lin Zhao, A Martyr in Mao’s China’ (Basic Books, New York, 2018) by Lian Xi, is not for the faint of heart. Lin Zhao was commended by Nobel Laureate, the late Liu Xiaobo, as one of the figures who inspired him. He had been alerted, as had the author of this book Lian Xi, to the existence of her writings from prison. They are particularly distinctive not solely because of the account they give of great deprivations and suffering while incarcerated before and during the Cultural Revolution in China from 1966, but because many of them were written with her own blood. This was for the simple reason that ink was disallowed to her. She had no other choice but to write the way she did.
The manner in which Lian Xi presents Lin in the opening chapters put me in mind of accounts of the life of the French philosopher Simone Weil. She effectively starved herself to death in the Second World (while working for the resistance in the UK) through a combination of asceticism and lack of self-care. Lian like Weil was herself a Christian, after an initial passionate commitment to the Communist cause. In the 1950s she grew increasingly critical of the Mao regime, and this had developed into an almost reckless disdain by the 1960s. Before the Cultural Revolution had even started, she had been repaid for her critical stance by being tried as a counter-revolutionary and put in jail.
Many of her actions should have been diagnosed, in a more enlightened environment, as personality disorders. She was clearly a highly driven, often very anxious and complex person. These were seen initially as indications of her strangeness, and then as signs of political deviancy as time went on. Prison life only deepened her issues, with a constant diet of mindless brutality and cruelty. Far from being in a place where she might have received appropriate care, she was shoved more deeply into Hell.
The treatment of her is not just an indictment of Mao and the particular style of politics he created, with its constant need of victims and marginalised people to blame everything on, but of a society which was, by the late 1960s, deeply traumatised, self-traumatising, and engaged in spiritual auto-genocide. It is bewildering that so many people acted in the way they did, picking on and victimising figures like Lin, and then executing them in the most inhumane and undignified manner. There is no light at the end of this particular tunnel. Lin was treated with such injustice and lack of compassion that even her rehabilitation in the post Mao period only added insult to injury, as though the Party were admitting its period of acting in such an aberrant way were a temporary loss of its sanity, and just awful bad luck for people like Lin to have been collateral loss during it. Like I said at the start, this book is not one for the faint hearted.