Winner of Los Angeles Press Club Award, 2014
Judge’s comment: Theresa Marie Moreau’s compelling story of Catherine Wang, who endured many hardships for clinging to her religion under 1950’s Communist China, is a sobering reminder of the intolerance of authoritarian regimes.
To read the whole story, purchase
"Misery and Virtue"
Here is an excerpt:
Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it done to me according to thy word.
– Saint Luke 1:38 –
Inside a darkened cattle car, Catherine and Juliana Wang clung to each other, as they looked for a spot to sit on the manure- and urine-stained floorboards. In the elbow-to-elbow crowd of women prisoners,
the sisters sat and leaned back against a wall of rough-hewn planks.
the sisters sat and leaned back against a wall of rough-hewn planks.
Eventually, the locomotive’s engine roared. Metal clanged upon metal, as the couplers between rail cars tightened. Then the train, filled with convicts, sluggishly rolled out of the Shanghai West Railway Station.
It was October 1958, a dangerous time to be faithful Roman Catholics in the revolutionary, Communist-controlled People’s Republic of China.
Prisoners of conscience, the Wang sisters – declared enemies of the State for their unwavering Catholicism – were being transported, like beasts, from Shanghai to a prison in Chinghai province, the province of prisoners, the province of banishment, the province of unconquered vast open spaces to be conquered with the bare hands and bent backs of men and women on the wrong side of the Revolution.
Only 13 years earlier, on August 15, 1945, when Emperor Hirohito announced the unconditional surrender of Japan, signaling the end of World War II, life in the Republic of China had looked promising, especially in Shanghai, the highly cultured, international port city, praised as the “Paris of the Orient.” On that day of true liberation, planes flew over the city dropping leaflets, the war is over! People ran into the streets, with their arms raised, hollering with joy. Celebratory firecrackers exploded, with bits of singed red paper flying everywhere.
It was the end of the Japanese occupation. No more air raid sirens. No more Imperial Japanese Army soldiers. No more identification checkpoints. No more shakedowns. No more on-the-spot strip searches. No more prisoner-of-war internment camps.
And the Wangs shared in that optimism, even though the family had to squeeze into a humble, third-story, walk-up apartment on Boulevard de Montigny (former name of Xizang Road South). It was wonderful to live in the city’s French Concession, a district known for streets shaded by London plane trees with decorative marbled bark, pseudo-maple leaves and dangling seed balls.
With the future looking hopeful, the Wang family embraced life, even its daily struggles.
During the Plum Rain Season, when abundant rainfall coaxed the beauty of the pink plum blossoms along the Yangtze River, rivulets of rain poured through the holes in the apartment ceiling. Ten-year-old Catherine, warm and dry under a pile of quilts, watched with contentment as her mother, affectionately called Mm-Ma, rushed about, mopping the floor, happily emptying the overflowing wood tub, sauce pot, wash bowl and even the drinking mug.
At times, moments of enchantment filled the evenings.
When Catherine’s father, her Ah-Bà, returned home from his job as secretary in a Belgian-owned real estate company, sometimes the musical instruments hanging on the wall were retrieved from their places of honor. Ah-Bà sat, and upon his thigh he placed an erhu, a two-stringed Chinese violin held in one hand and bowed with the other. Mm-Ma wrapped her arms around a yueqin, balanced on her lap, as her fingers plucked the traditional Chinese four-stringed lute called the moon guitar for its hollow body shaped like a full moon.
In the dim light, Catherine listened, and a peace and calm fell upon her, as the tones of the erhu married the tones of the yueqin.
Once in a great while, Ah-Bà and Mm-Ma splurged and treated their two eldest children, John and Catherine, to a traditional Chinese opera. In the evening after dinner, the family walked a few short blocks north, up the wide and busy Boulevard de Montigny, dodging pedestrians in Chinese gowns, limbless beggars, noodle vendors and barefoot rickshaw runners. At the corner of Rue du Consulat (former name of Jinling Road East) stood the very famous Gold Theater.
Catherine’s favorite opera “Suo Lin Nang” (“The Jewelry Bag”) hinged on the chance meeting of two brides, one wealthy, the other poor. The plot unfolded, revealing universal themes of generosity, gratitude and reversal of fortune, while embracing the Confucian philosophical ideal of reciprocity.
From the back row, the least expensive seats, she watched as Yan-Chiu Cheng (old form of Yanqiu Zheng) played Hsiang-Ling Hsueh (old form of Xiangling Xue), the bride from a very wealthy family. Catherine sat transfixed as Cheng, dressed in a brightly colored bridal costume and exaggerated makeup, traveled in a luxurious sedan across the stage, followed by a long procession of servants playing horns and gongs, carrying the bride’s trousseau. With his tones of sorrow, Cheng’s singing stabbed at Catherine’s heart and wrenched emotions from her, forever leaving deep impressions. He was one of the “famous four” actors for a reason.
On the mundane side of day-to-day life, Catherine began her education at a local municipal primary school. Even though lacking knowledge of the very basics – because the war had made education a difficult pursuit – she quickly caught up.
Then in 1947, at the age of 12, she transferred to Aurora University’s College of Arts and Sciences, the Catholic university’s auxiliary all-girl preparatory secondary school.
Catherine’s Ah-Bà, as a child, had attended École Franco-Chinoise, the French-Chinese School, renowned for its French-language program, at 179 Boulevard de Montigny in the French Concession. Always a brilliant student, year after year he received the Number 1 test score, for which he was always rewarded with the Number 1 seat in the classroom. And because of his academic excellence, the school also granted to him free tuition, which allowed him to continue his education, all the way to university.
Ah-Bà, who was orphaned at a young age, and Mm-Ma had both been raised as pagans. In traditional Chinese style, they followed Buddhism, especially on Lunar New Year’s Eve, when custom mandated that children kowtow three times before an image of Buddha.
One day, I will adore a real God, thought Catherine’s father as a boy, when forced to kneel down and touch his forehead to the ground thrice in front of a stone-cold, pot-bellied statue.
Over the years, as Ah-Bà continued his education in Catholic schools, he began to feel drawn to the Church. After his marriage and the birth, in 1929, of their first child, a son, all three were baptized at the same time, in 1932, with holy water cupped from the marble font in Saint Peter’s Catholic Church, on Avenue Dubail (former name of Chongqing Road South), the collegiate church of Aurora.
Ah-Bà was baptized Louis, after Saint Louis the King. Mm-Ma received the baptismal name Mary. Their son was baptized John, after Saint John the Apostle. And when their first daughter was born, in 1935, she was readily baptized Catherine, after Saint Catherine of Alexandria (282-305), the brilliant and beautiful Virgin Martyr who was scourged, imprisoned, then finally beheaded. Then Juliana arrived, and, eventually, the youngest, Cecilia.
Despite a religious home and an education in a prestigious Catholic school, Catherine, unlike Ah-Bà, didn’t particularly feel an attraction to the sacred life. She was the type of girl who liked fun and laughter. Rather than spend time reading passages from the Bible, she preferred to spread before her the pages of Shen-Pao, a Shanghai local daily newspaper, to look at the pictures and to read the short serialized stories, even though her educated father hinted that she should seek deeper understanding in life.
“One should also read editorials,” he counseled.
Editorials weren’t fun. And neither were the after-school weekly catechism classes on the fundamentals of the faith, taught by any one of the many Jesuit priests affiliated with the Aurora campus. But there was no escape, because as she and the other girls walked down the stairs to leave school for the day, the nuns, the Mesdames of the Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, were always waiting at the bottom step, to direct them, with a glance of an eye and a point of a finger, straight to the lecture hall.
Until one day, when Catherine, a girl as clever as she was pretty, figured out a way to escape the dreaded catechism class. Instead of going down the stairs, she walked up the stairs, to the roof, through the roof terrace, down the stairs of the convent next to the school, through a large garden tended by the sisters, and skipped straight out the back gate, smiling to herself all the way to the street, where she was free!
But such a carefree life for Catherine, and others, didn’t last.
The 20th century had brought many changes to China.
The death of Empress Dowager Tzu-Hsi, in November 1908, had opened the door for change. After the Republican Revolution of 1911 finally ousted the traditional rulers, ending the centuries-long dynastic rule of Imperial China, the Chinese Nationalist Party quickly rose to power and became the official government of the new Republic of China.
After the Communist Party opened its first Chinese chapter in Shanghai, in 1921, members secretly infiltrated the Nationalist Party, but were purged from the ranks, in 1927, sparking the Chinese Civil War between the two factions, which lasted, off and on, for decades. In 1937, the fighting temporarily ceased when the Communists coerced the Nationalists into a temporary truce to join forces in the Second United Front to fight the invaders from the Empire of the Sun in the Second Chinese-Japanese War (1937-45). But the Reds had plotted to use the lull as a ruse to gain more control and power, which they did.
With the end of the war between the Allied Forces and the Axis Powers, on August 15, 1945, the civil war picked up in the countryside where it had left off. The Nationalists – headed by Generalissimo Kai-Shek Chiang – and the Communists – headed by Tse-Tung Mao – fought hard, and as the fighting destroyed the nation, the Communists continued to gain more ground and more control in the rural areas.
Then the Communists aimed for the cities.
On February 3, 1949, victorious Red troops paraded into the city of Peking (old form of Beijing), the North Capital. Then on April 23, they marched triumphantly into Nanching (old form of Nanjing), the South Capital, in Chiangsu (old form of Jiangsu) province.
Nanching was only 187 miles from Shanghai, also in Chiangsu.
It would be just a matter of time. And it didn’t take long. The following month, on May 27, 1949, the Communists “liberated” Shanghai, the city in the East built by the West.
Although the nearby countryside had been scarred by military battles, the city proper escaped fairly unscathed. Catherine never heard a single gunshot, perhaps because she lived in the center of Shanghai, a city sprawling over an area of more than 2,000 square miles. The only sign of “liberation” that she noticed was the following day, when she saw People’s Liberation Army soldiers lying around, reclining on the pavement in the streets, relaxing in their glorious victory.
Not much changed, at first.
Communism has been described as having three stages. The first phase of Communism is the kowtow (polite). The second phase is the yaotow (forbid). The third phase is the satow (kill).
In Shanghai, the Communists had just launched the first phase: the very polite kowtow.
When the school year began, the People’s Liberation Army Cultural Troupe entered the school campus freely every day after classes. Being a teenager looking for excitement and diversion, Catherine readily joined the music group. She enjoyed being with the Communists. They were fun.
The old songbooks filled with the beautiful lyrics of the ancient poets formerly sung in school were tossed away by the Communists. Instead, the army troupe performers, decked out in impressive and enviable gray uniforms, taught the students how to sing revolutionary songs, which mostly consisted of shouting slogans.
“Where the Party points, there we go!” Catherine and the others chanted in unison. “Tse-Tung Mao Thought is the beacon, lighting our advance!”
To go along with the slogans, students were also taught how to play the yaogu, a canister shaped, doubled-ended drum tied at the waist and beaten with sticks.
The students were ready to march by the time Chairman Mao stood atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Peking’s Tiananmen Square, on October 1, 1949, and announced, “The Central People’s Government Council of the People’s Republic of China took office today in this capital.”
To celebrate the glory of the Communist Party on that very first National Day, the army troupe organized the students to form a primitive parade. They shouted slogans and pounded their waist drums, as they walked along the crowded city streets, which would soon be renamed because of the city’s “liberation” from the despised reactionary and counterrevolutionary factions. Those streets with Western, bourgeois names would be replaced with names that honored the Revolution.
An exuberant Catherine shouted with the others, “Heaven and earth are great, but greater is the kindness of the Party! Father is dear, Mother is dear, but not as dear as Chairman Mao!”
Into the late-night hours, Catherine paraded around, aimlessly following the others along the streets of Shanghai. Exhausted, she wanted to go home but had no idea where she was, until she realized that she was along the Whangpoo River. Just around the corner was Saint Joseph Catholic Church, located at 36 Sichuan Road South (formerly Rue Montauban), where she and her family attended Sunday Mass. So she sneaked away and hurried home. By the time she quietly opened the door to the apartment on Boulevard de Montigny and tiptoed to her bed trying not to wake anyone, it was almost midnight.
“If you bring that drum home next time, I’ll throw it out!” her brother, John, threatened.
Apparently not everyone had been asleep.
Back at school, Catherine continued with the troupe. But then, some of the students held a meeting to start up a branch of the Communist Youth League. They invited Catherine, and she happily attended. Held in a small classroom, only a handful of students showed up. Quickly, she noticed that the meeting, in its tone, was completely different from the music group. Fun-loving Catherine listened carefully to what was said, and what she heard in the hate-filled ideology, she didn’t like.
The leader, who addressed the group of students, mocked religion and slandered the priests and nuns.
Didn’t the Communists promise freedom of religion? Why are their actions not keeping with their promise? Catherine wondered.
After that meeting, Catherine refused to take part in any of their activities.
Instead, sometime in the spring of 1950, when classmate Ma-Li “Mary” Gu asked Catherine to join the Legion of Mary, a religious organization, she readily accepted the invitation. Since she had dropped out of the Communist-led groups, and the government began banning all forms of entertainment, except that which pushed the revolutionary propaganda, she had not much else to do.
With its name taken from the Litany of Our Lady, Catherine’s Legion branch was Mother Most Chaste. Meetings were held in the Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Convent, where Catherine sometimes saw a priest with a kind face, Father William Aedan McGrath. The Irishman had spearheaded the work to set up the Legion in China, at the urging of Archbishop Antonio Riberi, apostolic nuncio, the liaison between the Vatican in Rome and the dioceses and religious institutions in China.
For Legionary work, in adherence to the virtuous corporal works of mercy, Catherine and her fellow Legionaries went in pairs to visit the sick children in Guang Ci Hospital, which was a large Catholic hospital, originally named L’Hôpital Sainte-Marie. The little patients were very young, very thin and very frail, as a result of their illnesses, but when they saw the Legionaries, they immediately filled with joy.
The Legion brought a new beginning, a new meaning to Catherine’s life. The seed of spirituality that had been planted in her heart began to sprout. It seemed as if she had finally begun to heed her father’s advice of seeking a deeper understanding in the world, not only of the natural, but also of the supernatural.
Around the same time, the Wang family moved to Sainte Anne Apartments, at the corner of Jinling Road East and Yongan Road (formerly Rue Laguerre). After the move, the entire family began to regularly attend the daily 6 a.m. Mass at nearby Saint Joseph Catholic Church, headed by Jesuit missionaries from France.
Perhaps the family was inspired by the cross gleaming atop the middle tower, which they could see from their apartment balcony, just one parallel block over. Or perhaps it was the tolling of the bell three times a day, at 6 a.m., noon and 6 p.m., signaling the faithful to pray the Angelus. Or perhaps it was a simple need for something spiritual in a world becoming all too materialistic under the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, led by the totalitarian Communist regime.
After morning Mass, Catherine rushed home, ate a quick bowl of breakfast congee, a rice porridge, and grabbed her school books. She then rushed down the street, where she jumped on the electric streetcar that ran along Jinling Road East and turned onto the very busy Huaihai Road (formerly Avenue Joffre), lined with parasol trees on both sides of the road. She rode all the way until her stop at Ruijin Road (formerly Route des Soeurs), where she hopped off and headed to school.
When the final school bell rang at 3:30 p.m., she and her classmates walked half a block and crossed the street to Christ the King Catholic Church, at 223 Changle Road (formerly Rue Bourgeat), staffed with American and Chinese Jesuits. The priests were all friendly and kept their young flock busy with plenty of religious activities. For Catherine, first there was homework, followed by choir practice until the service that began each afternoon at 5:30 p.m., which consisted of the rosary, doctrinal instruction and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Also included was a regular catechism class for the elder students. By that time, Catherine loved catechism class.