Paul Sun’s life of strength, faith, and defiance

Interstate 880 runs right along the eastern shore of the San Francisco Bay. Its posted speed limit is 65 mph, but drivers are indifferent, rarely meeting radar guns or speeding tickets. My grandfather was the same— I, ten years old and vaguely interested in staying alive, would shout from the backseat for him to slow down, alarmed as the speedometer continued pulling clockwise. He’d laugh and throw his head back, joking, “When you’re old like I am, you get an extra mile per hour for every year you’ve lived. I’m already eighty, so I get to drive fast!” I accepted this as a valid excuse, aided by the sweets he slipped me under my grandmother’s watchful eye.

They had a garden in the backyard, with tomato plants always snaking out of designated cages. As a child I believed this meant that they were farmers. Sundays spent at their house were routine, as we zoomed down I-880 on our way to church, where he led Bible studies and I bartered with my friends for tickets to earn prizes. I grew up largely flippant with my faith, spoiled like old tomatoes under the warm Californian sun. After church, I’d sneak upstairs to play solitaire on their squarish beige desktop, which congratulated my wins with bouncing, pixelated graphics. While considering a career in professional card-playing, I would nose around the desk, flipping through newspapers, leafing through my grandfather’s always-open Bible, wondering how he could read one book so many times. He never told me what led him to such devotion, instead secretly writing his stories into a memoir hidden until after his stroke.

I have long considered devout religion to be quiet, selfless, uneventful. Piety seemed incompatible with adventure and courage and strength. My grandfather’s stories of his life in the turbulence of anti-Christian, newly Communist China illustrated a faith so different from the one I had known— a disruptive, subversive faith, that fought and suffered for the right to persist.

           I was reported as 反革命 (counter-revolutionary)— from then on, the hospital’s attitude toward me changed. Later in the political movement, I stopped receiving a salary and was sent to 劳改 (a labor reform camp). The day I arrived at the camp was December 8— the light rain was falling again. After dinner that same day, we were ordered to transport feces many miles away. Because I was the tallest, they made me pull the horse-drawn carriage. They let the horse rest. I pulled the carriage. The others strained on a rope. We walked for tens of miles, then filled the carriage with three thousand pounds of excrement and pulled it all the way back. There was no lamplight, no moonlight; the mud road was slick and the work was draining, especially since I had never labored like this before. By the time we arrived back, daylight was already seeping over the camp. We rested for a minute and continued to work.
            My heart was struggling; why? Of the people beside me, some were Kuomintang officers who had crossed the front with the People’s Liberation Army, some were capitalists, some were rightists. Why me? Only because I believe in Jesus. If I told the leader now that I was willing to forsake my faith, all of my problems would be solved.
           My God, He is real.
           Jesus whom I believe in, He is my Lord.
           He paved the way for my salvation, bled for me, died for me. He loves me. I cannot betray him.

During China’s radical transformation, what began as promises of freedoms and liberation morphed into grotesque, dehumanizing purging and widespread fear. Doors closed on free speech, on religion, on tradition and education, as Mao turned on China’s long-held values and rich history, only to paralyze the nation with his plans for reform. This first took root at the dawn of the Communist takeover in 1949, when my grandfather was a medical student at Beijing University. Previously, he was baptized by an American Presbyterian missionary, who noticed his academic potential and offered to send him to the United States for medical school. Out of a deep love for his country, he declined.

At Beijing University, he attended the student Christian fellowship and met my grandmother. Soon, classes at the university began to be mainly populated by students belonging either to the Party or to the Communist Youth League— red students. The rest, my grandparents included, were white, regularly distrusted and surveilled, and, as Mao’s cult of personality expanded, an imposing likeness of him was erected on campus, and all were expected to bow to it. When their class was ordered to bow, seven in the room – including my grandparents – stood still, adamant in their refusal to bow before a man who was not god.

The air that surrounded them continued to thicken as fellowships and churches were closed, and my grandfather graduated, already beginning to regret refusing the opportunity to move abroad. As he submitted his papers for work assignment, a high-ranking secretary called to speak with him about his future prospects. Although my grandfather was offered a well-paid, well-regarded position in the university, under the condition of renouncing Christianity, he insisted on maintaining this faith, which had begun to bloom under the tension. He was consequently assigned to a position away from Beijing, his home, and his family. He applied for reassignment to no avail.

The political atmosphere became so frenzied that Christians were harassed and pastors arrested under anti-religious policies, leading Pastor Wang Mingdao (王明道) to publish and circulate an article, “们是为了信仰” (We Do This For Our Faith) in 1955, to which the generation of believers credits their resilience and solidarity. Red Guards ransacked the homes of Christians, beating and humiliating them as public spectacles. These believers were deemed as criminal as rightists and prisoners of war. Christianity, often regarded as a Western tool of imperial domination, had never quite been as personal for the Chinese as it was now.

The China that he had stayed for seemed to have disappeared. This China was theirs – the Communists’ – and his heart burned against them. Many of his loved ones were already living full, peaceful lives abroad. He yearned to do the same. Away from his home and family, my grandfather worked long hours as a surgeon, catching the attention of the hospital director. He recalled:

           After working in the hospital for a time, there was a day when I had just finished in the operating room and the director was waiting in the office for me. He told me about the hospital’s current situation, saying that they needed someone like me, a graduate of the Beijing University Medical School, the only one in the hospital. He said I had a promising future and pulled out a 入党申请书  (Communist Party application), stating that the Party had read about me and was willing to accept me after seeing my background and birth. The one thing holding me back was that I was a Christian— once I entered the Party, my faith would certainly be gone. I steadied myself briefly and said, “I am not qualified!” This was the end of our conversation. I understood the meaning of what I had said; he understood the meaning of my words, that I would persist in my faith.

Rejecting the Party’s invitation signed his warrant for detention in a labor camp, where he spent several years away from his wife, son, and profession, hauling manure under the unforgiving burden of captivity. My grandfather does not mention much of his experiences in the labor camp. When I asked my grandmother why neither of them told stories about the Cultural Revolution, she simply replied that there was too much fear. My grandmother is a formidable woman, and her presence is as commanding as her gaze is clear, but as I asked her this, she seemed to retreat, to hold in a deep breath, her eyes taking on a glassy, faraway look. Staring through the wall as if returning to her past, she admitted that the fear continues to this day. She refused to say Mao Zedong’s name or to express her opinions. It has been 27 years since she left China. It was as if she had been holding her breath this entire time.

For many years, my grandfather has had a simple catchphrase – 谢主!(Praise the Lord!) – which he utters before meals and sporadically throughout the day in the same triumphant tone. Only now do I realize this habitual phrase is rooted in his past as a person of faith in the labor camp.

           There was one time where I was sent alone to a field very far away to cut grass and haul it back. It was summertime; the sky was empty; the sun had been beating down for three days. When I reached the open field, all of my water was gone and I had run out of sweat. I began to panic, knowing these were symptoms of heatstroke. Filled with alarm, my heart pounded incessantly, uncomfortably, as I sat there. Next to the road was a small ditch with water, so in my haste, I jumped in hoping to cool down. As soon as my skin touched the water, I immediately jumped back out, since the water was scalding hot, boiling from the sun. There were no trees or covered spaces around as I sat on the ground, completely alone. I prayed: God, will I die here like this? Lord, save me!
           At this moment, a single palm-sized cloud floated in the sky very far to the east. I had not observed it before; it was too small. While I failed to notice, the dark cloud suddenly engulfed the sun, and a large storm drew near. My body temperature immediately lowered— fall, heavy rains, fall! I delighted in this storm like no other and shouted to the emptiness, “Praise the Lord! You saved me; you continue to preserve me,” as the rain poured from my head down across my entire body, refreshing and cool.

I distinctly remember a quiet afternoon where my grandfather decided to teach me to play Chinese chess. I was barely literate in Chinese enough to even read the characters on the pieces, but he was patient and thorough as always. Somehow, he engineered the game so that I would win every time we played, and I would leap up, cocky and high on victory, while he laughed. I imagine he was allowing me a childhood, handing me some wins before I had to confront losses, sharing parts of a country he loved. Through him, China was clever games and quick mathematics and sweet success to me. It was nothing but easy and exciting.

His brush with death at the labor camp was not the end of his hardships. Returning from the camp, my grandfather resumed his position as surgeon in Tianjin, but although he was more qualified with better credentials than the other doctors, he never received any promotions and was forced to work grueling hours. Each new day was another of uncertainty and risk. Amid increasing tension in 1970, a new government policy threatened his family’s future and pushed him to the limits of his faith.

           The hospital informed me that my family had to move to Inner Mongolia. This was a command from the Party. We were expected to obey. When I found out about this, I could only shake my head. There was nothing I could do. Inner Mongolia was a wilderness then— there would be no roads, no cars, no real house. The conditions would be extremely hard. And what of my young sons who were attending school? How would they be educated? My daughter had just been born. I was at a loss. A sister in Christ came to visit us, saying we should pray. I had run out of faith. Our luggage and furniture were waiting at the door, prepared to leave, but still we prayed. The day before our departure, we were notified that there had been a change of plans, that we were no longer going. They had no reason for this. I believe this was part of a series of events made by God to train me. I was revived.

This revival was not contained to my grandfather’s life alone. Twenty years of holding their breath was enough for Chinese Christians, who resolved to create spaces where their faith could be nurtured rather than strained. Left alone, without foreign missionaries to dictate church organization, they rallied together and demonstrated a strength and conviction that could never have been predicted by the Western world, who long considered them heathens. By the 1970s, an astonishing development grasped Christianity and reclothed it to be wholly Chinese. After my grandfather’s “Mongolia revival,” his faith was affirmed. What began as devotionals within his family expanded to include close family friends, which rapidly grew to become one of thousands of 家庭教会 (house churches) blooming in both urban and rural areas. This was the purest possible expression of Matthew’s “two or three”. By the end of the decade, historians estimate that there were five to six million Chinese Protestants within the house churches alone— and these communities were rapidly growing.

My father remembers their own house church. These meetings of Christians were generally unsupervised, without the leadership of ordained ministers, and very simple. Amidst the tension, these began with simple studies of Bible passages and developed to include discussion and interpretation. Initially, the Christians gathered were too afraid to sing songs of worship during these services, but my father recalled that after a while, the congregation decided to start singing, so even in the humid, thick air of the small home, they would cautiously shut all the windows and sing quietly, joyously, to their God. Through the sweat and the songs lived a hushed revolution. In this house church system, many passionate leaders were like my grandparents, lay people who were highly educated and driven by experiences from their youth. This system endures, still massively popular, only continuing to grow, thriving mainly on the unexpectedly powerful social capital that Chinese Christians have within their communities. The generation which pioneered this movement – my grandparents’ generation – are training the next group of Chinese Christians, who still hide from the government in closed homes, carrying the legacy of the counter-revolutionary. They will train the next, and so on.

Years after these events, having wanted to leave for decades, my grandfather boarded a flight to California in 1989, mere days before the Tiananmen protests on June 4. It felt like an escape. He did not feel the need to look back. When choosing an English name, my grandfather chose “Paul,” after the great apostle who experienced an incredible transformation and helped spread the Gospel far and wide. He attended seminary to develop his faith at the age of 60, served as a Bible study leader until his late eighties, and sang loudly, proudly, in the choir. Recently, I went to visit him at his home. With his receding memory, he no longer tells stories of the past. When I discuss history with my father, he says, “It is a great shame that the Chinese so easily forget.” Perhaps my grandfather, in his old age, has forgotten the things that led to this fraught relationship with his country. Perhaps there is no use in trying to unearth those memories. But I noticed there is one thing that he clings to, even now. He sat in his wheelchair, facing the window, watching the snow as it fell, and he sang, and sang, and sang.


I don’t know about tomorrow, I just live from day to day.
I don’t borrow from its sunshine for its skies may turn to grey.
Many things about tomorrow, I don’t seem to understand.
But I know who holds tomorrow, and I know who holds my hand.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Thanks to 孙克正 (Paul Kezheng Sun), 张滨范 (Hannah Binfan Sun), 孙通 (William Tong Sun)