An elderly Chinese farmer trudged along the mountainous path of Chun Ta Ping, the warmth of his breath making white puffs in the frigid air, his stomach sounding continuous rumbles of hunger. Winter, 1960, marked two years of terrible famine; many in Hunan were starving.
The farmer noticed a bundle of rags alongside the road. Drawing closer, he realized it was the dead body of the prisoner who had been sent by the police in Yuanling the year before, charged with being a reactionary, an American spy, and an enemy of the Communist party. There was no food for the city’s jails, so the villagers were to keep him from escaping, and to show him no pity. The prisoner took shelter in a cave and begged for food. At first, some kindhearted people gave him leftovers, but as the famine worsened, there were no leftovers. At last he starved, cold and alone.
Making certain no one saw him, the kind farmer dug a shallow hole to bury the body. As he worked, he noticed a sweet odor like fragrant flowers. In the dead of winter, nothing was blossoming, yet the scent was powerful. He realized that the perfume was coming from the body of the reactionary who had apparently been dead for several days. Confused, the old man kept silent about the strange sweet smell and the roadside burial.
Some years later, the cadre (a civil administrator) James Kung came to the village to propagate the tenets of Mao Tse-Tung and re-arrest the prisoner. Kung was especially kind to the peasants and easily earned their trust. The farmer told him of the burial of the reactionary and then confessed the unusual odor he had noticed. He didn’t know that James was an underground Catholic and would have been shocked to find that the cadre knew the dead man, a Catholic priest. James pondered the farmer’s strange tale about the sweet smell. “How odd,” he thought, “that this priest’s Chinese name, Ziang-bai, means ‘fragrant cypress.’”
From Buddhist Monk to Catholic Priest. Nien Ziang-bai was born May 2, 1922, in Kiaokiang in the western province of Hunan. His pagan father died when he was a child, and his mother became a Buddhist nun. Ziang-bai, her only child, stayed with her as a little Buddhist monk.
One day, a catechist of the Supu Mission stopped at the convent for refuge. Mrs. Nien offered him hospitality, and the two discussed religion. Mrs. Nien became so interested in Catholicism that she asked him for some books and invited him to return. Soon, she converted to Catholicism and, along with her young son, was baptized on June 30, 1934. She took the Christian name of Monica and named the boy John, after the beloved apostle.
As a child, John showed extraordinary piety and devotion. At the mission in Paotsing he became friendly with the Passionist priests, and he entered St. Joseph’s minor seminary in Yuanling in 1935. He was prayerful, cheerful, and outstanding in sports, especially swimming and basketball.
In 1941, John began major seminary in Kunming. An important military base, the city was a frequent target for bombing, so Bishop Cuthbert O’Gara, C.P., took John and another seminarian to America to continue their studies. John arrived in the United States on September 14, 1943, to study at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, Maryland. An alumni newsletter points out his cheerful disposition and his quiet smile, which gained him the admiration of his fellow seminarians.
John graduated with honors in 1947 and returned to China. Following missionary custom, he lived in the bishop’s house before ordination. One of the sisters there recalls John as tall and thin, always rushing good-humoredly about Yuanling, clad in the customary native gown, but topped by a leather bomber jacket and a white silk scarf, with a paperback book poking out of one pocket.
John was ordained October 31, 1948, the first native priest of the Yuanling Diocese. He sent a touching invitation to his American friends: “Though your bodies cannot come, your hearts can. I invite you to be present at my ordination in spirit and heart, praising God with me, for the great thing he is about to bestow on me.”
The Persecution Begins. John worked as an assistant at Yuanling for about a year, but in October 1949, the Chinese Communists took over the government and immediately began to persecute Christians. Foreign missionaries were placed under house arrest, but the two native priests, John Nien and Bede Zhang, were still allowed to move about the area. They were, however, constantly questioned about the activities of the Catholic community. Matters worsened as the Korean War developed.
In December of 1949, Fr. Nien wrote to St. Mary’s alumni newsletter in his usual witty manner, telling them he would never forget them, especially now that “I am faced with the new ‘Red’ ungodly faces. Do not be surprised, fellows, since we have been ‘liberated’ (a special term!) two months ago and are under the ‘Red Rule.’ . . . Several mission houses have been ‘borrowed’ (a polite word). . . . As for the future, God will take care of it. Would you be kind to us ‘Reds’ and convert us to Christ through your prayers?”
In April of 1950, Fr. Nien was arrested, released shortly afterwards, rearrested in late 1950, and held in parts unknown. His mother went to the bishop, offering to pose as a peddler and go wherever there were prisoners until she found her son. Monica’s feet, bound as a child, were severely deformed and walking was very painful. Still, Monica hobbled from town to town for nearly seven months. Outside Supu, she saw prisoners being led out for road work, and found herself staring into her son’s eyes. He was tied hand and foot to other prisoners. Neither mother nor son gave any sign of recognition, then Monica hastened back to inform the bishop.
“Your Mind Is Still Unwashed.” In 1951, it was rumored that John was being held in the Chinkiang jail. In April, the Passionists received a note from him asking for some clothing. In October, Fr. Bede met a former prisoner who said John was doing janitor’s work in the local jail. In December, another priest wrote home, “Last night during Benediction a cop walks right up to the altar and yells at Fr. Raphael, ‘Here’s a note.’ [We] thought it was a summons; instead it was good news—a note from Fr. Nien!”
By February of 1953, John had been jailed for three years. In April, the bishop and his two coworkers were released from jail and expelled from China. There was only speculation about John. Then, on September 15, the Passionists received a note from him that brought tears to their eyes. The next day, Fr. Bede took a pu-kai (cotton quilt), clothes, towels, and a bar of soap to the jail. The guard told him, “You may talk to him about his mother and his home, but nothing else.” So, with twenty others crowded around listening, he gave John news of home.
The exchange of the pu-kai and soap was made, but the guard would not allow John to keep the towel and underclothes. “You can’t have all those fine and fancy things as your mind is still unwashed.” Turning to Fr. Bede, he added, “This man is very, very stubborn. If this Nien would only change his thoughts he could go out into the free air.” Fr. Bede reported that John looked about the same, although his head was shaved and his eyes looked strained since he had no glasses. He talked in the same direct, incisive manner, so Fr. Bede concluded that his mind was still sound. Fr. Bede whispered, “We are praying for you,” and John whispered back, “Thank everyone.”
In October, the son of one of the Catholics was allowed out of jail for a “vacation” and brought the news that Fr. Nien had attended indoctrination for a full year but failed and was put in the work gang. In November, they took him another bar of soap and a coat. The jailer remarked that Fr. Nien was a good worker but that his mind remained as unwashed as ever.
In December, when Fr. Bede took the customary bar of soap, he was allowed to speak with John for a few moments and to give him a pair of shoes to wear on rainy days. In March 1954, when Fr. Bede went with the monthly bar of soap, the prisoner had been moved. By September 1954, there were only two Passionists left in Communist China, and both of them were in jail.
Fr. Nien was apparently released some time during 1956. He worked with Frs. Bede and Gabriel Chang, a young Augustinian, until he was rearrested in 1958.
The Disappearance. In 1957, all clergymen were forced to take a course in “correct political thinking,” and a year later they were again gathered and told to sign a written declaration making a complete break with Rome. John refused to sign the betrayal. When he returned to Yuanling, the local government launched a “popular movement” against him, and one of the instigators slapped him in the face publicly. Fr. John responded mildly, “You can treat me as you please.” He was then immediately arrested as a “stubborn running dog of the American imperialists and a die-hard counter-revolutionary.” Then he disappeared.
Eventually, friends discovered that John had been exiled to a lonely mountain village as a criminal and placed in the custody of the villagers. Although assured of freedom if he denied Rome, Fr. John chose the difficult exile which led to his death from hunger and cold in the bitter winter of 1960.
The final chapter of Fr. John Nien’s life was not made known until it was secretly carried out of China in the late 1980s. It was written by his former classmate, Paul Kung, the brother of the young cadre who heard the story of the burial of the valiant priest who so obviously died in the odor of sanctity.
Note: A small, dedicated group of Catholics in Hunan have remained strong in their faith, proving that the missionaries’ labor was not in vain. Today, Christians in China still face persecution, living daily in uncertainty. For that reason, some of the Chinese names in the story of Fr. Nien have been changed.
Ann Ball, who died in 2008, was the author of many books and articles on Catholic saints.