I have been reading a fascinating study by Joseph Esherick called The Origins of the Boxer Uprising. (Picture via PortsmouthPeaceTreaty.Org) It makes a statement with its title, as he does not consider the headline-making events of 1900, during the Siege of the Legations of Peking, as having been a 'Rebellion' at all, as it had the tacit (and eventually, explicit) support of the Qing throne. The book is quite sympathetic to the Chinese leadership, having had access to many more sources from Shandong, the source of the outbreak of the uprising, than any previous work (it was published in 1987).
His third chapter, entitled Imperialism, for Christ's Sake, shows the author's wit as well as his grasp of the underlying hatred for Christian, particularly Catholic missionaries, and their converts (but Protestants were also not immune, as we shall see). I shall quote from Esherick's fascinating text, starting with, of all people, the American Minister in Beijing, sympathizing with the Qing government against Catholic missionaries as early as 1870:
Roman Catholic missionaries, when residing away from the open ports, claim to occupy a semi-official position, which places them on an equality with the provincial officer: that they would deny the authority of the Chinese officials over native Christians, which practically removes this class from the jurisdiction of their own rulers; that their action in this regard shields the native Christians from the penalties of the law, and thus holds out inducements for the lawless to join the Catholic Church, which is largely taken advantage of.Esherick explains that the Catholics, empowered by China's weakness, the West's imperial strength, their extraterritorial immunity, and access to China's corridors of power, meant that they created an imperium en imperio, directly competing with the Chinese government's power structure in places and often effectively granting immunity from punishment to Christian converts, many of whom were bandits, the extremely poor or sectarians of other banished sects that were being persecuted. He also uses another example from a contemporary Protestant missionary of 1900:
Thus the bishops, the spiritual rulers of the whole of a broad province, adopt the rank of a Chinese Governor, and wear a button on their caps indicative of that fact, traveling in a chair with the number of bearers appropriate to that rank, with outriifers and attendants on foot, an umbrella of honour borne in front, and a cannon discharged upon their arrival and departure.Another example came from a letter of a Catholic missionary:
The town [of Changkiao] has the reputation of being a nest of ruthless and incorrigible robbers. Manyt widows residing there with orphaned children mourn the loss of their husbands, caught red-handed while taking part in raids on the homes of wealthy families, and executed after undergoing terrible tortures. After the depredations of the Changkiao bandits had taxed the patience of county officials beyond the breaking point, preparations were made to raze the village to the ground and banish all of its inhabitants. When all but one of the families residing there decided to embrace the Catholic religion, the missionary pleaded effectively with the Mandarin for clemncy on their behalf. Thus Changkiao escaped destruction. Tamed by their Christian faith these former brigands became law-abiding farmers and exemplary Catholics - another conquest of Divine Grace.Rather questionable today, whether the conversions were motivated by religious fervor or by the fear of banishment. A counter-example being one proferred by Esherick in a neighboring district in Jiangsu, where a French Jesuit was "lured to settle in a notorious bandit lair where the robbers kindly offered their services to protect his residence. When the Frenchman left his base to preach in the surrounding villages, the bandits used the hamlet as headquarters for an extensive and lucrative fencing operation for local desperadoes."
Problems intensified when Qing authority in Shandong collapsed following the withdrawal of military garrisons for duty in the disastrous Sino-Japanese War in 1895 - bandit activity multiplied. The local citizens fought back by creating self-defense societies, like the Big Sword Society and later, the Boxers. But when many bandits escaped punishment by becoming Christian converts, the stage was set for conflict. This boiled over in attacks in 1896 that failed against Christian converts in southwest Shandong. When imperialism began carving up China in earnest, including the German colonization of Shandong (and much worse, the highly aggressive SVD Catholic society with a confrontational Bishop that began placing missionaries all over Shandong) the fuse was lit.
The rest is history - the failed Boxer attack on churches, missions and missionaries, as well as on the Legations in Peking - ended in disaster for the Chinese government. But it demonstrated the depth of feeling of thousands of ordinary Chinese, for whom the missionary represented the face of European Imperialism, and the excesses of missionary activity in trying not only to convert Chinese, but also in cases subverting the process of the Chinese system, and condemning as an enemy all aspects effectively, of Chinese culture. I shall close with a quote Esherick supplies in his book about the way both lay foreigners and missionaries thought of their role in China:
In 1896, when Claude McDonald was named British Minister to China after a decade of service to the Empire in Africa, Sir Robert Hart wrote that "those of us who have succeeded so badly by treating Chinese as educated and civilized ought now to be ready to yield the ground to a man versed in negro methods and ignorant of the East."So for those who simply cannot understand why the Christian church is so slow to make headway in China, to convert the same millions that Proctor and Gamble count amongst their potential consumers: take a look at the last missionary experience in China, a hundred years ago. The answers lie within.
China was as much a focus of missionary energy in the 1890s as she was a focus of world politics. The two were obviously related. The missionaries easily borrowed the militant language of imperialism as they sought to "conquer the heathen" on behalf of Christ. When the Protestant missionaries in China met together in Shanghai in 1890, A. J. H. Moule asked rhetorically in one address:
"Is Christ's Church militant indeed on earth? Are we all bound to fight manfully under His banner against sin, the world and the devil? Has the Son of God indeed gone forth to war? And is our lot cast, whether missionaries or foreign residents, in this advanced post in an enemy's country, where a special assault is being delivered, not on men and political systems, but on the principalities, the powers, the rulers of the darkness of this world and the spiritual wickedness of the great, the real spiritual world?"
Needless to say, Moule answered all of his rhetorical questions in the affirmative.