Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Christian Missionaries and the Boxer 'Rebellion'

Conservatives today in America make a great deal of the lack of religious freedom in China. They find it appalling that Americans cannot freely distribute Bibles in the country. They also condemn the oppression of the Fa Lun Gong. But as is often the case, America and the world lack a sense of history when considering the past experience of China with missionary activity. A study into the tragic combination of European imperialism with missionary activity would highlight many reasons why the official 'Church' of China still has its Bishops picked by Beijing.

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."

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.
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.


Huichieh said...

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.

Actually, I thought the underground Christian church among the largest and fastest growing of its kind in the world.

On the other hand, the lack of religious freedom in China is no mystery, given the history of China--the close connection between rebellions and 'unorthodox' religious movements (Yellow Turban, White Lotus, Taiping, etc.). On this matter, the CCP is fully consistent with the policies of its Imperial predecessors...

Anonymous said...

Also interesting to note is that most (all?) of the major universities in China had Christian missionary roots from the U.S...

Here's some of the chronology of the United Board for Christian Higher Education in Asia (originally known as: United Board for Christian Colleges in China) archives:

* 1920 May At a meeting of representatives of the China Christian Educational Association, Hangchow Christian College, the University of Nanking, Peking University, Shanghai Baptist College, Shantung Christian University, and West China Union University, it was proposed to establish a "Board of Co-operation of the Union Institutions of Higher Education in China", which would serve to facilitate coordination in the areas of educational program, faculty recruitment and financial promotion.
* 1920 Oct Representatives of the five union universities (Fukien, Nanking, Peking, Shantung and West China) met to discuss a "Plan for the Coalition of the Interests of Certain Mission Universities of China".
* 1922 Apr Trustees of Nanking, Peking, and Shantung universities established the Central Office of the China Union Universities, a joint office for correspondence, accounting, purchasing and other administrative matters.
* 1922-1928 Working from headquarters in New York City, the work of the Central Office expanded as it provided services for its original members, Fukien Christian University, West China Union University, and other, unofficially related, China colleges.
* 1925 Representatives of the boards of ten China colleges and universities established the Permanent Committee for the Coordination and Promotion of Christian Higher Education in China which was to concern itself not with secretarial or accounting matters, but rather with two interrelated objectives, the coordination of educational policy and program in China, and the coordination of financial cultivation efforts in the West.
* 1928 Jan The Harvard-Yenching Institute was established to provide opportunities for research, instruction and publication in the field of Chinese studies, through cooperation between Harvard University and Peking (Yenching) University. The Institute was a key element in the distribution of the substantial Charles Hall estate to the China Colleges.
* 1928 Jan The name of the Permanent Committee was changed to the Committee for Christian Colleges in China.
* 1929 Jan The Committee for Christian Colleges in China called together representatives of eighteen mission boards and societies to discuss the Correlated Program for Christian Higher Education which had been formulated by the Council of Higher Education, a body established by the Association of Christian Colleges and Universities in China. Ensuing meetings on the subject led to general agreement regarding the necessity of correlation, but little concrete action.
* 1932 Oct An organizational meeting of the Associated Boards for Christian Colleges in China was held. The ABCCC combined the activities of the Central Office and the Committee for Christian Colleges in China in a format designed to provide opportunity for more extensive coordination without demanding unified policy and executive action.
* 1934 Jan The Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York granted the ABCCC a Certificate of Incorporation as a non-profit membership corporation. Original members were:

* Central China College
* Fukien Christian University
* Ginling College
* Hangchow Christian College
* Lingnan University
* University of Nanking
* Shantung Christian College
* Soochow University
* West China Union University
* Yenching University

Dave and Stefan said...

Huichieh, you are right that I should clarify my comments - my meaning was that the official representatives of the Christian church have been treated with a great deal of suspicion by the government. I did not mean to imply (as I did) that there were few converts to Christianity.

Christianity is doing very well in the moral vacuum of post-Mao China, as indeed are more traditional local religious practices.

I was impressed by my last visit to the Yonghegong Lama temple. Whereas when I last visited 12 years ago, Chinese visitors were generally disrespectful and cavalier, all of them this time were burning incense and were very much venerating the various Mahayana Buddhas in the temple.

In fact, many of the Christians were White Lotus sectarians that found becoming Christian was a good way of avoiding official persecution. Yes, you are right that the current administration's policies against the Fa Lun Gong and other 'heterodox' religions have remained the same, particularly given the history of the 19th century and the fact that all of the rebellious movements of the period had roots in heterodox religious beliefs.

And Anonymous, you are right that most of the religious institutions in the treaty ports and major cities in china had missionary roots. My grandfather went to one - St. John's University of Shanghai.

I did not mean to imply that missionaries had a wholly negative effect on the late Qing dynasty, (although the net effect on that government was probably negative, if only because it was inextricably paired with imperialism). A great deal of good was also done, but the mountains that were moved were sometimes at the expense of the integrity of the Chinese state. That is my point about why the CCP continues to be suspicious of missionaries - not just as an alternate locus of authority, but also from a historico-nationalist perspective.

Anonymous said...

Wanted to let you guys know that I really liked the picture. There must be more cartoons like that after every major war...

Anonymous said...

First of all -- this is a pretty amazing blog you have. Just stumbled on it today as I was procrastinating on work.

I look forward to reading the book recommendation -- it sounds like what I was hoping for when I picked up Diana Preston's book "The Boxer Rebellion: the dramatic story of China's war on foreigners that shook the world in the summer of 1900" last year. The book's scope is not as ambitious as its awkward title suggests. But if you're in the mood for a book on how the foreigners hunkered down during the Boxer Rebellion and dealt with the day-to-day logistics of defending the settlement, foraging for food, caring for the sick and dealing with each other, this is a really good book!