Hudson Taylor’s arrival in China and the subsequent establishment of the China Inland Mission (CIM) marked a whole new era in the spread of Christianity in China, unparalleled in the empire’s millennia-long history. No other missionary organization, not even the Catholic Church, had covered such a wide geographical area and reached out to such a variety of people within the Chinese empire as the CIM did. Of course, this is not to say that other missionary organizations did not play significant roles in the propagation of the gospel throughout the empire. As I have covered in the previous part of this article, other missionary societies, such as the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS) and the English Wesleyan Methodist Society, also played major roles in advancing the gospel in unreached frontiers of the land, and native Chinese pastors, such as Pastor Xi and Pastor Wang, also contributed much in bringing the message of the gospel to their fellow countrymen.
By the turn of the 20th century, Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic, became very successful and widely accepted – so successful and widely accepted that it drew adequate attention and opposition from certain segments of Chinese society to trigger off a bloody uprising and atrocious war, what was known infamously as the Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901 (义和团运动, Yìhétuán Yùndòng). Claiming the lives of over 100,000 civilians, including approximately 32,000 Chinese Christians and 200 missionaries, the great rebellion resulted not only in massive massacres of Chinese Christians and raging wars with foreign powers, but also a tremendous weakening of the Qing Dynasty which eventually led to its downfall in 1911.
Artist's impression of foreign soldiers at war during the Boxer Rebellion of 1899 - 1901
Before delving further into the Boxer Rebellion, let us first look at who the Boxers are. The Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists (义和拳, Yìhéquán) was a secret society formed in the northern province of Shandong (山东, Shāndōng), consisting largely of members drawn from the lower socioeconomic strata of society who suffered from the effects of imperialism, opium addiction and natural disasters. These members were mostly victims of natural disasters that occurred with increasing frequency in the late 1800s in northern China. Besides, there were also a large number of those whose livelihoods were adversely affected by the influx of cheap European goods, resulting in mass unemployment and loss of income.
Boxer rebels preparing to fight off Western powers in China
Members of the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists or “Boxers,” as they were known to Westerners, practiced traditional Chinese martial arts and underwent strict training, dieting and rituals that were believed to enable them to attain invincible powers in order to eliminate foreign influences from China. The Boxers initially directed their anger and focus on the Manchu-led Qing Dynasty, as they felt that the Qing Government was to be blamed for China’s increasing weakness in the face of Western and Japanese imperialism. The failure of the Qing government in defending the empire from foreign influences, coupled with the increasing frequency of natural disasters in the late 1800s, was perceived as a divine sign that the Qing Dynasty had lost its Mandate of Heaven (天命, Tiānmìng), and that it was about time the Manchu-led dynasty be replaced with a native Han Chinese-led dynasty that could have otherwise done a better job in defending China’s sovereignty. Nonetheless, the Boxers redirected their anger and focus fully onto the foreign powers in China when Empress Dowager Cixi (慈禧太后, Cíxǐ Tàihòu) (1835 – 1908), far from opposing the movement, declared support for it and ratified its anti-foreign cause.
Empress Dowager Cixi (慈禧太后, Cíxǐ Tàihòu) (1835 – 1908)
Starting in the province of Shandong, the Boxer Movement soon became a craze throughout northern China, especially in the rural regions where victims were most hard-hit. They felt that the foreign powers present in China were to be blamed for bringing poverty, economic oppression, opium addiction and social ills to the Chinese society. “Revive the Qing, destroy the foreigners” (扶清灭洋, Fú Qīng Miè Yáng) was the saying commonly used by the movement’s leaders to rally the masses into war against foreigners.
In China’s rural background, Western missionaries were the most visible proof of foreign presence and influence in the eyes of the locals. Increasing discontent from the Boxers towards foreign missionaries and Chinese Christians largely stemmed from the former’s fear of colonization and the latter’s extraterritorial rights and protection granted by the Qing government. Foreign missionaries were increasingly perceived and accused as agents of Western imperialism, and their growing presence in many parts of China fuelled fears of eroding Chinese sovereignty and impending colonization. Extraterritorial rights granted to foreign missionaries in China included guarantee of free passage anywhere in China, protection from various lawsuits and local laws, as well as exemption from various taxes, some of which were also extended to Chinese Christians. Besides, there were missionaries who showed grave insensitivity and understanding for Chinese culture and customs. These served to incur dissatisfaction among much of the non-Christian rural masses, and in particular the Boxers.
One of the earliest triggers of the Boxer Rebellion was the Juye Incident, also known as the Caozhou Incident (曹州教案, Cáozhōu Jiào’àn). On November 1, 1897, a band of about thirty armed men broke into a Catholic missionary compound in Juye County (巨野县, Jùyĕ Xiàn), Caozhou, in the province of Shandong, in which two German missionaries were killed before the attackers were driven away by local Christian villagers. When word of the murders reached Germany, the German government took this as a pretext to occupy Jiaozhou Bay (胶州湾, Jiāozhōu Wān) in the southern coast of Shandong Province under forced negotiations with the Qing government. The Qing government was also pressured to remove many top Shandong officials from their posts, build three Catholic churches in Caozhou and compensate the mission for damages suffered from the incident. These helped to strengthen Catholic missionary work in Shandong, simultaneously arousing the wrath of the Boxers.
Artist's impression of Jiaozhou Bay during its German Occupation
Isolated assaults against foreign missionaries and rural Chinese Christian communities increased in frequency after the incident. Although often uncoordinated and bearing no overtly serious outcomes, these series of assaults captured the attention of many European governments, which then sought to gain more forced concessions from the Qing government and increase their spheres of influence under the pretext of “protecting their citizens” (i.e. the foreign missionaries). France, for instance, succeeded in obtaining an imperial edict from Emperor Guangxu (光绪帝, Guāngxù Dì) (1871 – 1908) that enabled Roman Catholic priests in China to support Chinese Catholics in legal disputes without having to go through local officials.
By 1900, anger and anxiety towards impending foreign colonization was already overflowing in much of northern China. Chinese sovereignty was at stake, and imperialist powers such as Britain, France, Russia, Japan and Germany were significantly increasing their spheres of influence in different parts of the empire. It was feared that if the situation were to continue, China might soon be broken into separate parts, each ruled by a colonial power. Christianity and opium were thus increasingly despised as foreign imports manipulated by Western powers to control the minds and hearts of the Chinese in order to achieve their colonizing goals.
French caricature depicting China as a cake that is about to be carved up by Queen Victoria (Britain), Emperor Wilhelm II (Germany), Tsar Nicholas II (Russia), Marianne (France) and a samurai (Japan), while a Chinese official helplessly looks on
1900 was a year that saw a myriad of aggressions and tragedies against foreigners and Christians throughout northern China. Early that year, Empress Dowager Cixi issued a series of decrees declaring open support for the Boxer movement, consequently drawing protests from foreign powers and driving the Boxers and its supporters into further boldness. Throughout the spring of 1900, numerous churches were burnt and countless Chinese Christians became victims of the Boxers’ aggression in the provinces of Shandong and modern-day Hebei (河北, Hébĕi), near the imperial capital of Beijing.
The movement quickly spread throughout the north as it made its way towards the imperial capital. Foreseeing the dangers that were about to occur, foreign diplomats in Beijing made a united call for foreign soldiers to be employed to protect the foreigners residing there. The Qing government was also pressured into providing troops to suppress the movement, which it reluctantly acquiesced. Nonetheless, the Boxers were simply too large in numbers to be suppressed in the flash of an eye. Foreign troops could not be sent in large numbers in time, and Qing troops were reluctant to do much against their own countrymen.
Boxer troops and foreign soldiers engaging in battle during the Boxer Rebellion
Boldness and assured support from the Empress Dowager propelled the Boxers into further aggression. On June 5, the railway line from Beijing to the port-city of Tianjin was severed by the Boxers, effectively cutting off Beijing’s contact with the rest of the world. Aggression continued, and on June 13 the Boxers murdered a Japanese diplomat in the imperial capital. That same day, several German soldiers in the capital also reportedly captured a Boxer boy and executed him. News about the execution spread like wildfire and brewed the anger of the thousands of Boxers who had already gathered in Beijing. As a result, they went on a free rampage throughout the capital, burning churches and foreign homes, desecrating foreign graves and ruthlessly murdering any Chinese Christian they could spot. Many of the foreign residents and missionaries in the capital managed to take refuge and were protected by the soldiers stationed on duty at the foreign embassies in Beijing.
Boxer rebels full of spirit to wage war against foreign presence in China
From merely expressing support for the Boxer movement all along, Empress Dowager Cixi finally issued a drastic edict on June 19 proclaiming the severing of diplomatic ties between the Qing government and all foreign nations. Under the edict, all diplomats were required to leave China in 24 hours time under military protection. These orders were perceived by the foreign legations as a ploy by the Empress Dowager herself to eliminate all foreign diplomats in China. Their fears were indeed proven when the German envoy to China was murdered by a mob in the streets the following day. Following the murder, none of the foreign legations heeded the Empress Dowager’s orders, but instead chose to take refuge in their embassies, enduring continuous hostilities from the Boxers until August 14, when an 18,000-strong combined army sent from several nations including Japan, Russia, Britain, France and the United States arrived in Beijing. The army proceeded to clear the city of the Boxers and rescue the foreign legations, while the Empress Dowager and Emperor Guangxu clandestinely evacuated the imperial court in Beijing to take temporary refuge in Xi’an (西安, Xī’ān).
"Fall of the Peking Castle" - an illustration dating back to September 1900 depicting British and Japanese soldiers assaulting Chinese troops
As far as aggression towards Chinese Christians were concerned, the Taiyuan Massacre (太原教案, Tàiyuán Jiào’àn) was one of the most widely recorded tragedies of the Boxer Rebellion. Under the orders of Yuxian (毓贤, Yùxián) (1842 – 1901), the Manchu governor of Shanxi Province, 45 foreign missionaries, both Protestants and Catholics, as well as countless other Chinese Christians, were gruesomely murdered on July 9, 1900. Yuxian had purportedly invited foreign missionaries to the provincial capital of Taiyuan under the pretext of promising them protection, but instead turned against them and ordered their immediate decapitation before having their bodies thrown out of the city walls for dogs to eat. Chinese Christians were then proactively hunted for, and many, including women and children, were mercilessly killed by beheading. Those who survived managed to flee the province, but not few of them died during the journey before reaching their destinations.
The Boxer Rebellion claimed more than 100,000 lives in total, including an estimated 32,000 Chinese Christians throughout northern China. Of all missionary organizations in China, the CIM suffered the biggest loss, with 58 missionaries and 21 children killed. Taylor was semi-retired in Switzerland due to deteriorating health when news of the riots and massacres reached him via telegrams. It was too much for him, and he nearly died of a heart attack upon receiving news after news of attacks, violence and murders committed against missionaries and Chinese Christians almost every day. “I cannot read, I cannot pray, I can scarcely think…but I can trust.” When the foreign nations were demanding compensations for the loss of property and life from the Qing government in 1901, Taylor refused to accept any payment of indemnities for the CIM in order to demonstrate the meekness and gentleness of Christ to the Chinese. Despite criticisms from some parties, he won the respect and admiration of many Chinese and European officials alike for his noble decision. The following year, Taylor resigned from all duties in the CIM, and surrendered its directorship fully to Dixon Edward Hoste (1861 – 1946).
Dixon Edward Hoste (1861 - 1946) and CIM missionaries in traditional Chinese clothing
The late Qing Dynasty era saw an upsurge of missionary activities and a significant expansion of Chinese Christian communities throughout the Middle Kingdom. From the coastal port cities and the imperial capital to the innermost provinces of the empire, pockets of flourishing Chinese Christian communities, both Protestant and Catholic, could be found by the turn of the 20th century. Although the Boxer Rebellion, which affected only the northern provinces of China, brought much unfortunate repercussions to Christianity in China as a whole, it did help renew much missionary interest in the eyes of the Western world and strengthen the faith of Christian communities throughout the land. In that spirit, missionary activities continued to grow even after the rebellion, driven by both Chinese and foreign missionaries, and Christian communities continued to flourish in almost every province throughout the land. And it was in that spirit also, the burning spirit to bring the gospel to China’s millions of people, that Hudson Taylor himself started a newsletter to bring news of the CIM’s numerous activities in China back to his homeland, in order to sow the seeds of interest towards Chinese missions amongst his fellow countrymen – China’s Millions.
Cover of the 1885 issue of China's Millions