1st. October 2000
the earliest beginnings of the Chinese people (sometime about the middle of the
third millennium before Christ) religious
sentiment towards the Supreme Being and diligent filial piety towards ancestors
were the most conspicuous characteristics of their culture, which had existed
for thousands of years.
note of distinct religiousness is found to a greater or lesser extent in the
Chinese people of all centuries up to our own time, when, under the influence of
western atheism, some intellectuals, especially those educated in foreign
countries, wished to rid themselves of all religious ideas, like some of their
the fifth century, the Gospel was preached in China, and at the beginning of the
seventh century the first church was built there. During the T'ang dynasty (618-907)
the Christian community flourished for two centuries. In the thirteenth, thanks
to the understanding of the Chinese people and culture shown by missionaries
like Giovanni da Montecorvino, it became possible to begin the first Catholic
mission in the Middle Kingdom, with the episcopal see in Beijing.
is not surprising, especially in the modern era (that is, from the sixteenth
century, when communications between the east and west began to be, in a way,
more frequent) that there was on the part of the Catholic Church a longing to
take the light of the Gospel to this people in order to enrich still more their
treasure of cultural and religious traditions, so rich and profound.
so, beginning from the last decades of the sixteenth century, various Catholic
missionaries were sent to China: people like Matteo Ricci and others were chosen
with great care, keeping in mind their cultural abilities and their
qualifications in various fields of science, especially astronomy and
mathematics, in addition to their spirit of faith and love. In fact, it was
thanks to this and to the appreciation that the missionaries showed for the
remarkable spirit of research shown by the studious Chinese, that it was
possible to establish very useful collaborative relationships in the scientific
field. These relationships served in their turn to open many doors, even that of
the Imperial Court, and this led to the development of very useful relations
with various people of great ability.
quality of the religious life of these missionaries was such as to lead not a
few people at a high level to feel the need to know better the evangelical
spirit that animated them and, then, to be instructed with regard to the
Christian religion. This instruction was carried out in a manner suited to their
cultural characteristics and way of thinking. At the end of the sixteenth
century and the beginning of the seventeenth, there were numerous people who,
having undergone the necessary preparation, asked for baptism and became fervent
Christians, while always preserving with just pride their Chinese identity and
was seen in that period as a reality that did not oppose the highest values of
the traditions of the Chinese people, nor place itself above these traditions.
Rather, it was regarded as something that enriched them with a new light and
to the excellent relations that existed between some missionaries and the
Emperor K'ang Hsi himself, and thanks to the services they rendered towards re-establishing
peace between the “Czar” of Russia and the “Son of Heaven”, namely the
Emperor, the latter issued in 1692 the first decree of religious liberty by
virtue of which all his subjects could follow the Christian religion and all the
missionaries could preach in his vast domains.
consequence, there were notable developments in missionary activity and the
spread of the Gospel message; and many Chinese people, attracted by the light of
Christ, asked to be able to receive baptism.
however, the difficult question of “Chinese rites”,
greatly irritated the Emperor K'ang Hsi and prepared the persecution. The
latter, strongly influenced by that in nearby Japan,
to a greater or lesser extent, open or insidious, violent or veiled,
extended in successive waves practically from the first decade of the
seventeenth century to about the middle of the nineteenth. Missionaries and
faithful lay people were killed, and many churches destroyed.
was on 15 January 1648 that the
Manchu Tartars, having invaded the region of Fujian and shown themselves hostile
to the Christian religion, killed Blessed Francis Fernández de Capillas, a
priest of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans). After having imprisoned and
tortured him, they beheaded him while he recited with others the Sorrowful
Mysteries of the Rosary.
Francis Fernández de Capillas has been recognised by the Holy See as a
Protomartyr of China.
the middle of the following century (the eighteenth) another five Spanish
missionaries, who had carried out their activity between 1715-1747, were put to
death as a result of a new wave of persecution that started in 1729 and broke
out again in 1746. This was in the epoch of the Emperor Yung-Cheng and of his
Peter Sans i Yordà, O.P, Bishop, was martyred in 1747,at Fuzou.
four of the following were killed on 28 October 1748:
Francis Serrano, O.P., Priest,
new period of persecution in regard to the Christian religion then occurred in
the nineteenth century.
Catholicism had been authorised by some Emperors in the preceding centuries,
Emperor Kia-Kin (1796-1821) published, instead, numerous and severe decrees
against it. The first was issued in 1805. Two edicts of 1811 were directed
against those among the Chinese who were studying to receive sacred orders, and
against priests who were propagating the Christian religion. A decree of 1813
exonerated voluntary apostates from every chastisement, that is, Christians who
spontaneously declared that they would abandon their faith, but all others were
to be dealt with harshly.
this period the following underwent martyrdom:
Peter Wu, a Chinese lay catechist. Born of a pagan family, he received baptism
in 1796 and passed the rest of his life proclaiming the truth of the Christian
religion. All attempts to make him apostasize were in vain. The sentence having
been pronounced against him, he was strangled on 7 November 1814.
him in fidelity to Christ was:
Joseph Zhang Dapeng, a lay catechist, and a merchant. Baptised in 1800, he had
become the heart of the mission in the city of Kony-Yang. He was imprisoned, and
then strangled to death on12 March 1815.
this same year (1815) there came two other decrees, with which approval was
given to the conduct of the Viceroy of Sichuan who had beheaded Monsignor
Dufresse, of the Paris Foreign Missions Society, and some Chinese Christians. As
a result, there was a worsening of the persecution.
following martyrs belong to this period:
John Gabriel Taurin Dufresse, M.E.P., Bishop. He was arrested on 18 May 1815,
taken to Chengdu, condemned and executed on 14 September 1815.
Augustine Zhao Rong, a Chinese diocesan priest. Having first been one of the
soldiers who had escorted Monsignor Dufresse from Chengdu to Beijing, he was
moved by his patience and had then asked to be numbered among the neophytes.
Once baptised, he was sent to the seminary and then ordained a priest. Arrested,
he had to suffer the most cruel tortures and then died in 1815.
John da Triora, O.F.M., Priest. Put in prison together with others in the summer
of 1815, he was then condemned to death, and strangled on 7 February 1816.
Joseph Yuan, a Chinese diocesan priest. Having heard Monsignor Dufresse speak of
the Christian Faith, he was overcome by its beauty and then became an exemplary
neophyte. Later, he was ordained a priest and, as such, was dedicated to
evangelisation in various districts. He was arrested in August 1816, condemned
to be strangled, and was killed in this way on 24 June 1817.
Francis Regis Clet of the Congregation of the Mission (Vincentians). After
obtaining permission to go to the Missions in China, he embarked for the Orient
in 1791. Having reached there, for thirty years he spent a life of missionary
sacrifice. Upheld by an untiring zeal, he evangelised three immense provinces of
the Chinese Empire: Jiangxi, Hubei, Hunan. Betrayed by a Christian, he was
arrested and thrown into prison where he underwent atrocious tortures. Following
sentence by the Emperor he was killed by strangling on 17 February 1820.
Thaddeus Liu, a Chinese diocesan priest. He refused to apostasize, saying that
he was a priest and wanted to be faithful to the religion that he had preached.
Condemned to death, he was strangled on 30 November 1823.
Peter Liu, a Chinese lay catechist. He was arrested in 1814 and condemned to
exile in Tartary, where he remained for almost twenty years. Returning to his
homeland he was again arrested, and was strangled on 17 May 1834.
Joachim Ho, a Chinese lay catechist. He was baptised at the age of about twenty
years. In the great persecution of 1814 he had been taken with many others of
the faithful and subjected to cruel torture. Sent into exile in Tartary, he
remained there for almost twenty years. Returning to his homeland he was
arrested again and refused to apostasize. Following that, and the death sentence
having been confirmed by the Emperor, he was strangled on 9 July 1839.
Augustus Chapdelaine, M.E.P., a priest of the diocese of Coutances. He entered
the Seminary of the Paris Foreign Missions Society, and embarked for China in
1852. He arrived in Guangxi at the end of 1854. Arrested in 1856, he was
tortured, condemned to death in prison, and died in February 1856.
Laurence Bai Xiaoman, a Chinese layman, and an unassuming worker. He joined
Blessed Chapdelaine in the refuge that was given to the missionary and was
arrested with him and brought before the tribunal. Nothing could make him
renounce his religious beliefs. He was beheaded on 25 February 1856.
Agnes Cao Guiying, a widow, born into an old Christian family. Being dedicated
to the instruction of young girls who had recently been converted by Blessed
Chapdelaine, she was arrested and condemned to death in prison. She was executed
on 1 March 1856.
catechists, known as the Martyrs of MaoKou (in the province of Guizhou) were
killed on 28 January 1858, by order of the Mandarin of MaoKou:
Jerome Lu Tingmei,
three had been called on to renounce the Christian religion and having refused
to do so were condemned to be beheaded.
seminarians and two lay people, one of whom was a farmer, the other a widow who
worked as a cook in the seminary, suffered martyrdom together on 29 July 1861.
They are known as the Martyrs of Qingyanzhen (Guizhou):
Joseph Zhang Wenlan, seminarian,
the following year, on 18 and 19 February 1862, another five people gave their
life for Christ. They are known as the Martyrsof Guizhou.
John Peter Neel, a priest of the Paris Foreign Missions Society,
the meantime, some incidents occurred in the politicalfield that had notable
repercussions on the life of the Christian missions.
June 1840, the Imperial Commissioner of Guangdong, rightly wishing to abolish
the opium trade that was being conducted by the British, had more than twenty
thousand chests of this drug thrown into the sea. This had been the pretext for
immediate war, which was won by the British. When the war came to an end, China
had to sign in 1842 the first international treaty of modern times, followed
quickly by others with America and France. Taking advantage of this opportunity,
France replaced Portugal as the power protecting the missions. Following on from
this, a twofold decree was issued: one part in 1844 which permitted the Chinese
to follow the Catholic religion; the other, in 1846, with which the old
penalties against Catholics were abolished.
then on the Church could live openly and carry out its missionary activity,
developing it also in the sphere of higher education, in universities and
the multiplication of various top-level cultural Institutes and thanks to their
highly valued activity, ever deeper links were gradually established between the
Church and China with its rich cultural traditions.
collaboration with the Chinese authorities further increased the mutual
appreciation and sharing of those true values that must underpin every civilised
so passed an era of expansion in the Christian missions, with the exception of
the period in which they were struck by the disaster of the uprising by the
“Society for Justice and Harmony” (commonly known as the “Boxers”). This
occurred at the beginning of the twentieth century and caused the shedding of
the blood of many Christians.
is known that, mingled in this rebellion, were all the secret societies and the
accumulated and repressed hatred against foreigners in the last decades of the
nineteenth century, because of the political and social changes following the
Opium War and the imposition of the so-called “unequal treaties” on the part
of the Western Powers.
different, however, was the motive for the persecution of the missionaries, even
though they were of European nationality. Their slaughter was brought about
solely on religious grounds. They were killed for the same reason as the Chinese
faithful who had become Christians. Reliable historical documents provide
evidence of the anti-Christian hatred which spurred the “Boxers” to massacre
the missionaries and the faithful of the area who had adhered to their teaching.
In this regard, an edict was issued on 1 July 1900 which, in substance, said
that the time of good relations with European missionaries and their Christians
was now past: that the former must be repatriated at once and the faithful
forced to apostasize, on penalty of death.
a result, the martyrdom took place of several missionaries and many Chinese who
can be grouped together as follows:
a) Martyrs of Shanxi, killed on 9 July 1900, who were
Franciscan Friars Minor:
Gregory Grassi, Bishop,
b) Martyrs of Southern Hunan, who were also Franciscan
Anthony Fantosati, Bishop (martyred on 7 July 1900),
the martyred Franciscans of the First Order were added seven Franciscan
Missionaries of Mary, of whom three were French, two Italian, one Belgian, and
Mary Hermina of Jesus (in saec: Irma
the martyrs belonging to the Franciscan family, there were also eleven Secular
Franciscans, all Chinese:
John Zhang Huan, seminarian,
these are joined a number of Chinese lay faithful:
James Yan Guodong, farmer,
the uprising of the “Boxers”, which had begun in Shandong and then spread
through Shanxi and Hunan, also reached South-Eastern Tcheli, which was then the
Apostolic Vicariate of Xianxian, in the care of the Jesuits, the Christians
killed could be counted in thousands.
these were four French Jesuit missionaries and at least 52 Chinese lay
Christians: men, women and children – the oldest of them being 79 years old,
while the youngest were aged only nine years. All suffered martyrdom in the
month of July 1900. Many of them were killed in the church in the village of
Tchou-Kia-ho, in which they were taking refuge and where they were in prayer
together with the first two of the missionaries listed below:
Leo Mangin, S.J., Priest,
names and ages of the Chinese lay Christians were as follows:
Mary Zhu born Wu, aged about 50 years,
fact that this considerable number of Chinese lay faithful offered their lives
for Christ together with the missionaries who had proclaimed the Gospel to them
and had been so devoted to them, is evidence of the depth of the link that faith
in Christ establishes. It gathers into a single family people of various races
and cultures, strongly uniting them not for political motives but in virtue of a
religion that preaches love, brotherhood, peace and justice.
all those already mentioned who were killed by the “Boxers”, it is necessary
also to remember:
Alberic Crescitelli, a priest of the Pontifical Institute of Foreign Missions of
Milan, who carried out his ministry in Southern Shanxi and was martyred on 21
years later, members of the Salesian Society of St John Bosco were added to the
considerable number of martyrs recorded above:
Louis Versiglia, Bishop,
Callistus Caravario, Priest.
were killed together on 25 February 1930 at Li-Thau-Tseul.