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Christian missionaries unwittingly kindled the Boxer rebellion

Posted in Historical articles, History, Politics, Religion, War on Saturday, 15 December 2012

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This edited article about China originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 799 published on 7th May 1977.

Missionaaries in China, picture, image, illustration

The missionaries in China were deeply resented and their preaching finally triggered a nightmare, by C L Doughty

In 1860 an Anglo-French army was threatening Peking – and His Illustrious Majesty the Chinese Emperor Hsien Feng was a frightened man. He remained within the purple walls of his fortress-palace just long enough to issue two proclamations, one to the effect that nothing and no-one would ever make him leave his capital, the other offering a large reward to anyone who would kill one of the “foreign devils” for him. Then he scurried out of the city as fast as he could, pretending he was going on a tour of inspection of his realm. It was important to save face.

Meanwhile the British and French envoys trying to conclude an armistice had been either murdered or mutilated by the Chinese. When news of this – and the most gruesome evidence – got back to their countrymen, the Allies’ rage knew no bounds.

The Allied army encamped near the emperor’s Summer Palace, which was a great deal more than that term suggests. The Summer Palace was an extensive complex of great marble palaces and temples embowered in flowers and surrounded by an exquisitely landscaped park.

It was upon this little world of beauty that the British and French soldiers vented their fury, burning, looting and laying waste everything they could. It was a wanton act of vandalism, but an understandable one, in the circumstances.

In due course an agreement was arrived at by the two sides. Like previous agreements, this favoured the westerners much more than the Chinese.

It extended their trading privileges, opening up still more Chinese ports to them.

It authorised them to carry on their business or vocation anywhere in China, including the interior.

It permitted them to practise and preach Christianity and to make converts.

As before, there were the seeds of a lot of trouble here. The great majority of the Chinese were far from enthusiastic about doing more business with the West, nor did they want them living in the heart of their country. Sorest point of all, they heartily disliked Christian missionaries and the faith they preached.

At this time, however, China had a lot of other things besides the ‘foreign devils’ to worry about. She was an unhappy land, shaken by one disaster after another. She was a lawless land, because she was far too vast for the central government to control – and in any case that government was split down the middle. And she was so huge, with such an enormous range of climate, fertility and population types that there was rarely a year when some part or other of her territory wasn’t afflicted by floods, earthquake or famine, or some political upheaval.

In such a land, so huge, and with such a teeming population, it was inevitable that there should be many thousands who for one reason or another were discontented with their lot. Some were starving, perhaps, after a crop failure, while others might be homeless after some more violent catastrophe. Some wanted to change the social system. These men formed bands who roamed the countryside, taking from others the things life had deprived them of, their numbers swelled by army deserters, fugitives from civil justice, and other lawless men.

Where the ‘foreign devils’ were concerned, the ten years from 1860 to 1870 were a period when there was at least some degree of co-operation between them and the Chinese government. Hsien Feng died soon after his ignominious flight from Peking, and was succeeded by a boy-emperor. The power behind the throne was the boy’s mother, the Dowager Empress T’zu-hsi, who was prepared to go along with the westerners, not out of any genuine feelings of friendship, but merely to give China a breathing space in which to build up her economic and military strength.

But, whatever the policy of the central government in Peking might be, the Chinese people as a whole were still as bitterly opposed to the foreigners as ever. In fact more so than ever.

And the worst thorn in their side was still the presence of the Christian missionaries in their midst.

Chinese antagonism to the missionaries became so bitter that in 1870 anti-Christian riots broke out all over the country, culminating in a dreadful incident at Tientsin where a Roman Catholic church was burnt to the ground and the French consul, two French officials, 10 nuns and two priests were killed, plus three Russian traders, who were murdered by mistake.

This incident was provoked by the belief, widely and obstinately held throughout China at the time, that Christian missionaries were in the habit of conducting medical experiments with the Chinese children, and that they used Chinese children’s eyes to make medicine. In fact the missionaries were trying to treat children for trachoma, a disease of the eye which was widespread in China and, which, if nothing was done about it, inevitably led to blindness.

The trouble was the Chinese simply could not understand why anyone should bother about such children, especially when they belonged to an entirely different race.

This in itself indicates how backward and sunk in superstition the Chinese were, and how little hope there was of any real understanding between them and the Western powers, at least for a long time to come.

During the second half of the 19th century, China and the West ran a strange sort of race. China, under the influence of the shrewd woman behind the throne, at last realised the importance of technological progress and concentrated on industrial development, in particular the building of ships and the manufacture of machinery – and, above all, weapons of war. At the same time those foreign countries which had interests in China were running hard, like hungry wolves, to grab what they could while they could. The French overran the territories which became French Indo-China, the Russians took over vast tracts near their own borders, and the country was also the victim of a good deal of aggression by an up-and-coming young power, the Japanese.

At the end of the 19th century, the Chinese attitude to foreigners began to harden. They had had enough of being preyed upon. More than enough.

A new spirit was abroad. It was epitomised in the ‘spirit soldiers’, the fanatical anti-Christian nationalists who were prepared to murder every ‘foreign devil’ in their homeland in order to preserve their own traditional way of life.

The Boxers were on the warpath.

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