Boxer Rebellion

‘Death to the foreigner!’

Hopes were high as the new century dawned. Few had any idea that the most severe blow ever dealt to Protestant missions would soon engulf China.

The white-haired Chinese pastor could barely walk, but he had come to say goodbye. ‘Guo neng mie; jiao mie bu liao’ - ‘Kingdoms may perish, but the Church can never be destroyed,’ he said, knowing that, just by talking to the missionaries, he was risking his life. Soon the foreigners would depart on a hazardous 1000-mile journey to freedom, and Pastor Song, one of thousands of Chinese Christians, would die a martyr’s death at the hands of the Boxers. It was 1900, but the seeds of the tragedy had been sown some 40 years earlier.

The Peking Convention of 1860 gave foreigners many privileges and allowed missionaries to own land in China’s interior. Buildings sprang up and the Roman Catholic Church became a great landowner. More and more missionaries arrived to work in schools, colleges and hospitals.

Although they introduced Western science and technology and did much good, the missionaries nevertheless managed to stir up a good deal of resentment. Some abused the privileges given to them under the treaty, while others showed astonishing insensitivity towards Chinese culture and customs. And whilst the missionaries in the coastal treaty ports lived in relative comfort, the majority of those they were seeking to reach lived in appalling squalor.

China’s humiliating defeat by Japan in 1895, which resulted in the loss of Taiwan and the recognition of Korea’s independence, was the final straw. Increasingly, the Western powers sought to carve China up into different spheres of foreign influence.

When two German missionaries were murdered in 1897, Germany, Russia, France and England seized a number of strategic Chinese ports in revenge. The Empress Dowager Ci Xi, also known as the ‘Old Buddha’, was ‘alive with wrath and angry beyond words’.

Rather than fighting back against the hated oppressors, the young Emperor Guang Xu started to reform and Westernise China. The reforms, one of which proposed that all idol temples should close and then be reopened as schools and colleges, generated stiff opposition.

When rebellion, uprising and riot broke out, the reactionary Empress Dowager resumed the reins of government, imprisoned Guang Xu in his own palace, executed the reformers and reversed their edicts. Their demands for modernising China were shelved and, as Hudson Taylor wrote, there appeared ‘little hope of averting a complete collapse’.

As anti-foreign feeling swept across China, so membership of a secret society, ‘the Righteous and Harmonious fists’(they were nicknamed ‘Boxers’ because they believed that, through martial arts and ritual boxing, they would become impervious to bullets) grew rapidly. Their slogan: ‘mie yang’ - ‘destroy the foreigner’.

The movement flourished under imperial protection and spread like wildfire. Foreign missionaries were attacked, as were Chinese Christians, who were referred to as ‘secondary devils’ and regarded as traitors.

In November 1898, whilst travelling in West China, Hudson Taylor heard how William S Fleming, an Australian, had become the first CIM martyr. Fleming died trying to protect his friend and assistant Pan Shoushan, a Black Miao convert. Pan Shoushan was also martyred.

Up to then, Taylor had taken comfort from the fact that for 32 years not one CIM missionary had died as a result of violence. ‘How sad the tidings!’ he wrote to Deputy Director John Stevenson. ‘Blessed for the martyrs but sad for us, for China, for their friends… Doubtless it means fuller blessing, but through deeper suffering.’

At the end of 1899, a missionary from the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts was murdered. The British authorities protested vigorously, threatening to send troops to China in order to ensure the safety of foreign residents.

But the Empress Dowager would have none of this. On 24 June 1900, she issued a decree ordering the destruction of all ‘foreign devils’. The hated barbarians were to be driven out of China.

The slaughter began in earnest.

Westerners and Chinese Christians were hunted down, and houses, schools and churches burnt to the ground. In July lurid headlines such as ‘Chinese massacre missionaries’ and ‘Hundreds feared dead’ began to appear in British newspapers.

Increasingly frail, and already over-taxed through frequent travel, Taylor, then aged nearly 70, finally broke down and was taken to the Swiss mountains to recover. Telegram after telegram came through, telling of riots, massacres and the martyrdom of missionaries. Convalescing in Davos, Switzerland, Taylor said, ‘I cannot read. I cannot think. I cannot even pray, but I can trust.’

The deaths were horrific. Some missionaries were beaten and burned to death, others were tortured and beheaded. Chang Yuwen, a 17-year-old Chinese Christian, was cut into pieces and his body nailed to a wall in Tangshan, Hebei Province. Others were shot, stabbed, stoned, run over by carts or strangled. Chen Xikong, another Christian in Hebei Province, had his heart cut out and placed on a stone. Some missionaries died, still kneeling in prayer.

CIM worker Gilbert Ritchie wrote, ‘Alas, only a very few of my beloved fellow missionaries in the province of Shanxi escaped the blood-stained hands of the Boxers.’ One of those martyred was Ritchie’s Chinese helper, a converted Buddhist priest.

Although in some areas the local authorities attempted to protect the Westerners, in many parts of the country chaos reigned supreme. The Boxers entered Tianjin waving the heads of murdered missionaries, and were joined by imperial troops. The situation deteriorated rapidly. As a news agency put it, ‘It is all China against the foreigner.’

While hundreds fled to the coast under conditions of considerable hardship, others poured into Beijing to escape the massacre, taking shelter in the Foreign Legations. Encircled by the Boxers, they were besieged for two months; beating off repeated attacks and living in the most appalling conditions.

On 27 July an international eight-nation army stormed Tianjin and fought its way to Beijing, despite determined resistance from the well-equipped Chinese. Eventually, on 14 August 1900, it relieved the Legations, which had less than a week’s food left, and drove the Boxers from Beijing.

The Empress Dowager and her hostage Guang Xu, disguised as peasants and carrying vast quantities of treasure, fled to Xian. The occupying forces, meanwhile, looted the city and burned down imperial palaces and temples.

Negotiations with the foreign powers began. On 7 September 1901 a peace treaty was signed by the Manchu government and the Western nations, who demanded the stationing of allied troops in Beijing and the main ports, commercial concessions and some $330 million in damages.

Though the CIM suffered more than any other mission in China, Taylor refused to accept payment for loss of property of life, to show the ‘meekness and gentleness of Christ’. Though criticised by some, he was commended by the British Foreign Office, whose minister in Beijing donated £200 to the CIM, expressing his ‘admiration’ and sympathy. The Chinese were also touched by Taylor’s attitude.

Despite everything they had experienced, those who survived remained free of bitterness and hatred. One missionary, dying on the way to Hanzhou, whispered to her husband, ‘I wish I could have lived, I wish I could have gone back there to tell the people more about Jesus.’ Those who escaped death, but had lost everything else, had only one thought - to return to their beloved Chinese as soon as possible.

‘It is a wonderful honour… to have among us so many counted worthy of a martyr’s crown,’ wrote Taylor, ‘Some who have been spared have perhaps suffered more than some of those taken, and our Lord will not forget.’

The terrific strain of the Boxer Uprising had taken its toll so, feeling he might die at any time, Taylor decided to retire. He appointed D E Hoste as Acting General Director and died four years later in 1905. He was 73.

By now, things had returned to normal, despite the crippling conditions imposed by the West. The Empress Dowager returned, duly chastened, and was soon taking tea with Westerners as if nothing had happened. She died in 1908, having given instructions for Guang Xu to be poisoned. She outlived him by one day, not realising that the Manchu dynasty itself had only three years to live.

[Gary Clayton © OMF International, 2000]

Those martyred

  • 30,000 Chinese Roman Catholics
  • 2000 Chinese Protestants
  • 35 Protestant missionaries, 53 children
  • 47 Roman Catholic priests & nuns
  • CIM losses - 58 missionaries, 21 children

Results of the Uprising

  • Hudson Taylor hands over the leadership of the mission he founded.
  • Increased openness due to Chinese believers’ willingness to die for Christ & the missionaries’ refusal to accept compensation.
  • Missionaries emphasise leadership training & turn over greater responsibility to Chinese colleagues.
  • An increase in the number of missionaries to China from the West & in converts to Christianity in China.
  • The eventual overthrow of the 2000-year-old dynasty & the establishment of a Nationalist Republic.

A Thousand Miles of Miracle

is A. E. Glover’s gripping account of his family’s escape from the Boxers. This new edition includes a substantial section of Glover’s letters home, along with eight pages of photographs.