Franciscans, Boxers, and Heavenly Battles

Dr. Anthony E. Clark’s book, "Heaven in Conflict: Franciscans and the Boxer Uprising in Shanxi", turns the conventional interpretation of the Boxer Rebellion on its head

Dr. Anthony Clark’s latest book, Heaven in Conflict: Franciscans and the Boxer Uprising in Shanxi (University of Washington Press, 2015) is a significant and superb contribution to modern Chinese history as well as to Catholic Mission history, and should trends in the academic profession break in the right way—always more of a hope than an expectation—it could become something of a trailblazer in a new and necessary mode of spirit-informed history-writing.

Spiritual conflict and the Boxer Rebellion

A more focused study than China’s Saints (Lehigh University Press, 2011), the author’s history of Late Qing martyrdom, Heaven in Conflict traces the origins and narrates the grisly unfolding of the Taiyuan Massacre, a largely ignored episode in the largely under-examined 1900 Boxer Rebellion. Clark’s thoroughly researched and lucidly written micro-history not only explains the events surrounding the unspeakable violence inflicted on Christians in the late Qing Empire, but does so in a way that showcases the unmistakable spiritual investments of both the Boxers and their Christian victims.

Even the best conventional histories of the Boxer Rebellion—Paul Cohen’s excellent History in Three Keys (Columbia University Press, 1997), comes immediately to mind—tend to interpret the whole episode as evidence of the political ineptitude of the Qing Dynasty in its twilight years, exacerbated by irrational reactionary elements (the xenophobic martial artists known as the Boxers), and an ecological crisis (a devastating, insurrection-catalyzing drought in the summer of 1900), resolved ultimately by the rational and ruthless intervention of better-organized western treaty partners. For modern historians in the west, then, the Boxer Rebellion is depicted as a desperate last-ditch attempt by romantic Chinese thugs to stop the natural course of modernization by initiating anti-western mayhem on the periphery of Beijing.

For those Chinese historians now feverishly writing new narratives of the Mandate of Heaven’s return to the middle kingdom (in a socialist, post-Mao idiom, of course, cheerfully assisted by western post-modernists) the Boxer Rebellion will likely soon be used to show how intrusive, interfering and imperious the western powers of the nineteenth century were as they sowed the seeds of destruction for whole modern liberal enterprise. For neither camp of historians is it of any real significance that 222 Orthodox Christians and 86 Catholics—among tens of thousands of Chinese and western Christians killed in the Rebellion—are now recognized as saints in heaven. For them the spiritual component of the conflict between the “Fists of Righteous Harmony” and the servants of the Lord Jesus is an anecdotal oddity adorning the socio-economic-political-environmental event. In fairness, I should mention that Cohen does indeed talk about the themes of myth and magic in Three Keys, but more as an occasion to talk about historiography; in other words, how to write about the weirdness that historians encounter from time to time, but certainly not to acknowledge its objective validity.

Clark’s book is vitally important because it turns the conventional interpretation on its head. It takes the spiritual component of the Boxer Rebellion as seriously as the historical actors themselves took it—treating it as the issue of primary significance, and re-assigning the economic, social, environmental, and political elements—not to a place of insignificance, obviously, but to the status of aggravating influences rather than driving forces.

Clark frames the book by establishing a set of fascinating conflict-dichotomies, working from the cosmos down. The first conflict is between the legendary Lord Guan (late Han general Guan Yu d. 219), the adopted spiritual master of the Society of Righteous Harmony, and St. Michael, the angelic captain of Christ’s heavenly hosts. Clark’s first depiction of the Taiyuan Massacre is as a site of battle between these two guardian spirits. As he states in the prologue, “During the summer months of 1900 Guan and Michael, swords in hand, met in Shanxi (4).” Enacting in the earthly realms the cosmic showdown between Lord Guan and St. Michael are the “Boxers and Local Gods” (Chapter 2) and their adversaries, “Catholics and Foreign Gods” (Chapter 3). On another spiritual front we see the “Red Lantern Women” pitted against the “Franciscan Sisters” in Chapter Four, and finally on the ground, in the crucible of blood and martyrdom, the “Friars” vs local magistrates and the “Fists of Righteous Harmony.” By framing the Boxer rebellion in the context of multi-layered spiritual combat, Clark gives the standard narrative of the uprising a dramatic new significance.

Foreign devils”, Franciscans, and martyrs

As we know, The Fists of Righteous Harmony, nicknamed “Boxers” by foreign missionaries familiar with their martial arts practice, formed in early 1900 in an environment of rapidly deteriorating social unrest. A drought that had gripped Shanxi province since the fall of 1899 had brought chronic economic stagnation and suffering to the region. Consequently, though not in direct response to any one stimulus, gangs of unemployed, restless young men began congregating in rural camps devoted to the veneration of local gods and training in martial arts. They came to rally around the idea that “foreign devils” and their “heterodox religion” had offended the local deities who had in turn withheld rain from the province (43), and they began to channel their martial disciplines toward war with the Christian “hairies” in their midst.

As the drought worsened and famine became more widespread, the activity of the Boxers expanded in scope from private disgruntlement, to public propaganda, and by the summer 1900, to open violence. The standard narrative goes on to assert that sporadic but intense Boxer attacks in the environs of Beijing led to a response by a coalition of western powers, who smashed the uprising with overwhelming force and severity. Finding that the Qing government had been indifferent to, if not indeed supportive of, the Boxers (after all, their rallying cry Fu Qing mieyang—“support the Qing, exterminate foreigners”) contained the strategically patriotic homage to the imperial dynasty—a new round of diplomatic protocols brought the fortunes of the Qing to a state of near-oblivion.

We know all too well that this provisional “triumph” of western powers did not result in any permanent installation of Enlightenment ideals or modern liberalism in China, but was merely a sideshow of a larger conflict between China and the Christian west; a dialogue in which the Enlightenment itself may soon prove to have been merely a sideshow.

Clark illuminates the spiritual background of these conflicts with a brief history of the Franciscan Order in Shanxi province, beginning with the first missionary preaching in the region in the thirteenth century up to the founding of schools, churches, convents, a diocesan cathedral in Taiyan, and a seminary in Dongergou, the late nineteenth. Clark shows us how absolutely linked the Order of Friars Mendicant (OFM, or Franciscans) was to the Christian life of Shanxi. Despite incursions by the Society of Jesus after the sixteenth century and the subsequent arrivals of Protestant missionaries after the Opium War, the Chinese Christians of Shanxi and its capital Taiyuan were heavily Franciscan in their Christian identity and outlook.

Clark’s account of the Franciscan priests and bishops who served in Taiyuan is an engaging catalogue of human devotion and sacrifice, sprinkled with occasional moments of arrogance and miscalculation. Bishop Gregorio Grassi, OFM (1833-1900), obscure among the ranks of Catholic saints, was a heroic missionary who exemplified the Franciscan way of “warfare,” specifically, the taking up of the cross, and dying in imitation of Christ. As he rallied a group of Chinese and European Christians on the eve of their executions, Bishops Grassi told his fellow martyrs that “the hour of combat” had arrived (62).

It is not just a recounting of what happened in one location “on the ground” during the Boxer Rebellion that Clark offers us, but a meticulously researched history of how a group of people representing the race of conquering imperialists spent their lives preparing to die in devotion to their God, and in the service of their Chinese brothers and sisters. Outside of hagiographies that serve no real historical purpose (the edifying purpose is self-evident) such writing is essentially non-existent in academic history, and will be difficult for the modern scholar to engage.

Among the highlights of research and edification available in this work is Clark’s remarkable chapter on the sisters of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, whose seven members were stripped to the waist and beheaded by Chinese officials at the west gate of the foreign office in Taiyuan, singing the hymn Te Deum (“Thee, O God we praise”) as they went to their deaths. Clark’s careful assemblage of their activities from Church records, and their attitudes—from their prolific personal correspondence—will no doubt be a boon to gender historians looking to assess the agency and insights of women in the Chinese missions. Their juxtaposition with the young “Red Lantern Women,” whose “numinous power of yin” was intended to serve as an antidote to the Catholic nun/sorcerers of Taiyuan underscores the explicitly spiritual quality of the Boxer rebellion.

While Clark clearly makes an effort to honor the martyrs of the Taiyuan Massacre, he does not hold the Catholic hierarchy entirely blameless in its dealings with the local Chinese population. Occasions of insensitivity, imperiousness, racism, classism, chauvinism—and simple ignorance of “cultural grammars”—are evident throughout the history of the Franciscan missions in Shanxi. From insisting on erecting church steeples taller than local magistrates’ offices to denying ordination to Chinese Christians, miscalculating priests and arrogant prelates gave Chinese xenophobes no shortage of reasons to grumble against their ostensibly humble and loving presence. On their worst days, however, overbearing bishops such as Gabriel Grioglio, OFM (1813-1891), for example, never treated their Chinese parishioners with the disdain exhibited by the British Foreign ministry in its everyday “Enlightened” dealings with the Zongli Yamen (Qing Foreign Office). And to be sure, no missionary ever inflicted abuse on the scale of the brutality of Governor Yuxian (d. 1901), the so-called “Butcher of Shanxi.”

Yuxian, whom Clark calls the “Boxer Governor,” not only supported the Boxers, but even violated Qing law in his zeal to persecute the Christian missionaries. After failing to gather popular complaints against the Chinese Christian communities—which he had openly solicited as a pretext for a planned suppression—Yuxian allowed the Boxers to use government property for their rituals, and commissioned local swordsmiths to produce weapons for them. Yuxian’s arrest of the Taiyuan Franciscans was disguised as an invitation to the Christians to come to the provincial office where he promised them protection from the “hostility of the people” (112). No sooner had they arrived at the yamen than Yuxian confined them to quarters where they awaited a mass execution at the hands of Boxer swordsmen on the 9th and 10th of July, 1900.

The aftermath

In the end, the “heavenly battles” were very lop-sided in their earthly expressions, whether as massacres perpetrated by Boxers with the help of local magistrates, or as punitive expeditions launched against the Boxers and the Qing government in retaliation. The Franciscans found “victory” in martyrdom, and the Boxers learned that their magical spells to ward off bullets were less effective than they had believed. The powers of the earth seemingly held sway, yet even in the restoration of order there would be no lingering satisfaction in the earthly realm. We know what the Christians in Shanxi would not have dreamed could unfold in the future when the reconstruction of the Taiyuan diocese began late in 1900. We know that the Qing empire would not last a dozen years, that civil war would break out in the 1920s, that Japan would launch a war of aggression on the Chinese mainland in 1931, and that there would be no political stability until mid-century, when Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party transformed China into a categorically materialist, officially atheist state in 1949.

Clark closes Heaven in Conflict with a quick summary of the Taiyuan diocese in the twentieth century, a period of so much violence and confusion that it makes the late Qing Empire, Boxer Rebellion and all, look almost tranquil by comparison. While the gaps in information are no fault of Clark’s given the scope of the book, we are left wondering a great many things about the fate of Christian communities of Taiyuan, not the least of which is how the Church has managed to survive at all in such a relentlessly anti-Christian nation. Apparently the spiritual battle goes on, as it must.

Clark’s use of the paradigm of spiritual warfare for interpreting the Boxer Rebellion is, I hope, only the beginning of a new methodology that seeks deeper meaning from the events of earthly history. As it stands, there is no satisfaction to be had in a historical consciousness in which power is the only real value, and the destruction of life is a perfectly rational means of acquiring and maintaining it. Anthony Clark should be commended, not only for presenting such fine research on the Taiyuan Massacre, but for offering us a history that invites us to ponder the ultimate futility of earthly triumph.

Heaven in Conflict: Franciscans and the Boxer Uprising in Shanxi
Dr. Anthony E. Clark
University of Washington Press, 2015
Hardcover, 219 pages

About Dr. Eric Cunningham 0 Articles

Dr. Eric Cunningham is Associate Professor in the Department of History at Gonzaga University. He specializes in modern Japanese history and also teaches courses in world and East Asian history.