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Martyrs of China, then and now

The stories of lay martyrs of China are as inspirational as any stories of the martyrs from the days of the Roman empire.

The Chinese national flag flies in front of a Catholic church in Huangtugang, China, Sept. 30, 2018.(CNS photo/Thomas Peter, Reuters)

On July 9th, the Church remembered the heroic lives and deaths of 120 Chinese martyrs. These men, women, and children died between the years 1648 and 1930. But the practice of the Christian faith did not begin in China in the seventeenth century any more than it ended in the twentieth.

Although some traditions say that the Apostle Saint Bartholomew reached China in his attempt to follow Christ’s command to preach the Gospel to all nations, the earliest physical evidence for the presence of Christianity in China is dated centuries later. A limestone stele found in China and dated to the eighth century states that Christians entered the country in the year 635. The missionaries who brought the faith appear to have come from the Mideast and to have been followers of the Nestorian heresy who traveled to Asia after Nestorius’ errors were officially condemned.

Although faith in Christ was likely planted in China by the seventh century, it appears that persecutions in subsequent centuries eradicated any Christian communities that existed there. In the thirteenth century, Franciscan missionaries tried again. But Chinese leaders once again decided that foreign influences and foreign religions were illegal and therefore prohibited.

In the sixteenth century, Jesuit missionaries made yet another attempt. Jesuit priests such as Servant of God Matteo Ricci did an admirable job of respecting Chinese traditions and culture while spreading the Gospel among the people. Faith in Christ quietly spread. However, maintaining that delicate balance of separating Chinese traditions that were compatible with the faith from those that weren’t compatible proved to be impossible—or at least it was impossible, given the current papal legate and current Chinese emperor. The Jesuits were expelled from the country in 1721.

However, Catholic missionaries continued to enter the country illegally to minister to those Chinese people who had become Christians. These priests knew what they were doing would be dangerous, and so it was. On July 9, the Church honors five Dominican missionaries from Spain who were captured and died as martyrs in the years 1747 and 1748, as well as a Dominican priest who had died as a martyr in 1648.

But political winds changed, and from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, Christian missionaries were sometimes able to legally enter the country and bring the Gospel to the Chinese people. Orthodox, Protestant, and Catholic missionaries came to China during this time, despite occasional persecution and changing political rulers.

The Catholic Church also remembered fourteen Catholics who were martyred between the years 1814 and 1856 on July 9. These martyrs’ deaths occurred when the Chinese emperor issued severe edicts against the practice of Christianity. The martyrs include four French priests and one Italian priest who traveled to China as missionaries. The remainder of this group were Chinese laymen who had converted to the faith.

Saint Augustine Zhao Rong, for example, was working as a soldier when he was ordered to serve as an escort to the future martyr-saint, Bishop Gabriel-Taurin Dufresse. Dufresse’s personal example and patience moved Zhao to want to learn more about the Catholic faith. Zhao was later baptized and became a priest, but he was eventually captured and executed.

Four of this group of nineteenth century saints were laymen who converted and became lay catechists. Although these four men knew the danger of teaching other Chinese about the Christian faith, they did it anyway—and died as martyrs.

In the cities of Maokou and Guizhou, persecution of Christians became severe in the mid-nineteenth century. One of the twelve martyrs remembered on July 9 was a French priest; all of the others were Chinese laymen, laywomen, and seminarians who refused to renounce their faith and were therefore beheaded.

Tensions between the government and the various Christian communities (Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox) remained high throughout the end of the nineteenth century. Even without official edicts, suspicion by non-Christian Chinese led to periodic hostilities. But that was minor compared to the Boxer Rebellion of 1900.

Between 1899 and 1901, a Chinese secret society led a violent uprising in northern China. The title of the society is various translated as “Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists” or “Society for Justice and Harmony”. To English-speakers, they are usually called Boxers because most of them practiced Chinese martial arts, known at the time as Chinese boxing. Whatever you call them, the Boxers were nothing if not violent.

Feeding on tensions among the citizenry over recent natural disasters, the Boxers raised up mobs, destroyed property, and murdered foreigners, Christians, and anyone associated with either. They insisted that all foreigners leave the country at once, and they demanded that Chinese Christians apostatize immediately or face death.

And so those Chinese Christians bravely did. The saints commemorated on July 9 include eight Franciscan bishops and priests, seven Franciscan religious sisters, eleven laymen who were also Franciscan tertiaries, four Jesuit priests, and fifty-six laymen. Those laymen were men, women, and children as young as nine and as old as seventy-nine.

The stories of these lay martyrs are as inspirational as any stories of the martyrs from the days of the Roman empire. One of them was the eighteen-year-old Chi Zhuzi, who had not yet been baptized. His tormenters attempted to break his faith through torture, and they cut off his right arm. With amazing heroism, he simply told his executioners, “Every piece of my flesh, every drop of my blood will tell you that I am Christian.”

When fourteen-year-old Ann Wang was threatened with torture, she refused to renounce her faith in Christ. In the true spirit of evangelization, she didn’t let the moments before her beheading go to waste; she cried out to those listening, “The door of heaven is open to all.” She repeated the name of Jesus three times before she was killed.

One of the martyrs was a layman and medical doctor named Mark Ji Tianxiang. While suffering from an illness, he had treated himself with opium for the pain and became addicted to the drug. But he was a faithful Catholic and attempted for many years to break the habit. Since he was unable to overcome the addiction, his priest mistakenly assumed he was not truly repentant and forbade him to receive Communion. But Mark continued to attend Mass for thirty years, obediently refraining from receiving Communion. When the Boxers arrested him and his family for being Catholics, he asked to be executed last so that he could continue to encourage his family members to remain faithful. Whatever Mark Ji Tianxiang lacked in his ability to overcome his opium addiction, he overcame in his perseverance to Christ unto death.

Three decades later, a Salesian missionary bishop and a Salesian priest, both from Italy, were traveling on a ship in China. They were both killed by pirates while trying to protect girls on the ship from abduction. They too are included in this group of Chinese martyrs.

We can admire the courage of these Chinese men, women, and children, along with the thousands of other Chinese Christians who died as martyrs but whose names we do not know. And we can ask for the intercession of these saints in our own difficulties. But how does this affect our world today? Does their witness give us any reason to hope that Christ will ever conquer the hearts of the Chinese people so that they can know the joy of faith in Christ?

Faithful Chinese Christians have endured persecution over many centuries. But the same Christ who gave courage to Chi, Ann, and Mark continues to give courage to Christians in China today. Today’s Chinese Christians have shown that they will remain faithful even when the Communist government takes wrecking balls to their churches, arrests church leaders, and imprisons laymen for speaking out against injustice.

Emperors, secret societies, and Communist governments will come and go. But as followers of Jesus Christ, we can be certain that the seed of faith planted by the martyrs of July 9 and by many other Chinese Christians will ultimately bear fruit. After all, the Christians of China have shown themselves willing to die for Christ, and our Lord will never be outdone in generosity.


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About Dawn Beutner 52 Articles
Dawn Beutner is the author of Saints: Becoming an Image of Christ Every Day of the Year from Ignatius Press and blogs at dawnbeutner.com.

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