9/24/10 - chinese christians

In today's excerpt - efforts by Christian missionaries in the 1800s to convert the largely rural Chinese to their faith stumbled badly, amid cultural dissonance, social and political maneuvering, and libelous claims and counterclaims. But British economic and military superiority soon made it advantageous to for Chinese to convert:

"Out of a total population of over four hundred million, only a tiny fraction of rural Chinese in the 1890s had ever seen a white man. Villagers were by nature open and friendly toward strangers, but in times of crisis there was a dread of foreign things...

"By 1870 some two hundred fifty Catholic missionaries could claim a Chinese flock of four hundred thousand. The three hundred fifty Protestant missionaries, who spent the greater part of their time quarreling among themselves, could claim only six thousand converts. ... Missionaries forbade their converts to take part in any form of ancestor worship or to contribute financially to rituals and festivals that in a village were the only distraction from a life of toil. This set Chinese Christians apart and increased the burden on everyone else. Anxious to save souls and to keep account books, missionaries often were satisfied with converts who were the dregs of society—freeloaders referred to contemptuously by Chinese as 'Rice Christians'—and uncharitably demanded preferential treatment for them in lawsuits and disputes over land.

"At Ningpo ... nearly all the Protestant Chinese converts were in the direct employ of the missionaries who had 'converted' them. By professing Christianity they got jobs and job security.

"By the 1890s resentment of these Rice Christians and their missionary sponsors was being deliberately provoked by clever, widely distributed anti-Christian propaganda ... [which] accused Christians of indulging in incest, sodomy, emasculating little boys, and using magic to accomplish perverted ends. ...  Stimulated in this way, antiforeign and anti-Christian fury grew as the nineteenth century ended; missionaries and converts were attacked and murdered and mission property destroyed. During the 1890s antimissionary outbreaks occurred in all eighteen provinces. Missionaries were accused of being spies, profiteering merchants, and hedonists. ...

"Great Britain threatened to intervene militarily if the Chinese government failed to punish the regional officials taken to be responsible. Peking gave in and sacked and degraded the governor of Szechwan and six other mandarins, executed thirty-one peasants, and imprisoned or banished thirty-eight others. Edicts were issued making it clear that further attacks on foreign missionaries, their churches, and their Chinese converts would not be tolerated. Other edicts warned local officials that they would be held responsible if there were further incidents. ... The message was loud and clear that from here on Christians would be given imperial protection. ...

"The result in places like rural western Shantung was that local officials became reluctant to risk any confrontation with missionaries or their flocks, and there was a flood of conversions by Chinese who were seeking missionary protection from local enemies or trying to avoid prosecution by local officials for a wide range of crimes. Whole bandit communities put themselves under the protection of Catholic priests. Village rivals facing lawsuits had themselves baptized in order to gain legal advantage in court. Recognizing a golden opportunity for more conversions, Catholic priests defended converts willy-nilly, pressing their cases before government officials, or had pressure applied in provincial capitals and even through the bishop to legations in Peking. Every demonstration of Christian influence attracted more converts, many of them bad characters. Shantung's governor, General Li Ping-heng, called them 'weed people.' A vicious cycle began in which  individual missionaries were encouraged to abuse their temporal power to increase their heavenly dividends."


Sterling Seagrave


Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China


Vintage Books a division of Random House, Inc.


Copyright 1992 by Sterling Seagrave


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