On July 9 the Church celebrates the feast of the 120 Martyrs of China. Religious persecution has a long history in China, especially persecution of Christians, thousands of whom have died for their faith in the last millennium.
On October 1, 2000, Pope John Paul II canonized 120 men, women, and children who gave their lives for the faith in China between the years 1648 and 1930. The martyrs include 87 native Chinese and 33 foreign missionaries. The majority were killed during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900.
On January 15, 1648, the Manchus, having invaded the region of Fujian and shown themselves hostile to the Christian religion, killed Saint Francisco Fernández de Capillas, a Dominican priest aged 40. After having imprisoned and tortured him, they beheaded him while he recited with others the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary. Father de Capillas has since been recognised by the Holy See as the pro to martyr of China.
After the first wave of missionary activities in China during the late Ming to early Qing dynasties, the Qing government officially banned Catholicism (Protestantism was considered outlawed by the same decree, as it was linked to Catholicism) in 1724 and lumped it together with other ‘perverse sects and sinister doctrines’ in Chinese folk religion.
While Catholicism continued to exist and increase many-fold in areas beyond the government’s control (Sichuan notably), and many Chinese Christians fled the persecution to go to ports cities in Guangdong or to Indonesia, where many translations of Christian works into Chinese occurred during this period, there were also many brave missionaries that broke the law and secretly entered the forbidden mainland territory. They eluded Chinese patrol boats on the rivers and coasts, however, some of them were caught and put to death.
Towards the middle of the 18th century five Spanish missionaries, who had carried out their activity between 1715 – 1747, were put to death as a result of a new wave of persecution that started in 1729 and broke out again in 1746. This was in the epoch of the Yongzheng Emperor and of his successor, the Qianlong Emperor.
A new period of persecution in regard to the Christian religion then occurred in the 19th century.
While Catholicism had been authorised by some Chinese emperors in the preceding centuries, the Jiaqing Emperor published, instead, numerous and severe decrees against it. The first was issued in 1805. Two edicts of 1811 were directed against those among the Chinese who were studying to receive sacred orders, and against priests who were propagating the Christian religion. A decree of 1813 exonerated voluntary apostates from every chastisement, that is, Christians who spontaneously declared that they would abandon their faith, but all others were to be dealt with harshly.
And so passed an era of expansion in the Christian missions, with the exception of the period in which they were struck by the disaster of the uprising by the “Society for Justice and Harmony” (commonly known as the “Boxers”). This occurred at the beginning of the 20th century and caused the shedding of the blood of many Christians.
It is known that, mingled in this rebellion, were all the secret societies and the accumulated and repressed hatred against foreigners in the last decades of the 19th century, because of the political and social changes following the Second Opium War and the imposition of the so-called unequal treaties on China by the Western Powers.
Very different, however, was the motive for the persecution of the missionaries, even though they were of European nationalities. Their slaughter was brought about solely on religious grounds. They were killed for the same reason as the Chinese faithful who had become Christians. Reliable historical documents provide evidence of the anti-Christian hatred which spurred the Boxers to massacre the missionaries and the Christians of the area who had adhered to their teaching. In this regard, an edict was issued on 1 July 1900 which, in substance, said that the time of good relations with European missionaries and their Christians was now past: that the former must be repatriated at once and the faithful forced to apostatize, on penalty of death. As a result, the martyrdom took place of several missionaries and many other Chinese.
Following the failure of the Boxer Rebellion, the government recognized it had no choice but to modernize, which in turn led to a booming conversion period in the following decades. The Chinese developed respect for the moral level that Christians maintained in their hospital and schools. The continuing association between western imperialism in China and missionary efforts nevertheless continued to fuel hostilities against missions and Christianity in China. All missions were banned in China by the new communist regime after the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, and officially continue to be legally outlawed to the present.