Missionaries and the Growth of Anti-Foreignism

in relation to the Boxer Rising of 1900


When one looks for causes of the outbreak of the 1900 Boxer rising in China, the first thing that naturally springs to mind is anti-foreignism. That said, the causes of the uprising were many and complex, and one should not only look to anti-foreignism as a factor, however the arrogance and disruptive effect of the missionaries is as good a cause as any. They called into question all the traditional and sacred beliefs of the Chinese and challenged the authority of local officials. This essay will focus on the missionaries present in China before and during the Boxer rising. Also their contribution to the growth of anti-foreignism in China will be examined. I will look at the period after 1860 leading up to the rising as this is when the growing tide of anti-foreignism in China becomes apparent. It should further be noted that missionaries and their converts were the chief sufferers of the Boxer rising.

Since the 1840s, foreigners had forced China's hand in treaty after treaty, gaining control of large parts of the country. The English, Americans, French, Dutch, Spanish, German, and, the largest group, Japanese, had effectively divided up the country as if they were playing the board game Risk.1 It was not uncommon for foreigners to even own whole cities. These actions alone naturally sparked off resentment and anger from the Chinese who felt that they had little or no control over the situation. All they could do was sit and watch as their country was torn and divided by people who knew little if nothing about their old and cherished culture. The foreigners in question here are merchants and diplomats and therefore not missionaries. It is true that these foreigners were greatly disliked but not to the same extent as the missionaries, the reasons for which will be discussed further on. It would be right to assume that the foreign missionary played a critical role in the roots of Chinese anti-foreignism. For it must be said that the missionary was in fact the first foreigner to leave the treaty ports and venture into the interior in large numbers and stay for such a long time. They were virtually the only foreigners whose field of day-to-day operations extended over the length and breadth of the Chinese Empire. For a large section of the Chinese population in the nineteenth century, the missionary was the only concrete manifestation of the foreign intrusion in China at the time and as such they were the only entities against which opposition to this intrusion could be directed. Therefore, by the nature of their calling it is understandable that they were more exposed to attacks than other foreigners, and they were presumably disliked more heartily than were the others. Their Chinese converts were dubbed ‘secondary devils’. They were by many believed to be traitors to their country and to their culture, the protection which they had enjoyed under the treaties of 1858 served further to identify them with the westerner, and the lawsuits in which missionaries had interfered were remembered against them. The year 1900 was a very memorable year for the missionaries, for never before had Christians suffered such severe forms of persecution. In the centuries of their activities in the Middle Kingdom, Roman Catholics had faced many hardships but never at one time had they lost so many lives. The total loss of Roman Catholic missionaries was reported to be five bishops, thirty-one other European priests, nine European sisters and two marists. The figure of thirty thousand Protestants who perished is somewhat uncertain, but includes one hundred and thirty-four or one hundred and thirty-five adults and fifty-two children. Two thousand Chinese converts died.2 Roman Catholics suffered more gravely simply due to the fact that their work was older and well established and their converts numerous. They were known for their constant interference in official and local matters and this further contributed to their ill-will. It was quite clear that Boxers treatment towards the Catholics was far harsher than that of the Protestants.

The main aim for the missionaries in the beginning had been to legalize Christianity in China and this task was met with stiff resistance. The French missionaries were the most persistent and it was not until 1844 that the Chinese said that they would accept Christianity for good purposes. The position of the missionary enterprise in China from 1860 was based upon the Sino-French agreements of 1858 and 1860. So why did the missionaries whose only presence in China was for the purpose of achieving its salvation meet so much resistance and dislike? The reason for this is clear, the missionaries were not as innocent as they were thought to be. Many of them were very bad Christians indeed and several of them engaged in activities which one would have considered most unchristian.

Local officials were known to have disliked the missionaries simply because the Catholics demands were often so unreasonable, for example, indemnities were often demanded for injuries which had been sustained during local squabbles which had both parts to blame. These reparation sums usually had to be raised by the gentry and officials of the locality in question. This understandably did not help their popularity and it did little to ease the already tense situation. It is not shocking that they were so heavily disliked when one considers instances such as when a Franciscan father went so far as to demand, in addition to the return of their former properties, reimbursement for house and land rents collected during the preceding 100- year period. Such incidents were far from uncommon. In Shandong a missionary even went so far as to adopt the title of governor, with the intention of fulfilling his duties.3. The missionaries themselves have however attempted to justify such actions. In Joseph Esherick’s book there is a passage written by a Catholic Priest, " The mission believed it necessary to assume the protection of the Christians. ‘Wherever there are Christians, there are lawsuits’, wrote Father Anser in his first annual report. They present delicate, dangerous, and thankless problems... In order not to jeopardise his work, the missionary must on occasion intervene on behalf of his people".4 Furthermore, missionaries behaved badly in the sense that they would stop at nothing in order gain more converts. This meant that they simply took advantage of the ignorance of the Chinese peasants and used their extreme influence and political status to persuade these peasants to adopt a religion that was alien to all their previous beliefs and culture. The Protestants were not as successful as the Catholics in gaining converts, their growth rate was rather slow but this was due to them being far more selective than the latter group. Several of their tactics for gaining converts were in clear contravention of Chinese law. The short-term gains might have been many by exercising such means, but in the long run their actions only intensified the already apparent dislike towards them by the Chinese society. As Cohen suggests it was clear that the church was bound to bring in the worst elements of society, the ones most in need of protection, and the consequence of this was that they repelled the good people, the ones which they should instead have converted.3. As it later turned out, the Christian community suffered because some of their more mischievous members’ actions reflected badly upon the community as a whole. One rather amusing account in Paul Cohen’s book tells of a Blacksmith in the vicinity of Soochow, "finding that his anvil was not bringing in enough cash, decided to supplement his income through more devious means. He traveled all about the area and, falsely claiming that he was Christian, fleeced numerous heathen families by threatening them with the wrath of the Catholic religion if they did not pay him a certain sum of money. It was not until after he had collected from 300,000 to 400,000 (taels) cash in this manner that he was finally exposed".5. The Empress Dowager made her opinion clear on the matter; " These Chinese Christians are the worst people in China," she told her lady in waiting, "They rob the poor country people of their land and property, and the missionaries of course, always protect them, in order to get a share for themselves.".6. This naturally must have reflected badly on the Qing and further increased hostility.

Although it is fair to say that the missionaries were to blame for a large portion of the resentment that was directed towards them, there were several instances where the missionaries were unfairly held responsible and all blame was directed towards them. The main example of such a case was when the Yellow River broke its bank in the summer of 1898, causing a disaster of great magnitude. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese farmers and their families were heavily flooded and forced to abandon their homes. Next came a serious plague of locusts and two years of drought resulting in the worst famine ever. A leaflet advised Chinese that "until all foreigners have been exterminated the rain can never visit us".7. Due to this, defense forces swelled and hostility towards missionaries became intense. Being blamed for no rain is unreasonable and it is unfair that missionaries were blamed with such a ludicrous excuse. Another, but somewhat far fetched reason for the Chinese not liking the missionaries was that they were thought by some to be foreign political agents, infiltrating pro-western propaganda. This assumption should however be taken with a pinch of salt.

In retrospect however, it is only logical that they acted in they way they did. One must understand that they were acting desperately and irrationally, they had to direct their anger towards something and the missionaries simply proved to be the easiest targets. It was known that the Boxers primary targets were Chinese Christian converts but as Sterling Seagrave accounts for there were several occasions where they ruthlessly killed Western missionaries. One such account was of an Anglican missionary, Reverend S.M Brooks who was returning through the falling snow to his post at Pingyin on the Yellow River when he was surrounded by a band of Boxers armed with swords. Brooks, totally helpless fought back and was slashed on the head and arms. The Boxers stripped him to his underwear and dragged him away. In the bitter cold Brooks tried to bargain, offering a ransom for his release. When the gang stopped for lunch at a roadside inn he was tied to a tree. While they ate inside, the innkeeper untied Brooks and he fled, only to be pursued and cut to pieces about mile from a church run by the society for the Propagation of the Gospel. His head was cut off and the corpse thrown into a gully.8.

All in all despite such incidents it must be said that the missionaries did inflict most ill will upon themselves. It is true that the Catholic strives towards political authority was sooner or later going to reach a breaking point with the civil government, this fact cannot be denied. Furthermore, it was not simply the Catholics that had uncompromising aims, the Protestants also did, they both wanted the Chinese to surrender their traditional Chinese methods of thought. This was a surrender that the Chinese were not willing to make and sadly the missionaries did not realise this until it was too late. As Fleming writes, "it was inevitable that the Powers would come with selfish aims to China. It was inevitable that they would be prepared to use force to further their aims".9. They would stop at nothing to further their aims, nothing or nobody was going to stand in their way. Cohen sums up the blame for the missionaries well, " partly by the mere fact of his presence in the Chinese interior and partly by the manner in which he made his presence felt there- clearly played a major role in encouraging the growth of Chinese anti-foreignism after 1860".10. Therefore in summation it can be concluded that the missionaries were in a large part responsible for the anti- foreignism and it’s growth that ultimately led to the Boxer Rising. Their good intentions turned out to be cruel intensions.


  1. Mark Galli, Fury Unleashed: The Boxer Rebellion revealed the courage of missionaries- and the resentment they sparked, Christian History Magazine, Issue 52, Vol. XV, no.4 (1996).
  2. K.S Latourette, A History of Christian Missions in China, (New York, 1929), p.512.
  3. Paul Cohen, China and Christianity, (London, 1963) p. 131.
  4. Joseph W. Esherick, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising, (Berkeley, 1987) p. 135.
  5. Paul Cohen, China and Christianity, (London, 1963), p.135.
  6. Sterling Seagrave, Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China, (New York, 1992), p 296.
  7. Ibid, p. 296.
  8. Ibid, p.300.
  9. Victor Purcell, The Boxer Uprising: A Background Study, (Cambridge, 1963)
  10. Paul Cohen, China and Christianity, (London, 1963), p.270.