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Handbooks of English Church Expansion


By Frank L. Norris

London and Oxford: A. R. Mowbray, 1908.

Chapter IV. Heathen China and Christian England Again

WHILE the English and American Churches were thus effecting an entry into China, two events took place in that country which drew the attention of Englishmen more closely than before to the Chinese nation. The one, a movement lasting nearly twenty years and characterized by curious and conflicting features, was the Taiping rebellion; the other, which lasted but three years altogether, and yet in some ways exercised a far more permanent influence, was the second China War. Both events seem to call for brief notice here.

The interest of the Taiping rebellion centres round three points: its alleged Christianity, the part played by "Chinese Gordon" in its suppression, and the degree and rapidity of its success. The first aroused no little sympathy in missionary [40/41] circles; the second led Englishmen generally to take a kind of romantic interest in China; while the third has hardly been considered, as it ought to be, in relation to the problem of whether China can ever be really Christianized. [cf. The Glorious Land, by A. E. Moule.]

The man who afterwards became the rebel leader was, in 1853, a disappointed scholar, smarting under a sense of injustice. Hung Su-tsuen in that year met an English missionary, probably Morrison himself, in Canton; and from a convert of Morrison's he received some Christian books, which apparently he did not read for some years. In 1837 he had a long illness, and believed that he was ordered by heaven to destroy "the idols and the imps," meaning by the latter apparently the Manchus. Five years later, in 1842, he had an object-lesson in the success of Christian warfare, when the English forces defeated the Chinese in the first China War. Thereupon, with the help of a man named Fung Yen-san, he formed in the Province of Kwangsi a "Society of the worshippers of God"; and in 1847 he himself applied to an American missionary at Canton for baptism, which was (probably wisely) refused.

[42] The movement, however, spread rapidly; and in 1853 Hung was enabled to assume the title of "Taiping Wang" (King of Peace) in Nanking itself, the southern capital of China, where twenty thousand Manchus are said to have fallen victims to the rebel forces. A glance at the map will show how far the movement had to spread before it extended from Kwangsi to Nanking. Though the actual title assumed by Hung has a scriptural sound, it was probably chosen without any such intent, and rather to signify that the golden age was at hand, when, in the words of the Chinese proverb, everywhere under heaven there would be peace. But nevertheless the degree in which in these earlier years the movement was influenced by what was, at least, a kind of Christianity seems to have been very marked. Space forbids us to quote at any length from the publications of the rebel society--some of them can be studied in the History of the Church Missionary Society and elsewhere,--but we may note a few characteristic points. [History of the Church Missionary Society, ii. 297 ff, from which much of the information in the text is derived.]

The Taipings "called God the Heavenly Father, and Christ the Celestial Brother"; [42/43] they printed and distributed thousands of copies of Genesis, Exodus, and S. Matthew's Gospel; they published several devotional books, and almanacks in which the Sundays were marked; and they destroyed every idol they could find. Great stress was laid upon the Ten Commandments, on which they published a remarkable commentary; and apparently in some sort they held something like the Christian Creed. One brief quotation may be permitted from a doxology for use on Sundays:

"We praise God, our holy and heavenly Father.
We praise Jesus, the holy Lord and Saviour of the world.
We praise the Holy Spirit, the sacred Intelligence.
We praise the three Persons who united constitute the one true God (or Spirit)."

A society which professed such a creed, which destroyed idols, which, at least at first, strove to impose the morality of the Decalogue upon its followers, was bound to create widespread interest among missionaries and those who sympathized with Christian Missions. Moreover, the fact that the Taipings were consistent opponents of opium was another strong motive with the same people for taking a favourable view of the movement. In 1860, when they were at the height of their success, several Shanghai missionaries, and [43/44] amongst them Mr. Burdon, visited their Prime Minister, Hung Jin, a man who had actually, in former years, been a catechist of the London Missionary Society at Hong Kong. The impressions received by the visitors varied considerably; Mr. Burdon's, perhaps, naturally being less favourable than those of his London Missionary Society companions. But, whether from policy or conviction, the rebel authorities certainly made every effort to encourage the missionaries to believe in their sincerity, and to come amongst them and carry on their missionary work. When the Taiping forces seized Ningpo, the leaders assured the missionaries in that place that their lives and property would be perfectly safe, though as events proved, their followers were too ill-disciplined for the assurance to carry conviction.

Was the movement, then, genuinely Christian? We have already given some grounds for thinking, or wishing to think, that it was so in its earlier years; but, before we leave the subject and consider "Chinese Gordon's" share in suppressing it, a share so inexplicable if that was its true character, it is only right to draw attention to some of the facts which tell only too strongly in the other direction.

[45] In its first beginnings it coincided with a proof of the superiority of English troops over Imperial levies, and it is obvious that Hung himself was always anxious to enlist English sympathies--possibly in a practical form--to support him in his enterprise.

And the actions of the Taipings were often inconsistent with the sincerity of their Christian professions. It is true that they destroyed the idols, but, on the other hand, they perpetrated the most appalling massacres; they professed to observe the Ten Commandments, but openly sanctioned polygamy; they published, as we have seen, statements not unlike the Christian Creed, but they belied their nominal faith by the blasphemy of no less public and authoritative assertions. Finally, whatever the leader professed, their followers seemed, for the most part, ignorant of and indifferent to Christianity; and it was a natural question how much of the leaders' professions were rather reserved for the ears of their foreign visitors than in any real degree characteristic of their convictions.

The sympathy of the missionary body was natural; the antipathy of official and commercial circles no less natural. English consuls were not [45/46] in China to encourage rebellion, and English merchants, even when not biassed by the anti-opium policy of the Taiping leaders, had strong reason to object to anything that made for disorder and the interruption of peaceful and profitable trade.

Enough has been said to show that the genuineness, even as far as it went, of Taiping Christianity was, at least, "not proven," though, at the same time, its apparent existence naturally elicited sympathy. And enough has been said to explain why the British Government sanctioned a British officer lending his services to the Chinese Government to help them subdue the insurrection. The story of Gordon's intervention must be read elsewhere. [See, for example, The Story of Chinese Gordon, by A. E. Hake.] It was a wonderful achievement for a young officer of the Royal Engineers; and his character and his methods, no less than the uniform success which attended his operations, made it an extraordinarily romantic episode. England found herself really interested in China in a way which has only been paralleled in recent years by the Boxer crisis of 1900. In both instances it is true that the general interest soon [46/47] passed away; but in both instances it is true that, if that interest bore but little fruit at the time, it might have borne much more if the Church of England had been more alive to her opportunities. [cf. The Glorious Land, pp. 25, 26.]

We must pass on, however, to the third point, which seems to give the story of the Taiping rebellion a real bearing on the question of missionary enterprise in China.

The point is this. China is an immense country, both in area and population. It is so vast that it would seem sometimes almost impossible to imagine anything affecting it as a whole. For example, neither of the China Wars of the middle of the nineteenth century seemed to penetrate the country at all, or to affect more than a few ports on the coast, and, finally, the capital. The Japanese War of 1894-5 was really waged by a single Viceroy with land forces, drawn almost entirely from his own Viceroyalty, and was watched with indifference or with a contemptuous interest by the rest of China. Even the Boxer movement of 1900 was practically confined to the northern provinces, and the international invasion which followed was unfelt over the greater part of the Empire until its effects in [47/48] the nature of increased taxation drew the attention of the other provinces to the disaster that had befallen their Government and its disagreeable consequences for themselves.

It is argued, with much apparent reason, that Christian Missions may aim at the conversion of Chinese individuals, may found little Christian communities in every province of the Empire, may, perhaps, in time meet with such success that those communities will be mainly self-supporting and self-governing; but that the idea of Christianity ever really permeating China, as much, for example, as it permeated Western Europe in the Middle Ages, or as it permeates European nations to-day, is a wild and impossible dream. At least, so these critics urge, it is a dream which will require the lapse of several centuries before it can approach fulfilment.

Now, it has been stated more than once already in the earlier pages of this book, that the aim of our Missions in China should not be the conversion of Chinese individuals so much as the establishment of a Christian Church of China, which may win China as a nation to the discipleship of CHRIST. In other words, this, which we claim to be the true object of the Church's mission work, is that which [48/49] is pronounced a dream, impossible of fulfilment at all perhaps, or at least for many hundred years. Surely the history of the Taiping movement has a warning for the critic, no less than a real encouragement for ourselves. Granted that it was not in the end successful, granted that it won its way by methods of which a truer Christianity would be ashamed, it remains true that a movement which took shape originally in the brain of a single man, which was born in the southern city of Canton, and developed in the Province of Kwangsi, which made no apparent stir for several years, ran like wildfire when once it started. Spreading from district to district, from province to province, it speedily established itself from Canton to Nanking, and from thence made a great effort, not far short of success, to reach Peking itself.

The argument is not based on the possible Christianity of the movement, neither is it weakened by the fact that it was a rebellion of Chinese against a foreign dynasty. It is simply a point of fact, to be set against the other facts to which attention has been drawn. It may be, evidently it is, difficult to make an impression on China as a whole; but it has [49/50] been done, and done in a score of years, by a movement which was, at the best, but very imperfectly Christian, by a movement which entailed immense suffering, by a movement avowedly hostile to the civil power. The Church of Christ, whatever her shortcomings, has something better to offer than the religion of the "Taiping Wang" or self-styled King of Peace; it is part of her profession, and, at least in our own Missions part of her practice, that whatever suffering there may be shall be borne, and gladly borne, by her Christians, and not by those amongst whom she strives to spread the knowledge of the truth: she puts in the forefront of her teaching the great principle of the New Testament, "Fear God, honour the king," and for her own part she neither has nor will have any conflict with the civil power. It may be that for the present, and for years to come, she will make no apparent stir; but, at least, she is justified in claiming that in the light of history it is not incredible that Christianity should one day run like wildfire over China, until the whole nation has been won for CHRIST.

But we must leave a subject which is in many ways a fascinating study, and turn our attention [50/51] to another, in itself far less attractive, but one that exercised a far greater immediate influence on Christian Missions.

The origin of the second China War is thus described by Mr. Eugene Stock: "The Chinese Governor of Canton, Yeh, seized a boat, the famous lorcha Arrow, affirming (truly as it proved) that it was a Chinese smuggling boat wrongfully flying the English flag. Sir John Bowring, the British Plenipotentiary at Hong Kong, contended that the vessel was English (which it was not) and demanded satisfaction. On this being refused, he ordered the British fleet then in Chinese waters to bombard Canton." [History of the Church Missionary Society, ii. 300.] There is no purpose to be served in going behind that description, which accurately represents the immediate casus belli. Mr. Stock's biting parenthetical comments are abundantly justified, as the following facts prove. Sir John Bowring in a dispatch to the English consul, Mr. (afterwards Sir) Harry J. Parkes, dated October 11, 1857, admitted the truth of Yen's contention, and three days later, in a dispatch to Yeh himself, dated October 14th, denied it flatly, and affirmed again that the Arrow was an English ship.

[52] Evidently the question of the Arrow's nationality was only one, and that not by any means the most important, of those which led to the war. The previous war of 1840-2 had ended, as we have seen, in a treaty which ignored the opium question, although that question had lain at the root of the quarrel. The supplementary treaty of 1843 had done little more than leave matters where they had been before; and for fourteen years successive Governors of Hong Kong had pressed on the Chinese authorities the advantages of legalizing the trade, and had pressed them in vain. But China was in a pitiable case. Great Britain was apparently determined to force the opium trade on any terms. If China would legalize it, so much the better for China, for opium could then be made to pay duty and yield a revenue. If not, the existing and unsatisfactory system of smuggling must continue.

China's position may be summed up in the words of Keying, the sometime High Commissioner at Canton: "It would," he wrote, "indeed be to the advantage of the Chinese revenues; but we should thus certainly put a value on riches and slight men's lives." Great Britain rejoined with well-simulated scorn that such talk was very [52/53] fine, but that the Chinese evidently wanted opium, and would have it in spite of the Government authorities if not with their sanction. To which China, in the person of her Emperor, replied, "It is true that I cannot effectually prevent the introduction of the flowing poison: gain-seeking and corrupt men will, for profit and sensuality, defeat my wishes; but nothing will induce me to derive a revenue from the vice and misery of my people."

The story of the war must be read elsewhere: here it is sufficient to say that the British arms were, of course, successful, and the Treaty of Tientsin was signed on June 26, 1858. [cf. Boulger's History of China; Laurence Oliphant's Narrative of Lord Elgin's Mission.] Under that treaty opium was for the first time legalized as an article of import, the duty leviable upon it was strictly limited in the interest of British importers, and several new treaty-ports, especially in North China, were opened to the world. The true meaning of the treaty in regard to opium may be expressed in the words of Sir Rutherford Alcock, afterwards H.B.M. Minister in Peking, "We forced the Chinese to enter into a treaty to allow their subjects to take opium." [By "take" Sir R. Alcock probably meant "import."]

[54] The eighth article of the treaty had an important bearing upon the future of missionary work. It was probably due to French influence--the French Plenipotentiary took part in the negotiations, and was helped by French missionaries as interpreters--and provided that "the Christian religion as professed by Protestants or Roman Catholics inculcates the practise of virtue, and teaches man to do as he would be done by. Persons teaching it or professing it shall therefore be alike entitled to the protection of the Chinese Government." (One is tempted to wonder if it ever occurred to the Chinese envoys, as they reflected on Great Britain's conduct of the opium question, that, if such was the teaching of Christianity, its teachers and professors might naturally wish to leave such a country as England and take up their residence in China!)

The Treaty of Tientsin was to be ratified in Peking itself; and in May, 1859, Lord Elgin's brother, Mr. Bruce, had reached the mouth of Peiho river, leading from the sea to Tientsin, and thence to within a few miles of Peking, when he found his further advance obstructed at Taku. It is hard to realize to-day that the attempt resulted in success. The allied forces were defeated, and [54/55] the envoys had to return to Shanghai. There had been a clear and inexcusable breach of faith on the part of a terrified Government, and retribution followed in the shape of a fresh expedition in the following spring. The passage of the Peiho was forced, Tientsin was taken, and the Chinese promptly made overtures for peace. But again their unlucky star was in the ascendant, or, perhaps we should say, again the treacherous character of the Manchu Government revealed itself. A party proceeding under a flag of truce were captured, and the captives treated with the most revolting cruelty. [cf. Laurence Oliphant's Narrative.] Punishment was swift and signal. The allies marched on Peking, seized the city, and, to punish the Emperor, as directly responsible for the crime that had been committed, sacked and destroyed the Summer Palace. The treaty was at length ratified. Foreign Legations were established in Peking, and so the curtain fell upon another act in the strange drama of forcing open China's long-closed doors.

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