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China Martyrs

by Prof Douglas Lancashire

The following are a few thoughts on the canonization on 1st October of 120 martyrs of the Church in China, and the Chinese government response to it.

There are several reasons why the Chinese government responded in the way that it did to the canonization of 120 martyrs of the Church in China. First, no matter how tolerant China's political leaders claim to be these days on the question of religious freedom, the fact is that they still claim allegiance to the Communist ideology, and are therefore still committed to the view that religion, as an element in social life, is a hindrance to society's healthy political and cultural development. Second, the Christian faith, introduced from the West, has long been regarded among certain Chinese leaders as the spearhead of Western cultural, and eventual political, imperialism. This was clearly the view held by some in the early days of the Jesuit mission to China in the late 16th and early 17th century in the light of events following Spanish settlement in the Philippines, and even more so in the 19th century, when China was politically weak, and Christian missions operated largely under the protection of treaties forced on China by foreign powers. For many Chinese, acceptance of Christianity by Chinese converts, and membership of churches largely dominated for decades by Western missionaries, amounted to a kind of treachery. No wonder, then, that many were to be killed in occasional attacks by the populace and in popular anti-foreign uprisings, and that they are seen not as martyrs but as criminals. Third, the 1st October marks the founding half a century ago of the modern, Communist state. The religious significance of that day for Catholics means nothing to Chinese. It was inevitable, then, that the canonization of martyrs who, in the eyes of so many Chinese, sold out to the foreigner, should be seen as a slight and a challenge to the Chinese government by elements in the West whose motives are still viewed with suspicion.

Another factor to bear in mind is traditiional Chinese attitudes to things not Chinese. When Buddhism found its way into China from India in the 1st century A.D. it had to become Chinese to find acceptance. This was accomplished, in part, by its being viewed as another aspect of Chinese Taoism, a view strengthened by a doctrine developed by Taoists termed 'hua-hu', the transformation or conversion of barbarians. According to this, Lao-zi (Lao-tzu), after disappearing in the west, went to India, converted the barbarians there, and became the Buddha. The Buddha, therefore, could be regarded as Chinese. Buddhism experienced great periods of favour and development, but Confucianism, the bedrock of the educated and scholar-official class, was drawn on from time to time, to criticize it. A powerful anti-Buddhist memorial to the throne by the important Confucian scholar Han Yu, in 819 A.D., for example, asserted categorically that the Buddha was a barbarian; that his language was not Chinese; that he was ignorant of Chinese moral and social values, and that if he were to be presented at court, the Emperor, having received him courteously, would escort him to the border under guard, and ensure that he did not mislead the masses. In 845 a major effort was made to suppress Buddhism. Strict control was placed on the number of temples to be allowed, and great numbers of monks and nuns returned to lay life. Up to the fall of the Qing (Ch'ing) dynasty in 1911 and the end of imperial rule, all ordinations had, by law, to be authorized by the state. Following the establishment of the Republic,this no longer applied, but many other ways were found to control public gatherings and the monasteries.

So long as the West wielded its powerful influence in China, Christian churches could be said to have pushed forward plans devised in the West for the planting of the Christian faith in China with a degree of self-confidence and freedom; but once China felt in a position to eliminate Westerners as controllers of Christianity in China, there were those, even within the churches, who insisted that there must henceforth be no control exerted from outside China. It is probably true to say that traditional attitudes to things foreign, as evinced in the Buddhist experience, re-emerged under the camouflage of Communism. It is only fair to say, however, that Western influence in the Church in China was recognized by many Western Christian leaders, long before Communism came to power, as something which had to diminish as it became more firmly rooted in Chinese soil. It can only be hoped that as the Church in China becomes more self-confident, and sure of the way it can comfortably relate to Christians beyond it borders, some of these sensitives which are the legacy of the past can be overcome. Christians in the West have their part to play by recognizing these sensitivities and by being supportive without being intrusive - which in a number of ways is already happening.

2nd October 2000


Douglas Lancashire was born in Tientsin (Tianjin), China, and received his early schooling at the Tientsin Grammar School. He graduated BA Hons. ( University of London) in Chinese in 1950, BD (London) in 1954, and MA (London) in Classical Chinese in 1958. He commenced his teaching career at the School of Oriental & African Studies in January, 1945, while serving in the Royal Air Force. Following graduation he was employed by the British, American and Scottish Bible Societies, as their representative in Hong Kong from 1952-1960. While there, he also served as an occasional lecturer in the Philosophy of Religion at Ch'ung Chi College. From 1960-1 he was tutor at the Hong Kong Union Theological College. From 1961-2 he served as Visiting Lecturer in Chinese Language, Buddhism and the History of Chinese Thought in the University of Michigan, USA, and from 1962-5 was Senior Lecturer in Chinese, University of Melbourne, Australia. From 1966-1981 he served as Professor of Chinese (Foundation Chair) and Head of Department of Asian Languages & Literatures, University of Auckland, New Zealand.

During 1981-1991 he was Rector of two Church of England parishes in England, but also introduced courses in Chinese in the Department of Languages & Linguistics in the University of Essex. He also served as a consultant on religious terminology for Collins English Dictionary (New Edition). During the years 1991-2 and 1993-4 he was Visiting Professor of Translation in the Department of Translation, Lingnan College, Hong Kong. Following retirement, and during the period he served as a visiting professor in Hong Kong, he became increasingly concerned with developments about the Church of England, and finally entered into communion with the Catholic Church in 1997. He now worships at the parish of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and St. George in Enfield, London.

His research interests and publications cover the fields of Chinese literature in the years immediately preceding the fall of the Chinese monarchy in 1911, and interaction between China and the West in the area of religion and thought. He has published and co-authored six books as well as numerous articles and reviews in journals. Although now retired, he continues to work in his fields of interest.

Section Contents Copyright © Professor Douglas Lancashire 1999 - 2000

This version 19th June 2006

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