Church of Scotland uncovers plight of Scots during China’s Boxer Rebellion

The Boxer Rebellion was a violent anti-foreign and anti-Christian uprising that took place in China between 1899 and 1901. Picture: Wikimedia
The Boxer Rebellion was a violent anti-foreign and anti-Christian uprising that took place in China between 1899 and 1901. Picture: Wikimedia
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A fragile handwritten public proclamation has cast fresh light on the impact of a bloody rebellion on Scottish Presbyterians in China more than 100 years ago.

The striking document - about two feet long and written in calligraphy - was issued by the Court of Emperor Kuang Hsu after the Boxer Rebellion ended in 1901.

Described by the Church of Scotland as a priceless document with “considerable historic significance”, it appeals for peace between religious believers and civilians, authorises the resumption of Christian evangelism and states that all churches in the north-east of the country should be re-opened.

The proclamation, which is as delicate as tissue paper, warns “ignorant gangsters” that they would be arrested, tried and “severely punished without mercy “ if they failed to return occupied properties to Christians.

The document, which effectively ordered the government of north east city Liaoyang to protect Christian activities, was uncovered in an archive at the church’s central offices in Edinburgh last month.

More than 300 Protestants and thousands of Chinese Christians were killed by a secret organisation called the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists, who were opposed to the spread of Western and Japanese influence, during the 1899-1901 rebellion.

Protestant missions to China had begun in earnest following the Opium Wars of the 19th century, which forced the nation to open to western trade.

The rebels - known as Boxers because they performed exercises they believed would help them withstand bullets - killed western and Chinese Christians and destroyed foreign property during their anti-foreign uprising. The forms of death meted out to Christians were brutal.

The peasant uprising ended when an international force of around 20,000 troops from eight nations, including the UK, overwhelmed the rebels.

Sandy Sneddon, Asia secretary of the Church of Scotland’s World Mission Council, said: “When the document from the Court of Emperor Kuang Hsu came to light we immediately knew it was something special.

“The beautiful calligraphy is striking and when we had it translated we realised this was of considerable historic significance.

“Our partners in China explained that the proclamation showed the respectful relationship the Scottish missionaries had built up with the Chinese authorities.

“After the violence and destruction of the Boxer Rebellion the missionaries were free to resume their work of sharing the Gospel.”

One of the key figures in the re-opening of churches in the area then known as Manchuria was Rev Dr John Ross, a Church missionary from Balintore in Easter Ross.

The native Gaelic speaker, who knew 11 different languages, founded Dongguan Church in Shenyang in 1889, which was destroyed during the Boxer Uprising.

It was later rebuilt and is now one of the largest in north east China, with 30,000 members.

The proclamation was translated by Liza Qian of China’s North East Theological Seminary.

She said: “Scottish missionaries in so called Manchuria at that time had a good reputation and relationship with the local authority so usually their appeals would be answered.

“They usually wrote polite letters to them instead of visiting Court in order to avoid direct interference in local lawsuits.

“This was Dr Ross’s policy and it earned the respect of local officials.”