06/19/2004, 00.00
china - vatican
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China is Wrong: The Chinese Martyrs were not Colonialists

by Theresa Ricci

A conference on the Boxer movement and Christianity brings to light the historic truth after the accusations of Beijing about the Martyrs'canonisation

Rome (Asia News) - Hong Kong has recently been the venue for an international conference on the Boxer movement and Christianity in China.

Father Gianni Criveller, PIME missionary in Hong Kong and speaker at the  conference told AsiaNews about the focus of the conference. Above all, Chinese and western academics were given  the opportunity to meet and compare opinions. The event made sources and materials available in both Chinese and western languages. The sources had often been inaccessible in the past due to the language barrier and the difficulty of studying the subject in China as it is still rather controversial, especially for the Chinese who interpret it from an anti-western stance.

The conference was organised by the Holy Spirit Study Center of Hong Kong where Fr Criveller is a member, the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Fu Jen di Taipei Catholic University. Hong Kong and not only Taipei was chosen as the venue to allow the important participation of certain continental China academics who would be able to provide an objective interpretation rather than an ideological reading of the facts. These academics would have been prevented from going to Taiwan by the government.

How did the idea of organising a conference on the  Boxer revolt come about?

On 1st October 2000, the Holy Father canonised 120 Chinese martyrs who were killed during the Boxer period, sometimes by the Boxers themselves. This provoked much opposition from Peking. There were  two main reasons for the oppostition. The first was that the Chinese government considered these martyrs, the foreign ones in particular, to be contemptible because they had links with the colonialism and imperialism of the western powers. Three in particular, who were Italian, French and Spanish, were branded as not only contemptible but outright criminals. Secondly, the Chinese government considered the date chosen for the canonisation to be a slight to them. It was 1st October, a date which clashed with the celebration of the popular Republic.

These however, were just pretexts that China used to voice its oppostition. During the canonisation ceremony the Pope reiterated that it was not the moment for historical analysis and there would be other opportunities for experts to analyse what really happened. The Pope emphasised that the Church had no fear of the historical  truth. The Church only proclaimed the heroic and christian virtues of these holy martyrs during the ceremony. The conference is one of the few efforts to respond to the Holy Father's appeal to study this episode, which saw the martydom of 120 people who were  mostly Chinese, from a historical point of view.

What is the contribution of the conference to a re-assessment of the role of  the Christians martyred during the revolt of the Boxers?

Various noteworthy issues have emerged from this conference. Examining  sources has revealed that not all those who were killed by the Boxers were included in the list of martyrs and that those who are  included, both Chinese and foreigners, could have saved themselves had they renounced their Christian faith. A Hong Kong academic, Lan Xue-kei, has discovered that the majority of those killed during the Boxer period were killed by government agents rather than the Boxers. As a result, Peking's theory that these martyrs were victims of people's hate for the foreign invasion, doesn't hold water. Another important contribution is that of Father Lazzarotto from PIME. He showed that evidence about these martyrs not only doesn't prove their guilt regarding the accusations against them, but instead paints of picture of people possessing great moral integrity, a spirit of sacrifice and also generosity. On top of this, some of the accusations, such as that of rape against the Italian PIME missionary, Alberto Crescitelli, are completely implausible. It's difficult to imagine a foreigner even being able to approach a woman in rural Chinese society at that time.

What has emerged about the role of foreign missionaries that China still considered allies of the western colonial powers?

The issue of the relationship between imperlialism and the activity of the missionaries is highly relevant in re-examining the facts. Sources show that as in the case of the Catholic missionaries there was no shared responsibility regarding the imperialistic activities of the western powers. In fact, the Holy See and the missionaries loudly criticised European policy in China. One of the fundamental issues was that of the French protectorate of Catholic missions. It had been imposed by France without the backing of the Holy See which had tried to free itself from the protectorate on various  occasions. In 1886, Pope Leo XIII appointed a representative to Peking to end this French intereference. The Pontiff  even refused  protection from western governments and went to the point of writing a letter to Emperor Guangxu, who was entrusted with the  protection of the Christians and missionaries, to prevent the Chinese from confusing the missionaries with the foreign powers. The  Italian government, for example, had sent a threatening letter to the missionaries to force them to accept Italian protection in  China. Many didn't reply to the letters but those who did said they were there for the Pope, and not the Italian government, as they had a  strong sense of representing the Catholic Church. The position of Pius IX is also very interesting. He was deeply disappointed  in and contrary to European policy in China. The expansion of missions during his papacy was part of a master plan which was an  alternative to western imperialism. So, I think it is important that the religious motivations behind the missionary expansion in  the nineteenth century, especially in China, are attributed to their true source. This means to religion and not to the commercial objectives of the anti-clerical governments of that time. Nevertheless, in Chinese historiography there are voices who try to give an interpretation which is more objective than it should be. One Hong Kong academic, Beatrice Leung invites western historians, even those with links to missionary institutes, to not talk about this period with a sense of guilt. Doing as much not only doesn't reflect  the facts but it also justifies the Chinese government policy of oppressing Christians. Let's hope that this conference has been the first step towards a new interpretation and consciousness of the historic truth.

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