The Trinity and the Triads: Criminals and the Boxer Rebellion 1899 CE – 1901 CE

Between 1899 CE and 1901 CE the Chinese uprising known in English speaking countries as the Boxer Rebellion specifically targeted Western Christian missions, their missionaries, and their Chinese inhabitants with a furious violence that can only partially be explained by xenophobia and anti-imperialism.

One of many reasons raised for attacking the missions, that they constituted a network of criminal activity, appeared so bizarre to Westerners that they often passed over it in silence when they did not ignore it altogether.

Many in the West then and since were sincerely baffled as to why the self-sacrificing proselytizers of Jesus should have been selected for special persecution. Though Mark Twain insightfully limned the missionaries’ humanitarian shortcomings as agents of European and American power, as well as their failures as improvers of morality, in his short anti-imperialist masterpiece To the Person Sitting in Darkness, he did not understand China well enough to fully explain the hatred of the missions by the Boxers and their many supporters.

Anti-Christian sentiment has strong historic roots in China. The Christian inspired Taiping Rebellion of 1850 – 1864 resulted in at least 20 million Chinese deaths, and was only defeated when the British, French, and an American soldier of fortune named Frederick Townsend Ward joined forces with the detested Manchu Qing Dynasty to combat the rebels.

Ward, born in Salem, Massachusetts, had gone native, marrying a local widow and coming to the conclusion, revolutionary among Westerners for the time, that Chinese men, properly trained and motivated, would make excellent soldiers, as he had observed in the Taiping ranks. The Ever Victorious Army he put together won an impressive string of fights before Ward was shot in the gut and killed on a battlefield outside of Ningbo in 1862. The Englishman Gordon appropriated his Army and much of his reputation; an American subordinate almost certainly stole his money.

The French and English turned against the nominally Christian Taiping for a number of reasons, the most important of which was that the rebels threatened to establish a state strong enough to successfully oppose dismemberment of China by the European imperialist powers. The Manchu Qing Dynasty was a known, weak, and easily vanquished foe. Besides, Taiping Christianity was of a decidedly heterodox sort.

Its founder Hong Xiuquan was a would-be bureaucrat who kept failing the Chinese Imperial Civil Service examination. Profoundly humiliated, he had a nervous breakdown and a vision of ascending to heaven where God the Father and Jesus recognized him as Jesus’ Younger Brother, and indicated to him that it was his destiny to start a ruckus on earth. Most of Hong’s notions of Christianity appear to have come from Protestant missionary tracts rather than the Bible. Some 20 million dead later, including Hong Xiuquan, his captured son pleaded unsuccessfully that he be spared execution so he could take the civil service exam that had so baffled his father.

The defeat of the Taiping, and that of the smaller contemporary uprising known as the Nian Rebellion, opened up broad swaths of China to foreign Christian missions.

But the missions were not technically part of China, or subject to Chinese law. Some details of the workings of the principle of extraterritoriality explain a good deal of the widespread Chinese hatred of the Christian missions. To better understand the situation, however, it is necessary to look at the legal system of Imperial China.

To simplify a bit, a confession was required for a guilty verdict. Criminals and society could not improve unless wrongdoing was acknowledged by the perpetrator. To prevent hardened criminals from escaping reform or punishment, torture was selectively applied to obtain confessions. Court officials ran the risk of truly horrifying penalties if they were found to have tortured an innocent suspect.

The missionaries and their foreign sponsors were appalled. They convinced their governments to force the Chinese state to accept that in the missions the laws of the foreign country applied. Chinese law was null and void on mission grounds. This had unintended consequences. Members of Chinese criminal societies, often referred to in English as triads, soon took advantage of the situation, as did opponents of the Chinese government. Both criminals and revolutionaries were commonly referred to as bandits.

If a criminal could escape the long arm of the Chinese law by droning some unmelodic songs and occasionally ingesting a small bit of sour grape wine and dry bread, it was a small price to pay. Many of the foreign missionaries had a naïve belief in the efficacy of repentance and remission of sins in cases where there was not even regret. A surprizingly large number of missions became safe havens for organized crime in their territories. This fact was often unknown to the missionaries, and widely resented by their victimized Chinese neighbors.

Not all Western missionaries were so oblivious, but enough were to condemn the class as a whole when the Boxers finally rebelled to express their grievances.

The missions led the Western nations in their calls for reparations and vengeance after suppression of the Boxer Rebellion. They demanded silver and occasionally heads, no doubt in the spirit of Christian charity.

Mao later praised the nominally Christian Taiping forces for their communitarianism and their opposition to the binding of women’s feet.

Further Reading:

• There are many books on the Boxer Rebellion, too many of which in English focus on the foreign legations in Beijing or see the missionaries and the missions’ Chinese inhabitants as simple martyrs. David Silbey’s The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China sets context for the imperialist threat to the Middle Kingdom. Joseph Esherick’s The Origins of the Boxer Uprising redresses the overemphasis on European and American experiences usefully, with a helpful focus on the specific causes of Boxer grievances in Shandong.

• Two useful introductions to the Taiping Rebellion are Jonathan Spence’s God’s Chinese Son and Stephen Platt’s Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom. The under-documented life of Frederick Townsend Ward is sketched by Caleb Carr in The Devil Soldier.

• Perhaps the most entertaining way to gain an introduction to the Imperial Chinese justice system is to read Robert van Gulik’s annotated translation of 18th century crime stories, Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee.


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