China’s Book of Martyrs: The Church in China

Contrary to repeated, and increasingly shrill, claims of widespread, systematic, and violent persecution of Christians in China today, almost all Chinese Christians meet together without harm. There are severe legal restrictions on religious activity, of course, though these are often not enforced.The one major exception is Shouwang Church, which had been blocked from using premises it had either leased or purchased. Rather than splitting into small groups, however, the leaders ignored both internal and outside friendly counsel and set their congregation on a path of confrontation with the government. As a result, several elders and pastors are still under house arrest, and hundreds of members have been briefly detained for trying to hold worship meetings in a commercial district.That one case has garnered massive media attention in the past two years, and the large number of Christians reported as being “persecuted for their faith” consists mostly of those from Shouwang who were taken to a police station and held for a few hours before being released.During the same time period, a few other large urban Christian organizations (LUCOs) have also either been shut down or warned that they may have to move to another location.Nevertheless, violent persecution of Christians is very rare now. Hardly anyone is being arrested, beaten, or imprisoned for being a Christian or even for spreading the gospel, though of course there are some, and conditions in rural areas are not as easy to ascertain. Still, the common image is clearly wrong. Even Paul Hattaway, the author of China’s Book of Martyrs, admits that conditions today differ markedly from the harsh environment of only a few years ago (555). Indeed, this strongly anti-communist book seems to come from an earlier era, before the current conditions of widespread freedom to worship and to propagate Christianity by all sorts of media.So why review a volume like China’s Christian Martyrs? What relevance do these stories of Chinese Christians and foreign missionaries who suffered death for their faith have for us today? Much, in every way.For one thing, this volume records instances of severe persecution as recently as 2005, less than ten years ago. Memories are still fresh and painful for thousands of believers in unregistered congregations and among Roman Catholics who have not joined the Catholic Patriotic Association.For another, we cannot understand today’s Chinese church without knowing the rich and bitter history of sustained, systematic, and cruel persecution which has all too often marked the lives of Chinese Christians.Furthermore, we know that Chinese government policy can change faster than a cobra can strike, so these stories of suffering for Christ should be kept in mind, as mental and spiritual equipment for what can always happen to Christians. Indeed, there are reports of government documents indicating a hostile attitude towards Christians, though these emanated from a previous administration, and it is too early to tell what policy the new government will take. Still, one never knows when the rulers in China will find Christians a useful scapegoat.The author has done historians a service in bringing many hidden resources to light, and in correcting the record of the past. Sad to say, the current government of China has not only suppressed many of these accounts, but in many cases has denied that martyrdom took place, or vilified the Christians as enemies of the state. At least at the time the book was published, the murderous depredations of the hideous Boxers at the turn of the 20th century were lauded in official histories. More recent instances of persecution are usually either ignored or credited to alleged crimes by those who were beaten, imprisoned, or even killed. Hattaway believes that the truth must be told.Then there are the abiding lessons which we can derive from recurring patterns in this moving collection of stories of those who paid a high price for following Christ and for sharing that faith with others in China. Some of those patterns are worth our consideration:

Reasons for persecution

By far the most common cause for violent attacks on Christians has been their foreign connection. Beginning with the “Nestorians” in the Tang and Yuan dynasties, and continuing with Roman Catholics in the Qing dynasty and into the present, and then the Protestants, both missionaries and Chinese believers have been tarred with the brush of foreign cultural, economic, and even military imperialism. Time and again, Chinese governments have lashed out against those they consider to be agents of unfriendly foreign powers, and often with justification.We are all familiar with the ways in which, very unwillingly, missionaries were associated with the dreadful opium trade in the nineteenth century, and with the role that missionaries played in diplomacy (though they usually tried to mitigate the harsher provisions of onerous treaties which their governments wanted to impose on a defeated China).What we may not know is just how aggressively the French government sought to “protect” Roman Catholic missionaries from all European nations, nor how vigorously many Roman Catholics pressed their “rights” to property, protection from legal action, and equal, even preferential treatment, for religious workers in dealing with government officials, Naturally, all this evoked fierce hostility from Chinese commoners and leaders alike.Of course, most of the accusations against both missionaries and Chinese believers of working for foreign governments were, and are, utterly false, but that doesn’t stop those who dislike Christianity from digging up some cases, real or fabricated, from the past in order to make things hard on Christians today. It doesn’t help that a small number of missionaries in the past couple hundred years have worked for foreign governments.Christians and missionaries also encountered the hatred and fear of adherents to other religions, including Tibetan Buddhists, Chinese Buddhists, and worshipers of ancestors and local deities. The educated elites correctly saw that Christianity posed a threat to their humanistic and rigidly hierarchical ethical and cultural system, and instigated most of the riots against missionaries.

Mass hysteria

That brings us to another frequent phenomenon: Mass hysteria. It seems that Chinese people, with their strong group identity, can be easily mobilized into maddened mobs with murderous intentions. The Cultural Revolution exposed this tendency, as have violent anti-foreign demonstrations over the past couple of decades. The Boxer Movement drew much of its fuel from resentment against foreigners, but could not have wreaked so much havoc unless large numbers of people had been whipped into a deadly frenzy that led to torture and death for thousands of Chinese believers and several hundred missionaries.

Courage and commitment

At the same time, however, we see countless cases of courage and commitment unto death itself. One stands in awe at the way in which Christians of all nations have refused to compromise their faith or cease from bearing testimony to their Lord, even in the face of the most awful treatment by heartless enemies. Roman Catholics and Protestants, Chinese and foreigners, men and women, young and old – the martyrs come from all segments of those who profess faith in Christ, and inspire us with a courage that can only come from divine empowering and love for Christ and his kingdom. The reader will be repeatedly stirred and humbled by these stories of fortitude and faith.

Brutality and Torture

At the same time, China’s Book of Martyrs is not for the faint-hearted. Even its restrained narrative contains enough details to give you bad dreams. Sadly, brutality and sometimes even sadistic torture seem to be part of the” DNA” of at least some elements of Chinese police culture, even today. Torture exists in many societies, of course, and the early Christians faced no less from the cruel Romans in the blood-stained arena of the Colosseum. Still, it seems jarring to have the same ruling elite that produced, and gloried in, the lofty ethics of Confucius, refined arts of poetry, painting, and porcelain, and elaborate rituals of courtesy tolerate, much less condone, such inhuman conduct by those whom they had appointed as guardians of public safety. Perhaps we see here a major contrast between those societies which have been heavily influenced by Christianity and those which still operate according to natural human inclinations.

“Christian” persecutors

Some persecution comes not from the state or from ignorant mobs, but from other “Christians.” Cults and sects proliferate today, among which the worst may be the Eastern Lightening, which even now engages in kidnapping, drugs, sex, and torture to ensnare Christians. It was not too long ago that the Three Self Patriotic Movement did not shrink from using the police to smash house churches, a fact which older members and leaders of unregistered groups have not forgotten, and something which has not been officially recognized or renounced.

“The blood of the martyrs…”

Finally, we see how persecution only hardens the resolve of true believers in Christ. As at the beginning, so now, Christians count it an honor to suffer for the name and gospel of their Savior and Lord. Indeed, the “blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Many think that the huge numerical growth of both Roman Catholics and Protestants in China in recent decades owes a lot to the trials and tribulations which brave souls endured not too long ago.China’s Book of Martyrs records the stories of about one thousand Chinese and foreign Christians who endured various types of suffering because of their faith and/or their determination to preach the gospel in China. By the author’s admission, not all were “martyrs” in the usual sense of the word, for many only died because they chose to go to China as missionaries, not from intentional violence. In some instances, perhaps, there has even been a bit of a “martyr complex” that has glorified suffering for Christ and even unnecessarily sought to provoke hostility. A few of the accounts involve people who have been credibly considered members of real cults, while others seem to overlook solid evidence of wrongdoing, rather than innocent suffering.Still, Paul Hattaway has done an enormous amount of research in archives and published materials from around the world, including Europe. He cites his sources, making the volume useful for those who want to pursue individual cases further.By permission of the publisher, the Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity ( will post a few stories from this collection in coming months, to give you a taste of the rich contents of this volume, which I encourage all students of Chinese Christianity to buy and read.I went through the entire book in one month, thirty pages a day, five days a week. I must say that the cumulative effect of this daily dose of testimonies of martyrdom was not just sobering, but almost oppressive. We in the West are just not used to such prolonged exposure to pain and sorrow. Perhaps we should study the Bible more carefully, read a bit more history, and look beyond our borders to places where blood is still being shed by disciples of Jesus. Those of us who live in the West may face similar challenges in the future; we would do well to ponder the courage, commitment, and even mistakes of those who have preceded us.

ReviewsJason Truell