Priceless scroll casts fresh light on plight of Scottish Presbyterians during Boxer Rebellion

A fragile handwritten public proclamation has cast fresh light on the impact of a bloody rebellion on Scottish Presbyterians in China over 100 years ago.

Sandy Sneddon
Sandy Sneddon, Asia Secretary for the Church of Scotland's world Mission Council displays the fragile scroll

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

It appeals for peace between religious believers and civilians and authorises the resumption of Christian evangelism.

The priceless artefact states that all churches in the north-east of the country, then known as Manchuria, should be re-opened.

The proclamation, which is as delicate as tissue paper, effectively ordered the Liaoyang Government to protect Christian activities.

It warns “ignorant gangsters” that they would be arrested, tried and “severely punished without mercy ” if they failed to return occupied properties.

More than 300 Protestant Christians 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.

Brutal killings

Sandy Sneddon, Asia Secretary of Church of Scotland World Mission Council, said the proclamation was incredibly special and of “considerable historical significance”.

The document, which was discovered in an archive in the church's central offices in Edinburgh last month, was translated by Liza Qian of the North East Theological Seminary in China.

Protestant missions to China began in earnest following the Opium Wars of the 19th century, when the superior military technology of western countries defeated the country’s navy and forced the nation to open to western trade.

The rebels, referred to as Boxers because they performed physical exercises they believed would make them able to withstand bullets, killed western and Chinese Christians and destroyed foreign property.

The form of death meted out on Christians was brutal – most were beheaded and others were wrapped in cotton wool steeped in oil and burned alive.

Some were made to wear an oily crown and set on fire while others were hacked to pieces.

The peasant uprising ended when an international force of approximately 20,000 troops from eight nations – the UK, USA, Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia, – overwhelmed the rebels.

Rev Dr John Ross

Rev Dr John Ross
Rev Dr John Ross

One of the key figures in the re-opening of churches in Manchuria was Rev Dr John Ross, a Church of Scotland missionary, who was born in Balintore in Easter Ross.

He was an an early champion of the need to train Chinese Christians to witness to their countrymen.

Dr Ross, a native Gaelic speaker famed for knowing 11 different languages and translating the New Testament into Korean, founded Dongguan Church in 1889.

It was destroyed during the Boxer Uprising and later rebuilt.

Today it is now one of the largest in North East China with 30,000 members thanks to the pioneering efforts of Dr Ross, who later returned to Scotland and was an elder at what is now Mayfield Salisbury Church of Scotland in Edinburgh until he died i n 1915.

Mr Sneddon 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 – Dongguan Church, founded by John Ross in 1889 was destroyed – the missionaries were free to resume their work of sharing the Gospel.

“During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) all public religious activity came to an end, churches were closed and many Christians were either imprisoned or sent into internal exile to labour in the countryside.

“Following Deng Xiaoping’s reforms from 1980, the Church of Scotland joined with other churches and organisations to restore and rebuild relations with a much-changed Chinese church.

“There are now all kinds of opportunities for the church in Scotland and the church in China to make connections and develop links of friendship and support.

“It’s exciting to be part of this and fascinating to know we are picking up on work that was started many years ago by our fellow Scots.”

Polite letters

The World Mission Council has re-vitalised links with the North-eastern Seminary and Dongguan Church in Shenyang, which is training local Christians to witness in their local communities, just as Rev Dr John Ross did over a century earlier.

Ms Qian 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 John Ross’s policy and it earned respect of local officials.

“In dealing with Boxer damages, John Ross and T.C. Fulton, an Irish missionary represented the British government to negotiate with high authority in north-east china.

“Because of the grace they showed in negotiation, the case was settled very fast they were rewarded by Emperor Kuang Hsu.”

The Church of Scotland also supports the Amity Foundation in China, a Christian organisation involved in many development activities and operate the largest Bible printing press in the world.

Ms Qian said Scottish Missionaries "left glorious legacies" in north-east China.

The Boxer Uprising weakened the Qing dynasty, and following another rebellion in 1911, the country became a republic in 1912.

The Proclamation Translated

The British pastor George Douglas wrote to appeal for opening all of the churches in Liaoyang next year and pleaded a public proclamation of the notice that all churches and facilities belonged to the churches which were occupied by the civilians should be returned.

The appeal was permitted.

It is examined that the Treaty allows missionaries of Jesus Religion to build churches and preached in China.

Their intention is to teach people to do good and they have been in China for many years.

Now peace has been pursued.

The Emperor has been back to the throne and permitted all churches be opened as usual.

This proclamation is issued to notify all including Manchus, gentries and merchants etc.

On the issue of this proclamation, all the civilians nearby churches should obey.

It is important for the country to have stable foreign relations.

Therefore, law-obeying should be pursued and protected in order to have peace between religious believers and civilians.

If there are any ignorant gangsters who cast suspicion on believers improperly and make trouble like before, security men of that area should arrested the gangsters immediately and they should appear in court and be severely punished.

If any village community ever occupied any church and facilities in it, they should be returned as soon as possible.

If anyone does not return the occupied church and facilities, he must be severely punished without mercy.

Let all obey it and not violate it.

A public Proclamation on 12th, 27th year of Emperor Kuang Hsu.