Never Forget the 120 Martyr Saints of China

SAINTS & ART: The last members of the Chinese Martyrs, canonized by Pope St. John Paul II in 2000, died in 1930.

An Irish holy card depicting St. Xi Zhuzi, who was tortured and martyred in 1900 at age 18, is seen with the ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Macau in the background.
An Irish holy card depicting St. Xi Zhuzi, who was tortured and martyred in 1900 at age 18, is seen with the ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Macau in the background. (photo: Sathianpong Phookit / Robert444444 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Church celebrates the optional memorial of St. Augustine Zhao Rong, priest, and his 119 companions, all martyrs of China, on July 9. The majority are Chinese; some are Western missionary martyrs. As July 9 is a Sunday in 2023, countries that mark the feast transfer it to Monday, July 10.

If you look at a medieval map of the world, its orientation may seem unusual to you. That’s because many medieval maps put the center of the world in Jerusalem. That axis established what the cartographer thought important: the Holy City was the place of Jesus’s Passion, death and Resurrection. Similarly, China’s perspective is clear from the country’s name in Chinese: 中国 – “Zhongguo” — literally, the “Middle Country” or “Middle Kingdom.” Just as Rome thought people living beyond the Rhine were barbarians, so did China think of outsiders, especially those to its west.
China is a proud country whose history reaches back to perhaps 1500 B.C., i.e., before Moses. It’s a perspective that has made it suspicious of external influences, which is, in part, why Catholicism has had a conflicted history in China.

The Chinese Martyrs begin in 1648, when Dominican Father Francisco Fernández de Capillas was imprisoned, tortured and killed in Fujian, a province on the Chinese mainland opposite Taiwan. This was approximately 40 years after the death of Jesuit Father Matteo Ricci, who sought to open up China by immersing himself in Chinese culture. 

Augustine Zhao Rong was a Chinese soldier attached to a detachment of troops assigned to bring French missionary bishop John Dufresse to Beijing to be executed. His bearing up under suffering impressed the soldier, who asked him about his faith and, eventually, received baptism at his hands, taking the name Augustine. Although Dufresse was killed, the impression he made on Augustine led to the latter eventually seeking ordination. He would be the first Chinese-born diocesan priest and, in 1815, its next martyr.

Official People’s Republic of China history speaks of the 19th century as China’s “century of humiliation” because of the extent to which Western Powers (and Japan) carved up Chinese territory. There were various rebellions during this time, the most famous of which is probably the Boxer Rebellion at the beginning of the 20th century. It led to American troops liberating the besieged diplomatic enclave of Beijing. 

Many of these nationalist uprisings associated Christianity with the hated West. Chinese Catholics were especially singled out as collaborators against their people. A total of 87 Chinese, ranging in age from 9 to 79, bore witness to their faith with their blood. Like in ancient Rome, many could have been freed if they had just renounced their faith. They didn’t. Many died by strangulation, some by beheading.

The last members of the Chinese Martyrs, canonized by Pope St. John Paul II in 2000, died in 1930. They were two Salesians of St. John Bosco, a bishop and a priest.

When afforded religious freedom, the Church thrived in China. The Catholic Cathedral of Shanghai is a splendid example of French Gothic architecture, and the area around it was a center of Catholic life and culture. Fu Jen University, now in Taipei, was then the Catholic University of Beijing. 

Whatever religious freedom for Catholics that there was in China was short-lived. Since 1949, the Chinese Communist Party has pursued a policy of amputating the Catholic Church’s ties to the Vatican (one surprisingly abetted in this pontificate) — the “Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association” professes loyalty to Beijing, not Rome. The People’s Republic of China represses religious freedom. No doubt, before the day China is truly free, there will be more martyrs to add to the roster of the Chinese Martyrs.

Usually, I end these essays with, “Today’s saints are depicted in art by …” Well, today, that’s a bit complicated.

I usually pick examples of classical art to illustrate “saints in art,” both because I dislike much of what goes under the rubric “modern art” and because recent art is usually copyrighted. Where a work has struck me, I’ve asked the contemporary artist to give permission to use it (e.g., this depiction of giving drink to the thirsty, which I used almost two years ago when this text came up in Mark’s Sunday Gospel, but which I did not employ again when the same text came up last week in Matthew). 

I had picked an icon that depicted the Chinese martyrs but I soon discovered it doesn’t depict whom I thought it did.

Didn’t you say they were “Chinese Martyrs?”

Yes. Just not the Catholic Chinese Martyrs.

As noted above, the Catholic Chinese Martyrs include people — both Chinese and foreign missionaries — from the middle of the 17th to the early 20th centuries, i.e., from when Catholicism began getting established in modern times in China until the eve of World War II. Many, though not all, of those martyrs died in the Boxer Rebellion, one of several Chinese nationalist uprisings in the 19th/20th centuries against foreigners in the country. 

The Boxers did not distinguish among Christians. Christianity was Western, foreign, the enemy. Those who expressed faith in Christ were killed.

The Orthodox, who had also been in China since the mid-17th century, also operated a mission in Beijing, 222 of whose members were slaughtered by the Boxers during their 1900 uprising. From what I understand, their “Chinese Martyrs” were exclusively from the era of the Boxer Rebellion and exclusively Orthodox. The icon I intended to use depicted those Orthodox martyrs, not the Catholic martyrs about whom I wrote.

On top of that, Protestant Chinese Christians were also killed during the Boxer Rebellion and are honored by their denominations, although most of those denominations — in keeping with the basic tenets of Protestantism — reject the cult of the saints and have no canonization process to declare someone is in heaven.

So, many Christians died in China, particularly during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, in the effort to evangelize that great nation. We saw Pope Francis’ May decision to include in the Church’s calendar Coptic Orthodox saints slaughtered by Muslims in Libya in 2015, a decision I found problematic because it was a decision based on another Church’s “canonization,” not explicitly investigated by the Catholic Church’s processes. (The announcement also obliquely danced around militant Islam as the perpetrators of their martyrdom). In the fever to have some “deliverable” with the Russian Orthodox Church, might there be similar pressure to expand the “Chinese Martyrs” to include not just those who died for the Catholic faith in China but the Orthodox (and maybe even Protestants) as well? Or would even raising the question of the Chinese Martyrs prove unappetizing in light of current Vatican-China dealings? 

So, I choose as my artistic depiction this Irish holy card, depicting St. “Chi or Xi” Zhuzi. He was an 18-year-old layman and catechumen who was associated with the Franciscan mission. It’s said his family disavowed him for leaving traditional Chinese religion, especially at the inopportune moment of national rebellions, but that they converted after his death. Chi/Xi, captured by rebels in Hebei Province (Beijing area), refused to apostatize. They first cut off his right arm, then tortured him, finally flaying him alive. 

A month after the first Vatican-PRC deal, it was reported the statue of St. Xi Zhuzi was dismantled in Hebei. 

The holy card is undated, though I would guess it is from the 20th century (Chi was beatified in 1955), blending traditional elements of Catholic piety with images of “China” in vogue in Europe, especially earlier in the 20th century. The saint is dressed in traditional Chinese attire and grooming (hair), but he carries a cross in the right arm he lost for Christ and a palm — the sign of martyr’s victory — in his left. The background is the stereotypical image of mountains in China.

It’s perhaps a paradox that while the Church struggles to stay alive under persecution in China, it is increasingly abandoned by a generation about St. Chi’s age in free Ireland.

For more reading on the Chinese Martyrs, see here and here.