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positions: east asia cultures critique 8.1 (2000) 77-99

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The Lord of Heaven versus Jesus Christ:
Christian Sectarian Violence in Late-Nineteenth-Century South China

Joseph Tse-Hei Lee


IMAGE LINK= IMAGE LINK= This article draws on a case study of communal conflicts between the Baptist and Catholic segments of the Li lineage in a southern Chinese village known as Kuxi (stream of hardship), in the late nineteenth century. The conflict originated from a complaint made by the French Catholic missionaries to their American Baptist counterparts in the treaty port of Shantou. Charges were lodged against the Baptist villagers in Kuxi who had attacked the local Catholic church and kidnapped Chen Aming, a Catholic catechist, on the evening of 6 March 1896. Despite the difference in time and geographical setting, the incident draws our attention to the impact of Christian sectarianism on a Chinese village and the escalation of intralineage conflicts into interreligious violence.

The following study reveals that the American Baptist and French Catholic missions had consistently competed with one another through collaboration [End Page 77] with the rival lineage segments in Kuxi. Seeing the temporal advantages of associating themselves with either Christian mission the rival lineage segments made use of the political resources of missionaries in the intralineage conflicts. Lying between the missionaries and local Christians were the Baptist evangelists and Catholic catechists, who were not simply the propagators of the Baptist Christianity and Catholicism. They, in fact, operated as active political agents in merging intralineage disputes with Christian sectarian rivalries and reproducing the conditions and resources conducive to the outbreak of violence. Here, the central question is why the junior segment of the Li lineage identified itself with the American Baptist mission, whereas the senior segment of the same lineage joined the Catholic church. 1 These diverse patterns of religious identification, of the ongoing conflicts between the rival lineage segments, and of the changing power relations will be the foci of discussion. The significance of this development lies in the fact that it enables us to reflect on the operation of external and internal mediating forces in the colonizing project in a remote corner of late imperial China. This case study highlights the transformation of two rival lineage segments into two antagonistic Christian groups at the village level. In so doing, it helps us better understand how the external and internal forces had drawn these Christian villagers into a web of power relations that bound them closely to the American Baptist and French Catholic missions.

This article begins with a brief discussion of the tension and conflict associated with the Baptist and Catholic expansion in Kuxi. This is followed by a study of the historical setting of the village in the late nineteenth century. The core of this article is a detailed analysis of the making of two antagonistic Christian communities and the outbreak of sectarian violence. The analysis is based on the accounts of William Ashmore, the American Baptist missionary in Shantou in 1896.

Tension and Conflict as Integrated Parts of Baptist and Catholic Expansion in Kuxi

The conventional understanding of Christian missions as a single, coherent, and unifying institutional body seems no longer valid. This case study [End Page 78] brings into sharp focus the specific historical moments of severe tension and conflict that characterized the Baptist and Catholic movements in Kuxi. This adds support to the view that, throughout the process of the missionary expansion, the impulse for competition and confrontation always coexisted with the concerns for unity and stability. It is therefore important to investigate under what circumstances the Baptist and Catholic missions preferred competition and rivalry to compromise and cooperation.

In the Chaoyang district, where Kuxi was situated, the American Baptist Missionary Society and the Paris Foreign Missions had begun to evangelize village communities during the second half of the nineteenth century. Owing to doctrinal differences, the Baptist and Catholic missions tended to [End Page 79] ridicule and compete with one another in the field as elsewhere. 2 They even used separate Chinese...


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