- Heaven in Conflict: Franciscans and the Boxer Uprising in Shanxi by Anthony E. Clark
This book is an intimate account of some of the more spectacular events arising from the anti-Christian and anti-foreign Boxer Uprising of 1900 in China and from the call to war with the foreign powers by China’s central government of that time. The focus is on the atrocious violence perpetrated in and around Taiyuan, the capital city of Shanxi province, against Catholic and Protestant missionaries and against Chinese Christians.
The story of the Boxer Uprising (formerly known as the Boxer Rebellion) and attendant events has been told many times. Anthony E. Clark commits himself to a narrative more internal to the outlook of the Franciscan missionaries, mostly Italian, who were in charge of the Catholic missionary jurisdiction that included Taiyuan. He justifies this approach by the alleged neglect of this part of the Boxer drama and by a historiographical tendency to downplay the religious content of the missionaries’ response to the crisis. A central point in his presentation is that, despite inevitable cultural misunderstandings, the long history of the Catholic presence in Shanxi province in its relations with Chinese society at large, from 1635 until the last years of the nineteenth century, could be characterized as harmonious. “In Shanxi, at least, there was little antagonism between Christians and the native population until famines aggravated the situation, and even then we do not see much evidence of serious conflict until after the arrival of Yuxian in 1900” (p. 107). Yuxian was the new governor of the province, who was seen as responsible for the execution of numbers of foreign missionaries and Chinese Christians.
The long-running conflict upon which Clark does enlarge is that recurring between the various Italian bishops of Taiyuan and the Chinese clergy. Although committed to training a native clergy, the Italian Catholic leadership in Shanxi resisted calls for equality with the European religious. One strength of this study is its considerable attention to the European female religious who were present in Shanxi from 1899 (as well as to the female participants among the Boxers). But here, too, tensions quickly emerged with Chinese female church workers over matters such as the management of orphanages.
A special feature of the Shanxi experience of the Boxer Uprising was the preference of the Taiyuan Catholic leadership for nonresistance in the face of this anti-Christian storm. Although flight was countenanced, more generally martyrdom [End Page 968] was anticipated and indeed embraced. Clark asserts that Shanxi’s Chinese Catholics mostly approved nonresistance. This policy was not general among the Catholic clergy in north China at this time, even among other Franciscans. Armed Christians under Lazarist and Jesuit leadership held off a number of Boxer attacks on some villages and in Beijing.
These different strategies were surely a factor in the resulting death tolls. Clark emphasizes the comparatively large casualty rate in Shanxi compared to the other areas of Boxer prominence. But the actual numbers he offers vary so much and the definitions of the territories being compared are so unclear (what of Manchuria and Inner Mongolia?) that the larger claims seem uncertain. The book, however, through its close examination of the spiritual dimension of the Franciscan presence in Shanxi province, is a fine addition to the literature on Catholic missions and the Boxer catastrophe.