The Tianjin “Incident”

Yesterday James and I biked through the Tianjin foreign concession areas (see photos here). I was hunting for the site of the Tianjin Church Incident. This church, along with its orphanage, was burned down – twice – in anti-foreign uprisings. Priests, nuns, and local believers were killed. China calls the first time the Tianjin Church Incident (天津教案); the West calls it the Tianjin Massacre.

Wanghailou church - 望海楼教堂 - wàng hǎi lóu jiào táng, Tianjin, China

I thought the Tianjin Incident might be remembered as a tragedy, but it’s actually celebrated as a point of national pride and resistance against foreign aggressors in China’s official historical narrative. Both the Tianjin Museum and the Ministry of Culture website quoted here present it that way.
According to

Considered as a haven for orphans and young children, the church, in fact, caused great harm to Chinese children. In June 1870, angry residents of Tianjin City swarmed to the church to find out why the church abused scores of children, sometimes beating them to death. As a result, the French consul shot Tianjin County Magistrate Liu Jie, injuring his retinue. The people of Tianjin, in turn, beat up the consul and his secretary and burned down the church, including other French, English and American churches, and the French consul’s office. The incident is known today as the Tianjin Church Incident.

In 1893, imperialists used the indemnity to rebuild Wanghailou Church and other churches. During the Boxer Uprising in 1900, the church was once again destroyed. The existing church was rebuilt for the third time in 1904. [Full text]

That’s not the version you’re likely to get in a Western text-book.

Here’s what were told in a history lecture by a guy with a degree: Anti-foreign sentiment was generally high across the country. Even though many missionaries personally sacrificed greatly for the benefit of the Chinese people – like the nuns taking in diseased and abandoned children – they still benefited from and were protected by the imperialistic foreign governments that had violently humiliated China through war and forced, lopsided trade ‘agreements.’

TianjinIncident.JPGLocals began to notice that many of the children taken in by the nuns died. Aside from the regular high mortality rate, an epidemic made it even worse. The nuns apparently also gave a small bit of money to people who would rescue abandoned children and bring them to the orphanage. Rumours started spreading that the nuns were actually buying and eating Chinese children. I imagine that a rumour-mongered misunderstanding regarding the Lord’s Supper (a.k.a. the Eucharist a.k.a. Communion) probably played into this. The order of events is not exactly clear, but apparently local Chinese authorities sent someone to the church to investigate the rumours. An agitated crowd followed him. French authorities sent an apparently belligerent consul to discuss the situation with local Chinese officials, and this also drew a crowd. The French consul became angry and fired his gun twice, the second time mortally wounding a Chinese servant. The crowd saw this and beat the consul and his advisor to death before storming the church and orphanage, killing over 20 priests and nuns, over 30 local Chinese Christians, and burning several other churches. The French government extracted punishing reparations.

You can read a translation of the report from the Chinese official sent to investigate the affair here. The church is a bike ride away from our neighbourhood.

January’s propaganda: museum style (Tianjin Museum)

TianjinIncident.JPGYesterday we went to the spectacularly named Tianjin Museum (天津博物馆). It was built in 2004 to commemorate Tianjin’s 600th birthday, and focuses on Tianjin’s role in China’s modern history (from the first Opium War against the foreign imperialist aggressors in 1840 to Liberation in 1949).

The museum is well done, all bilingual and with the best (though not perfect) English I’ve seen so far in China. Two especially eye-catching displays are worth mentioning, because they give us a glimpse of the roles foreigners play in China’s historical narrative, and the prescribed view of the current general situation.

You may be wondering about the burning cross pictured above. The museum has a huge mural portraying Tianjin from 1840-1949, and this is a detail depicting the “Tianjin Incident,” which is called the “Tianjin Massacre” in the West. Rumours had apparently spread that the nuns, running an orphanage for sick and abandoned children, were actually eating the children. I suppose it’s not so crazy: strange people in strange clothes take great interest in children no one cares about, the children occasionally die in their care, lose the Eucharist somewhere in translation, and plop the whole situation in the middle of an intense historical context where anti-foreign sentiment is already running high. The situation was just waiting for a spark. Anyway, one thing led to another and the cathedral (pictured top centre), which we’ve seen in real life, was burned in 1870 by rioting locals. Over 20 nuns and priests, and almost double the number of local converts, were murdered. But the price of Western blood was high and France extracted heavy reparations, which, as you can see, China has not forgotten.

Western powers instigated the First Opium War (1839-42), which consequently forced southern China wide open to the mercy of Western economic interests (that’s how the British got Hong Kong). The Second Opium War (1856-60) was the same story in the north, and was fought on Tianjin’s doorstep.


The people of every nation spin their history, and China is no different, though they seem to spin their’s with a certain unapologetic flair we don’t often get in the West.

Here’s the Preface, verbatim, posted at the entrance to the exhibit:

Centermural.JPGThe past hundred years after the Opium War, the Chinese nation had undergone the semi-feudal and semi-colonial miserable experience. During this period, Tianjin historically became the forefront where Chinese and Western civilizations collided with each other. In the life-and-death struggle for the defense of the Chinese nation, Tianjin more than once became the main battlefield in the resistance against foreign invasion. Faced with the challenges of “free trade,” Tianjin blazed a trail to Chinese modernization the hard way, became the center of disseminating industrial civilization in North China, and began the historical journey proceeding from inland rivers to seas and oceans, and from the domestic ferry terminals to the integration with the world system.

The struggle and rise of Tianjin in modern times constituted the theme of the recent development and vicissitudes in China mirrored the two big problems China ran up against in modern times: national contradictions between China and foreign countries and the crisis arising from development at home, and epitomized the brilliant road the Chinese people took in modern times in safeguarding independence, pursuing freedom and greeting liberation.


dagufortsmall.jpgTianjin was founded 600 years ago, serving as the customs and trade port for Beijing. The Dagu forts, pictured immediately above, below, and right, were where foreign armies crushed the Chinese defenses and worked their way upriver to Tianjin, and eventually Beijing. The photo on the right shows the what was left of one of the Dagu forts after Allied Forces overran it during the Second Opium War. All the material I’ve seen so far on the Opium Wars includes this photo.


From a display panel:

Dagu1.JPGIn June 1840, in the flames and smoke of gunpowder of the Opium War, China was plunged into the abyss of semi-feudal and semi-colonial disasters in history. As a sea gateway to the capital, Tianjin became the first choice of Western powers for political blackmail and military attack against China, and therefore inevitably became the more forefront of resistance of the Chinese people against foreign invaders in modern history. The three heroic and stirring battles at Dagukou, the world-shocking Tianjin Incident, and the Boxer Uprising in 1900 which inflicted heavy blows on the Allied Forces of the Eight Powers, the battle for the defense of Laoxikai — all these showed to the world the spirit of the people of Tianjin to fight the aggressors to the last drop of thir blood.

LiberatedFuture.JPGAs you step out of a darker, grey, drab room of foreign occupation into a brighter, red room of military victory and patriotism, you approach the museum’s final display. You find yourself standing before a huge open doorway. On the other side you can look out over railing, before which stands a microphone just like the one Mao used to declare the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 from atop the Gate of Heavenly peace (one local with us knew all the words by heart). But instead of seeing Tiananmen Square like you would expect, a red-toned Chinese landscape reaches into the distance over Great Wall-capped mountain ridges. I think they’re trying to make a point.