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.

3 thoughts on “The Tianjin “Incident””

Leave a Reply!