AGOSTINO ZHAO RONG (+ 1815)
AND 119 COMPANIONS, MARTYRS IN CHINA (+ 1648 – 1930)
1st. October 2000
From the earliest beginnings of the Chinese people (sometime about the middle of the third millennium before Christ) religious sentiment towards the Supreme Being and diligent filial piety towards ancestors were the most conspicuous characteristics of their culture, which had existed for thousands of years.
This note of distinct religiousness is found to a greater or lesser extent in the Chinese people of all centuries up to our own time, when, under the influence of western atheism, some intellectuals, especially those educated in foreign countries, wished to rid themselves of all religious ideas, like some of their western teachers.
In the fifth century, the Gospel was preached in China, and at the beginning of the seventh century the first church was built there. During the T'ang dynasty (618-907) the Christian community flourished for two centuries. In the thirteenth, thanks to the understanding of the Chinese people and culture shown by missionaries like Giovanni da Montecorvino, it became possible to begin the first Catholic mission in the Middle Kingdom, with the episcopal see in Beijing.
It is not surprising, especially in the modern era (that is, from the sixteenth century, when communications between the east and west began to be, in a way, more frequent) that there was on the part of the Catholic Church a longing to take the light of the Gospel to this people in order to enrich still more their treasure of cultural and religious traditions, so rich and profound.
And so, beginning from the last decades of the sixteenth century, various Catholic missionaries were sent to China: people like Matteo Ricci and others were chosen with great care, keeping in mind their cultural abilities and their qualifications in various fields of science, especially astronomy and mathematics, in addition to their spirit of faith and love. In fact, it was thanks to this and to the appreciation that the missionaries showed for the remarkable spirit of research shown by the studious Chinese, that it was possible to establish very useful collaborative relationships in the scientific field. These relationships served in their turn to open many doors, even that of the Imperial Court, and this led to the development of very useful relations with various people of great ability.
The quality of the religious life of these missionaries was such as to lead not a few people at a high level to feel the need to know better the evangelical spirit that animated them and, then, to be instructed with regard to the Christian religion. This instruction was carried out in a manner suited to their cultural characteristics and way of thinking. At the end of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth, there were numerous people who, having undergone the necessary preparation, asked for baptism and became fervent Christians, while always preserving with just pride their Chinese identity and culture.
Christianity was seen in that period as a reality that did not oppose the highest values of the traditions of the Chinese people, nor place itself above these traditions. Rather, it was regarded as something that enriched them with a new light and dimension.
Thanks to the excellent relations that existed between some missionaries and the Emperor K'ang Hsi himself, and thanks to the services they rendered towards re-establishing peace between the “Czar” of Russia and the “Son of Heaven”, namely the Emperor, the latter issued in 1692 the first decree of religious liberty by virtue of which all his subjects could follow the Christian religion and all the missionaries could preach in his vast domains.
In consequence, there were notable developments in missionary activity and the spread of the Gospel message; and many Chinese people, attracted by the light of Christ, asked to be able to receive baptism.
Unfortunately, however, the difficult question of “Chinese rites”, greatly irritated the Emperor K'ang Hsi and prepared the persecution. The latter, strongly influenced by that in nearby Japan, to a greater or lesser extent, open or insidious, violent or veiled, extended in successive waves practically from the first decade of the seventeenth century to about the middle of the nineteenth. Missionaries and faithful lay people were killed, and many churches destroyed.
It was on 15 January 1648 that the Manchu Tartars, having invaded the region of Fujian and shown themselves hostile to the Christian religion, killed Blessed Francis Fernández de Capillas, a priest of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans). After having imprisoned and tortured him, they beheaded him while he recited with others the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary.
Blessed Francis Fernández de Capillas has been recognised by the Holy See as a Protomartyr of China.
Towards the middle of the following century (the eighteenth) another five Spanish missionaries, who had carried out their activity between 1715-1747, were put to death as a result of a new wave of persecution that started in 1729 and broke out again in 1746. This was in the epoch of the Emperor Yung-Cheng and of his son, K'ien-Lung.
Blessed Peter Sans i Yordà, O.P, Bishop, was martyred in 1747,at Fuzou.
All four of the following were killed on 28 October 1748:
Blessed Francis Serrano, O.P., Priest,
Blessed Joachim Royo, O.P., Priest,
Blessed John Alcober, O.P., Priest,
Blessed Francis Diaz, O.P., Priest.
A new period of persecution in regard to the Christian religion then occurred in the nineteenth century.
While Catholicism had been authorised by some Emperors in the preceding centuries, Emperor Kia-Kin (1796-1821) published, instead, numerous and severe decrees against it. The first was issued in 1805. Two edicts of 1811 were directed against those among the Chinese who were studying to receive sacred orders, and against priests who were propagating the Christian religion. A decree of 1813 exonerated voluntary apostates from every chastisement, that is, Christians who spontaneously declared that they would abandon their faith, but all others were to be dealt with harshly.
In this period the following underwent martyrdom:
Blessed Peter Wu, a Chinese lay catechist. Born of a pagan family, he received baptism in 1796 and passed the rest of his life proclaiming the truth of the Christian religion. All attempts to make him apostasize were in vain. The sentence having been pronounced against him, he was strangled on 7 November 1814.
Following him in fidelity to Christ was:
Blessed Joseph Zhang Dapeng, a lay catechist, and a merchant. Baptised in 1800, he had become the heart of the mission in the city of Kony-Yang. He was imprisoned, and then strangled to death on12 March 1815.
In this same year (1815) there came two other decrees, with which approval was given to the conduct of the Viceroy of Sichuan who had beheaded Monsignor Dufresse, of the Paris Foreign Missions Society, and some Chinese Christians. As a result, there was a worsening of the persecution.
The following martyrs belong to this period:
Blessed John Gabriel Taurin Dufresse, M.E.P., Bishop. He was arrested on 18 May 1815, taken to Chengdu, condemned and executed on 14 September 1815.
Blessed Augustine Zhao Rong, a Chinese diocesan priest. Having first been one of the soldiers who had escorted Monsignor Dufresse from Chengdu to Beijing, he was moved by his patience and had then asked to be numbered among the neophytes. Once baptised, he was sent to the seminary and then ordained a priest. Arrested, he had to suffer the most cruel tortures and then died in 1815.
Blessed John da Triora, O.F.M., Priest. Put in prison together with others in the summer of 1815, he was then condemned to death, and strangled on 7 February 1816.
Blessed Joseph Yuan, a Chinese diocesan priest. Having heard Monsignor Dufresse speak of the Christian Faith, he was overcome by its beauty and then became an exemplary neophyte. Later, he was ordained a priest and, as such, was dedicated to evangelisation in various districts. He was arrested in August 1816, condemned to be strangled, and was killed in this way on 24 June 1817.
Blessed Francis Regis Clet of the Congregation of the Mission (Vincentians). After obtaining permission to go to the Missions in China, he embarked for the Orient in 1791. Having reached there, for thirty years he spent a life of missionary sacrifice. Upheld by an untiring zeal, he evangelised three immense provinces of the Chinese Empire: Jiangxi, Hubei, Hunan. Betrayed by a Christian, he was arrested and thrown into prison where he underwent atrocious tortures. Following sentence by the Emperor he was killed by strangling on 17 February 1820.
Blessed Thaddeus Liu, a Chinese diocesan priest. He refused to apostasize, saying that he was a priest and wanted to be faithful to the religion that he had preached. Condemned to death, he was strangled on 30 November 1823.
Blessed Peter Liu, a Chinese lay catechist. He was arrested in 1814 and condemned to exile in Tartary, where he remained for almost twenty years. Returning to his homeland he was again arrested, and was strangled on 17 May 1834.
Blessed Joachim Ho, a Chinese lay catechist. He was baptised at the age of about twenty years. In the great persecution of 1814 he had been taken with many others of the faithful and subjected to cruel torture. Sent into exile in Tartary, he remained there for almost twenty years. Returning to his homeland he was arrested again and refused to apostasize. Following that, and the death sentence having been confirmed by the Emperor, he was strangled on 9 July 1839.
Blessed Augustus Chapdelaine, M.E.P., a priest of the diocese of Coutances. He entered the Seminary of the Paris Foreign Missions Society, and embarked for China in 1852. He arrived in Guangxi at the end of 1854. Arrested in 1856, he was tortured, condemned to death in prison, and died in February 1856.
Blessed Laurence Bai Xiaoman, a Chinese layman, and an unassuming worker. He joined Blessed Chapdelaine in the refuge that was given to the missionary and was arrested with him and brought before the tribunal. Nothing could make him renounce his religious beliefs. He was beheaded on 25 February 1856.
Blessed Agnes Cao Guiying, a widow, born into an old Christian family. Being dedicated to the instruction of young girls who had recently been converted by Blessed Chapdelaine, she was arrested and condemned to death in prison. She was executed on 1 March 1856.
Three catechists, known as the Martyrs of MaoKou (in the province of Guizhou) were killed on 28 January 1858, by order of the Mandarin of MaoKou:
Blessed Jerome Lu Tingmei,
Blessed Laurence Wang Bing,
Blessed Agatha Lin Zao.
All three had been called on to renounce the Christian religion and having refused to do so were condemned to be beheaded.
Two seminarians and two lay people, one of whom was a farmer, the other a widow who worked as a cook in the seminary, suffered martyrdom together on 29 July 1861. They are known as the Martyrs of Qingyanzhen (Guizhou):
Blessed Joseph Zhang Wenlan, seminarian,
Blessed Paul Chen Changpin, seminarian,
Blessed John Baptist Luo Tingying, layman,
Blessed Martha Wang Luo Mande, laywoman.
In the following year, on 18 and 19 February 1862, another five people gave their life for Christ. They are known as the Martyrs of Guizhou.
Blessed John Peter Neel, a priest of the Paris Foreign Missions Society,
Blessed Martin Wu Xuesheng, lay catechist,
Blessed John Zhang Tianshen, lay catechist,
Blessed John Chen Xianheng, lay catechist,
Blessed Lucy Yi Zhenmei, lay catechist.
In the meantime, some incidents occurred in the political field that had notable repercussions on the life of the Christian missions.
In June 1840, the Imperial Commissioner of Guangdong, rightly wishing to abolish the opium trade that was being conducted by the British, had more than twenty thousand chests of this drug thrown into the sea. This had been the pretext for immediate war, which was won by the British. When the war came to an end, China had to sign in 1842 the first international treaty of modern times, followed quickly by others with America and France. Taking advantage of this opportunity, France replaced Portugal as the power protecting the missions. Following on from this, a twofold decree was issued: one part in 1844 which permitted the Chinese to follow the Catholic religion; the other, in 1846, with which the old penalties against Catholics were abolished.
From then on the Church could live openly and carry out its missionary activity, developing it also in the sphere of higher education, in universities and scientific research.
With the multiplication of various top-level cultural Institutes and thanks to their highly valued activity, ever deeper links were gradually established between the Church and China with its rich cultural traditions.
This collaboration with the Chinese authorities further increased the mutual appreciation and sharing of those true values that must underpin every civilised society.
And so passed an era of expansion in the Christian missions, with the exception of the period in which they were struck by the disaster of the uprising by the “Society for Justice and Harmony” (commonly known as the “Boxers”). This occurred at the beginning of the twentieth century and caused the shedding of the blood of many Christians.
It is known that, mingled in this rebellion, were all the secret societies and the accumulated and repressed hatred against foreigners in the last decades of the nineteenth century, because of the political and social changes following the Opium War and the imposition of the so-called “unequal treaties” on the part of the Western Powers.
Very different, however, was the motive for the persecution of the missionaries, even though they were of European nationality. Their slaughter was brought about solely on religious grounds. They were killed for the same reason as the Chinese faithful who had become Christians. Reliable historical documents provide evidence of the anti-Christian hatred which spurred the “Boxers” to massacre the missionaries and the faithful of the area who had adhered to their teaching. In this regard, an edict was issued on 1 July 1900 which, in substance, said that the time of good relations with European missionaries and their Christians was now past: that the former must be repatriated at once and the faithful forced to apostasize, on penalty of death.
As a result, the martyrdom took place of several missionaries and many Chinese who can be grouped together as follows:
a) Martyrs of Shanxi, killed on 9 July 1900, who were Franciscan Friars Minor:
Blessed Gregory Grassi, Bishop,
Blessed Francis Fogolla, Bishop,
Blessed Elias Facchini, Priest,
Blessed Theodoric Balat, Priest,
Blessed Andrew Bauer, Religious Brother;
b) Martyrs of Southern Hunan, who were also Franciscan Friars Minor:
Blessed Anthony Fantosati, Bishop (martyred on 7 July 1900),
Blessed Joseph Mary Gambaro, Priest (martyred on 7 July 1900),
Blessed Cesidio Giacomantonio, Priest (martyred on 4 July 1900).
To the martyred Franciscans of the First Order were added seven Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, of whom three were French, two Italian, one Belgian, and one Dutch:
Blessed Mary Hermina of Jesus (in saec: Irma Grivot),
Blessed Mary of Peace (in saec: Mary Ann Giuliani),
Blessed Mary Clare (in saec: Clelia Nanetti),
Blessed Mary of the Holy Birth (in saec: Joan Mary Kerguin),
Blessed Mary of Saint Justus (in saec: Ann Moreau)
Blessed Mary Adolfine (in saec: Ann Dierk),
Blessed Mary Amandina (in saec: Paula Jeuris).
Of the martyrs belonging to the Franciscan family, there were also eleven Secular Franciscans, all Chinese:
Blessed John Zhang Huan, seminarian,
Blessed Patrick Dong Bodi, seminarian,
Blessed John Wang Rui, seminarian,
Blessed Philip Zhang Zhihe, seminarian,
Blessed John Zhang Jingguang, seminarian,
Blessed Thomas Shen Jihe, layman and a manservant,
Blessed Simon Qin Cunfu, lay catechist,
Blessed Peter Wu Anbang, layman,
Blessed Francis Zhang Rong, layman and a farmer,
Blessed Matthew Feng De, layman and neophyte,
Blessed Peter Zhang Banniu, layman and labourer.
To these are joined a number of Chinese lay faithful:
Blessed James Yan Guodong, farmer,
Blessed James Zhao Quanxin, manservant,
Blessed Peter Wang Erman, cook.
When the uprising of the “Boxers”, which had begun in Shandong and then spread through Shanxi and Hunan, also reached South-Eastern Tcheli, which was then the Apostolic Vicariate of Xianxian, in the care of the Jesuits, the Christians killed could be counted in thousands.
Among these were four French Jesuit missionaries and at least 52 Chinese lay Christians: men, women and children – the oldest of them being 79 years old, while the youngest were aged only nine years. All suffered martyrdom in the month of July 1900. Many of them were killed in the church in the village of Tchou-Kia-ho, in which they were taking refuge and where they were in prayer together with the first two of the missionaries listed below:
Blessed Leo Mangin, S.J., Priest,
Blessed Paul Denn, S.J., Priest,
Blessed Rémy Isoré, S.J., Priest,
Blessed Modeste Andlauer, S.J., Priest.
The names and ages of the Chinese lay Christians were as follows:
Blessed Mary Zhu born Wu, aged about 50 years,
Blessed Peter Zhu Rixin, aged 19,
Blessed John Baptist Zhu Wurui, aged 17,
Blessed Mary Fu Guilin, aged 37,
Blessed Barbara Cui born Lian, aged 51,
Blessed Joseph Ma Taishun, aged 60,
Blessed Lucy Wang Cheng, aged 18,
Blessed Mary Fan Kun, aged 16,
Blessed Mary Chi Yu, aged 15,
Blessed Mary Zheng Xu, aged 11 years,
Blessed Mary Du born Zhao, aged 51,
Blessed Magdalene Du Fengju, aged 19,
Blessed Mary du born Tian, aged 42,
Blessed Paul Wu Anjyu, aged 62,
Blessed John Baptist Wu Mantang, aged 17,
Blessed Paul Wu Wanshu, aged 16,
Blessed Raymond Li Quanzhen, aged 59,
Blessed Peter Li Quanhui, aged 63,
Blessed Peter Zhao Mingzhen, aged 61,
Blessed John Baptist Zhao Mingxi, aged 56,
Blessed Teresa Chen Tinjieh, aged 25,
Blessed Rose Chen Aijieh, aged 22,
Blessed Peter Wang Zuolung, aged 58,
Blessed Mary Guo born Li, aged 65,
Blessed Joan Wu Wenyin, aged 50,
Blessed Zhang Huailu, aged 57,
Blessed Mark Ki-T'ien-Siang, aged 66,
Blessed Ann An born Xin, aged 72,
Blessed Mary An born Guo, aged 64,
Blessed Ann An born Jiao, aged 26,
Blessed Mary An Linghua, aged 29,
Blessed Paul Liu Jinde, aged 79,
Blessed Joseph Wang Kuiju, aged 37,
Blessed John Wang Kuixin, aged 25,
Blessed Teresa Zhang born He, aged 36,
Blessed Lang born Yang, aged 29,
Blessed Paul Lang Fu, aged 9,
Blessed Elizabeth Qin born Bian, aged 54,
Blessed Simon Qin Cunfu, aged 14,
Blessed Peter Liu Zeyu, aged 57,
Blessed Ann Wang, aged 14,
Blessed Joseph Wang Yumei, aged 68,
Blessed Lucy Wang born Wang, aged 31,
Blessed Andrew Wang Tianqing, aged 9,
Blessed Mary Wang born Li, aged 49,
Blessed Chi Zhuze, aged 18,
Blessed Mary Zhao born Guo, aged 60,
Blessed Rose Zhao, aged 22,
Blessed Mary Zhao, aged 17,
Blessed Joseph Yuan Gengyin, aged 47,
Blessed Paul Ge Tingzhu, aged 61,
Blessed Rose Fan Hui, aged 45.
The fact that this considerable number of Chinese lay faithful offered their lives for Christ together with the missionaries who had proclaimed the Gospel to them and had been so devoted to them, is evidence of the depth of the link that faith in Christ establishes. It gathers into a single family people of various races and cultures, strongly uniting them not for political motives but in virtue of a religion that preaches love, brotherhood, peace and justice.
Besides all those already mentioned who were killed by the “Boxers”, it is necessary also to remember:
Blessed Alberic Crescitelli, a priest of the Pontifical Institute of Foreign Missions of Milan, who carried out his ministry in Southern Shanxi and was martyred on 21 July 1900.
Some years later, members of the Salesian Society of St John Bosco were added to the considerable number of martyrs recorded above:
Blessed Louis Versiglia, Bishop,
Blessed Callistus Caravario, Priest.
They were killed together on 25 February 1930 at Li-Thau-Tseul.