11 June 2018

New Priestmartyr Mitrofan of Beijing and the Two Hundred Twenty-one Holy Orthodox Martyrs of China

The Orthodox Church in China dates back to 1683, when the Kangxi Emperor 康熙帝 captured and resettled the Orthodox inhabitants of a ‘Christian Tatar’ colony named on the Amur named Albazin within the city limits of Beijing. Apostolic Christianity in China dates back much further (to the days of Guo Ziyi 郭子儀, a famous Chinese Christian celebrated in history and opera as a patriot and military hero), the first Han Chinese man to choose to become an Orthodox priest did so in 1880.

Chang Yangji (常陽吉), born on 10 December 1855, was raised within the Russian ecclesiastical mission inn Beijing by his mother and grandmother after his father died young. He was educated by a Chinese Orthodox Christian named Long Yuan 隆源. Humble, peaceable and self-effacing as he was, he became a catechist at the age of 20 and was ordained a priest at the age of 25 by Bishop Saint Nikolai (Kasatkin) of Japan. He objected to this appointment at first, demurring: ‘how can a person with insufficient abilities and charity dare to accept this great rank?’ However, he was prevailed upon by the head of the mission, Abbot Flavian (Gorodetsky) to accept the office. He had a premonition when he took the priesthood that his death ‘would not be pleasant’, but he meekly accepted the office, taking the name of Mitrofan after the saintly bishop Metrophanes of Constantinople.

Fr Mitrofan spent fifteen tireless years serving God, and assisting Abbot Flavian in translating, proofreading and disseminating Orthodox liturgical books in the Chinese language. He was a true unmercenary and thought nothing of giving away much of his salary to the poor and needy. He was thought of as foolish for this. Not only did many people take advantage of his generosity, but he also had to endure a great deal of abuse both from his own people and from outsiders. At one point he suffered a mild breakdown and was relocated outside the mission. However, he remained firmly within the Orthodox faith, knowing (in the words of Hieromonk Damascene) ‘that he had embraced a faith that transcended culture’, and firm in the belief ‘that the revelation of Christ was as much the property of China as it was of any other country’.

This was a contentious point. China at this time was subject to imperialistic designs by foreign powers. The Qing Empire had already lost two Opium Wars to Britain, and other countries (including Japan, Germany, France and Russia) secured through the unequal treaties various other concessions from the Qing government, some of which remained in force until 1997. The ham-fisted rule of these foreign governments was rightly resented by ordinary Chinese people. Unfortunately, the foreign ‘devils’ were not the only targets of resentment. One of the ‘concessions’ extracted by the Western governments was the freedom to send missionaries anywhere in the country, and many Chinese people, like Fr (Chang) Yangji, were converting to Christianity. Foreigners themselves were often well-protected and ensconced within fortified legations; Chinese Christian converts, however, were softer targets and easier prey.

The anti-foreign sentiment had begun to congeal, toward the end of the nineteenth century, and produced several subversive secret societies with an anti-government agenda and millenarian beliefs. Such secret societies have a long history in China: the Huangjin 黃巾 movement against the Han; the Bailian 白蓮 movement which rose up against the Ming and Qing. Indeed, when Chang Yangji was born, the Qing government was busy repressing a bloody revolt in Zhejiang and Jiangxi called the Taiping Tianguo 太平天國, which was ironically driven by a heterodox Christian belief drawn from heretical forms of Protestant fundamentalism. This revolt lasted for 14 years, claimed the lives of around 25 million Chinese people, and permanently weakened the authority of the Qing government. However, unlike the Taiping Tianguo, the secret society that emerged at the end of the nineteenth century was anti-Christian. The Yihequan 義和拳, or ‘Fists of Righteous Harmony’, were an offshoot of the Bailian movement that sprouted up in Shandong province. This movement practised a certain form of martial arts, and attracted peasants as well as disaffected lumpenproletariat. After one failed attack on Qing forces, these ‘Boxers’ instead began attacking defenceless missionaries and Chinese Christian communities.

During the Boxer Rebellion of 1898-1900, Orthodox churches in Beijing and Zhangjiakou were destroyed in a pogrom by the rebels, along with the Orthodox printing press, unpublished Chinese translations of Orthodox texts, and a large collection of movable type. On 10 June 1900, the Yihetuan attacked the Russian mission; many Chinese Orthodox met their martyrdom there, including Fr Mitrofan. The rebels found him sitting in his courtyard and ran him through with spears; he met his repose under a jujube tree growing in the courtyard.

A number of other Orthodox Christians were murdered by the rebels in subsequent weeks. Fr Mitrofan’s wife, Tatiana, was spared from the Yihetuan’s crazed violence on that first night by the courageous actions of her daughter-in-law Maria. However, Matushka Tatiana was captured on the morning of 11 June and beheaded outside Beijing. Fr Mitrofan’s elder son Isai had met the same fate, martyrdom by beheading, four days prior to that, because the rebels knew that he was Christian. Fr Mitrofan’s second son, Sergei, managed to survive the pogrom and later became a priest himself. Fr Mitrofan’s third son, Ioann, was tortured by the rebels – they split open his shoulders with wounds 1¾ inches deep and severed his toes; however, Maria managed to save him by hiding him in the privy. The following day he sat at the entrance to the mission, where he was mocked and jeered by other boys, who called him a ‘follower of devils’, to which he replied, ‘I believe in God; I don’t follow devils’. Some adults asked him if his wounds hurt, to which the young martyr Ioann replied that ‘it doesn’t hurt’. When the rebels returned and carried him off to be executed along with Saints Tatiana and Maria, two witnesses (Protasy Chan and Irodion Xu, who had not yet been baptised) testified that he went with them willingly, without fear and without hurt from his wounds.

A number of the Orthodox Christians martyred by the Yihetuan were ‘cradle Orthodox’ descendants of the Albazinian Cossacks who had been relocated to Beijing by the Kangxi Emperor. These included Saints Klementy Kui, Matvei and Vit Hai, and Anna Chui. When the catechist Saint Pavel Wan was killed, he died with a prayer on his lips. Saint Ia Wen, the head teacher at the mission school, very much like her namesake the Persian martyr, suffered twice for her belief. On 10 June the same rebels who killed Fr Mitrofan, threw her to the ground and hacked at her with spears, leaving her for dead. A sympathetic Chinese man discovered her still alive and nursed her back to health in his home. However, the rebels discovered her again and tortured her to death. Both times, Saint Ia confessed Christ before her tormentors.

The Orthodox Christian martyrs of the Boxer Rebellion were killed, not because they were unpatriotic and not because they were collaborating with foreign governments, but solely because they confessed Christ. Many of them had done so all their lives, and were part of a Chinese Orthodox community that had been welcomed by Emperor Kangxi and encouraged by Emperor Yongzheng 雍正帝. If you had asked them directly, most of them would likely have answered – as Fr Mitrofan Chang’s spiritual father Saint Nikolai of Japan did during the Russo-Japanese War five years later, when he refused Russian diplomatic protection and allowed his Japanese priests to hold Orthodox prayers for a Japanese victory – that there was no conflict between their Orthodox faith and loyalty to their country.

The Russian Orthodox Church has proclaimed all 222 of the Orthodox victims of the Boxer Rebellion to be saints. Though in 2000, the officially-atheist Chinese government loudly protested against the beatification of the 120 Catholic martyrs of China (86 of whom were Chinese converts who suffered under the Boxers), the same government had no objections to the simultaneous glorification of the Orthodox martyrs of China by the Russian Orthodox Church. This asymmetry of reaction is significant. Although it may be merely a case of our confession being (for now) too small a presence in China to be worthy of notice, it’s also true that China considers the Vatican a diplomatic rival and a foreign state; however, China does not seem to view the Russian Church in the same way.

The glorification of these Orthodox martyrs also bears witness against the evil cults (xiejiao 邪教) such as the Bailian and Bagua sects which gave rise to the Yihetuan, and against the heretical chiliastic and fundamentalist distortions of Christianity that led to the Taiping Rebellion. Though they started out as rebels against the Qing government, the men who killed Fr Mitrofan and his family and parishioners were motivated by a rabid hatred of Christianity, spurred by just such fanatical beliefs.

As China begins to rediscover her true nature and true path, may the first martyrs of that country for the sake of the Orthodox Church be a guiding light. Victorious and Holy Fr Mitrofan, Martyrs Tatiana, Maria, Isai and Ioann, Martyrs Klementy, Matvei, Vit, Ia, Pavel and Anna, and those Martyrs whose names are lovingly known and remembered in eternity by God, pray to Christ Our Lord that he might save our souls!
Thy two-hundred twenty-two martyrs, O Lord,
Shining forth from the Empire of China,
Held the Christian faith as a shield and bowed not before idols,
Accepting torture and death from their fanatical countrymen.
The lips of the passion-bearing youth cried out:
‘We hold suffering for Christ as nothing,
In this fleeting life we trade for life eternal.’

Мученицы Твои, Господи, два сте двадесят и два,
В Царствии Китайстем просиявшии,
Веру Христову яко щит держаще и кумиром не поклоньшеся,
От единополеменных обезумевших муки и смерть прияша,
Усты отрока страстотерпца воспевающе:
Болезни за Христа ни во что же вменяем,
За жизнь временную жизнь вечную улучити желающе.

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