Orthodox Christianity has often been described as the faith of the martyrs. Without doubt, the centuries have shown among the Orthodox an unparalleled degree of suffering for the sake of Christ's name. Yet despite the dramatic increase in Orthodox martyrdom in the last century, Orthodox believers living in the comforts of North America remain largely isolated from the suffering of the saints.
Ironically, the Western world has become a more potent—and indeed, more subtle—enemy of Christian Orthodoxy than any regime of the past. Cut off from the struggles of our Christian forebears, we have too readily accepted materialism and hedonism. To be a Christian, especially an Orthodox Christian, has become a fundamentally countercultural calling.
The arrival of the year 2000 marks the centennial of the first martyrs of the last century, and the first known group of Orthodox martyrs from China—a group who knew well the meaning of standing against the social tide of their day. Some of the 222 Orthodox martyrs of June 10/23, 1900, were direct descendants of the Russian mission set up at the end of the seventeenth century, after Russia lost its Albazin outpost to Chinese forces.
With the Chinese recapture of Albazin, the Chinese Imperial Court looked with curiosity and tolerance upon the Russians in their territories, allowing them a surprising level of religious freedom. A former Buddhist temple near Beijing was converted into a church dedicated to Saint Nicholas, and church vestments and holy objects were sent from the Imperial Court in Russia. The Chinese and Russian governments proceeded to establish diplomatic relations, a move facilitated by the presence and work of the Albazin Chinese Orthodox. Since the Russian soldiers were viewed as a loose equivalent of the warrior class of Chinese society, they moved easily among the Chinese aristocracy, with many marrying Chinese noblewomen. Just as many of the first converts at Rome were noble patrons of the Church, Orthodox Christianity in China was to see a similar beginning.
In the years following, Orthodoxy made significant inroads among the Albazin Chinese population, becoming a kind of ethnic religion of the people. Emperor Kangxi was favorable toward these Christians, and for a time it was hoped the emperor might become a kind of Saint Constantine of the Orient. When the Chinese court later discovered that local Roman Catholic missionaries followed orders from Western masters, however, Emperor Kangxi and his successors began persecutions against Christians. Because of their position at court and their foothold among the Albazin Chinese faithful, the Orthodox were spared much of this persecution for a time.
Orthodox missions in China were cautious from the beginning. Emperor Peter the Great observed: "This is a very important enterprise. But, for God's sake, let us be cautious and circumspect, not to provoke either the Chinese authorities or the Jesuits whose den is there since long ago. To this end, the clergymen are needed not so much as scholarly, but rather reasonable and amicable, lest this holy effort suffers a painful defeat because of a certain kind of arrogance."
While the growth of the Orthodox Chinese mission was modest, its faithful were solid witnesses for their faith in Christ. Just as pagan Rome saw Christian devotion to Christ as a rival to imperial loyalty, so too did the Imperial Chinese of the late nineteenth century see Christians as enemies of the Emperor. While some in China were embracing Western modernist ideas, others including the Dowager Empress, nationalists, and those who practiced martial arts'sought to eliminate any challenges to tradition, including foreign influences. This conservative movement was dubbed by foreigners the "Boxer movement."
By June 1900, placards calling for the death of foreigners and Christians covered the walls around Beijing. Armed bands combed the streets of the city, setting fire to homes and "with imperial blessing" killing Chinese Christians and foreigners. Faced with torture or death, some of the Chinese Christians did deny Christ, while others, emboldened by the faith of the martyrs and the prayers of the saints, declared boldly the Name of the Lord. Among these were Priest Mitrophan Tsi-Chung, his Matushka Tatiana, and their children, Isaiah, Serge, and John.
Baptized by Saint Nicholas of Japan, Saint Mitrophan was a shy and retiring priest, who avoided honors and labored continually for the building of new churches, for the translation of spiritual books, and for the care of his flock. Yet in Christ, who gives more than we can ask or imagine, Saint Mitrophan and his flock became lions in the face of marauding wolves.
It was with this reassurance that Saint Mitrophan met his martyrdom on June 10, 1900. About seventy faithful had gathered in his home for consolation when the Boxers surrounded the house. While some of the faithful managed to escape, most—including Saint Mitrophan—were stabbed or burned to death. Like the priests of old slaughtered in the sight of Elijah, Saint Mitrophan's holy body fell beneath the date tree in the yard of his home, his family witnesses to his suffering.
His youngest son, Saint John, an eight-year-old child, was disfigured by the Boxers the same day. Although the mob cut off his ears, nose, and toes, Saint John did not seem to feel any pain, and walked steadily. Crowds mocked the young confessor, as they mocked his Lord before him, calling him a demon for his unwillingness to bend to make sacrifice to the idols. To the amazement of onlookers, although he was mutilated, mocked, and alone, young Saint John declared that it did not hurt to suffer for Christ.
Saint Isaiah, 23, the elder brother of Saint John, had been martyred several days earlier. Despite repeated urging, his nineteen-year-old bride, Saint Mary, refused to leave and hide, declaring that she had been born near the church of the Mother of God, and would die there as well.
Saint Ia (Wang), a mission school teacher also among the martyrs, was slashed repeatedly by the Boxers and buried, half-dead. In an attempt to save her, a sympathetic non-Christian bystander unearthed her, carrying her to his home in the hope of safety. There, however, the Boxers seized her again, torturing her at length until she died, a bold confession of Christ on her lips. Thereby did Saint Ia the teacher gain the crown of martyrdom not once, but twice.
Among those who died for Christ were Albazinians whose ancestors had first carried the light of Holy Orthodoxy to Beijing in 1685. The faith of these pioneers has now been crowned with the glory of martyrdom conferred upon their descendants. Albazinians Clement Kui Lin, Matthew Chai Tsuang, his brother Witt, Anna Chui, and many more, fearless of those who kill the body but cannot harm the soul (Matthew 10:28), met agony and death with courage, praying to the Savior for their tormentors.
When the feast of the Holy Chinese Martyrs was first commemorated in 1903, the bodies of Saint Mitrophan and others were placed under the altar of the Church of the All Holy Orthodox Martyrs (built in 1901—1916). A cross was later erected on the site of their martyrdom, standing as a testimony of the first sufferings of Orthodox faithful in a century of such great suffering. The church, along with others, was destroyed by the communists in 1954; the condition and whereabouts of the relics are not known.
In 1996, the first Greek Metropolitan of Hong Kong was consecrated, just prior to the reunification of the city-state with mainland China. There began the first attempt in decades to reach the remnant Orthodox community on the mainland. Many of the Orthodox faithful had fled the country years before. Knowledge of the only remaining Orthodox church in China—the Protection of the Mother of God, located in Harbin—is sketchy, and attempts by Greek authorities in Hong Kong to contact the parish have seen little success. The Church of the Annunciation was converted into a circus; it was closed only when an acrobat fell to his death there. The Shanghai Cathedral of Saint John Maximovich (+1966)—a great champion and shepherd of Orthodox Christians of non-Orthodox ancestry—was turned into a stock exchange.
In the late 1990s—a century after the martyrdoms at Harbin and elsewhere—a new flowering of zeal for Orthodox Christian missions to the people of China began. A Chinese prayerbook and catechesis was published by Holy Trinity Monastery of Jordanville, New York. Several short histories of the martyrs have been written, and an akathist in their memory was recently composed. In the pattern of Saint Paul, who used the great highways of pagan Rome to spread the gospel, a network of Orthodox Christians dedicated to the spread of the Orthodox faith among the peoples of the Far East has taken to the Internet to make available prayers and church materials in Chinese.
On the occasion of the centenary of the Holy Chinese Martyrs of the Boxer Rebellion, let us as Orthodox faithful ask their prayers that we may have the courage of their witness in our own time and place, and like them live out the call of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ to go and make disciples of all nations.
Father Geoffrey Korz is priest of All Saints of North America Orthodox
Church in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.
Information for this article was taken from a web site on the Chinese Orthodox martyrs and from the Synaxarion of the Chinese Orthodox Martyrs, produced by Apostoliki Diakonia of Athens, Greece. An edition of this article was previously printed in the Orthodox Messenger, a publication of the Archdiocese of Canada (OCA).