Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Appendix on the Martyrs of China

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The devil set all his engines to work, that he might detain in his captivity those great nations, which, by the inscrutable judgments of God, lay yet buried in the night of infidelity, and by their vicious habits and prejudices had almost extinguished the law written in their breast by their Creator. The pure light of the gospel sufficed to dispel the dark clouds of idolatry by its own brightness; but the passions of men were not to be subdued but by the omnipotent hand of Him who promised that his holy faith and salvation should be propagated throughout all nations. All the machinations of hell were not able to defeat the divine mercy, not even by the scandal of those false Christians, whom jealousy, covetousness, and the spirit of the world blinded and seared to every feeling, not only of religion, but even of humanity. Religious missionaries, filled with the spirit of the apostles, and armed with the power of God, baffled obstacles which seemed insurmountable to flesh and blood; and by their zeal, charity, patience, humility, meekness, mortification, and invincible courage, triumphantly planted the standard of the cross in a world heretofore unknown to us, and but lately discovered, not by blind chance, but for these great purposes of divine providence.

It appears from the Chinese annals, in F. Du Halde’s History of China, that this vast empire is the most ancient in the world. Mr. Shuckford (B. 1. 2. 6.) thinks, that their first king Fo-hi was Noah himself, whom he imagines to have settled here soon after the deluge. Mr. Swinton, in the twentieth tome of the Universal History, justly censures this conjecture, and rejects the first dynasty of the Chinese history; which Mr. Jackson in his chronology, with others, vindicates. We must own that the Chinese annals are unanimous in asserting this first dynasty, whatever some have, by mistake, written against it; and this antiquity agrees very well with the chronology of the Septuagint, or that of the Samaritan Pentateuch, one of which several learned men seem at present much inclined to embrace. As for the notion that the Chinese are originally an Egyptian colony, and that their first dynasty is borrowed from the latter; notwithstanding my great personal respect for the worthy author of that system, it stands in need of proofs founded in facts, not in conjectures. A little acquaintance with languages shows, that we frequently find in certain words and circumstances a surprising analogy, in some things, between several words or customs of the most desperate languages and manners of very distant countries: several Persian words are the same in English, and it would be as plausible a system to advance that one of these nations was a colony of the other. From such circumstances, it only results, that all nations have one common original.

Allowing therefore the Chinese an antiquity of which they are infinitely jealous, Fo-hi was perhaps either Shem himself, or one that lived very soon after the flood, from whom this empire derives its origin. Confucius was the great philosopher of this people, who drew up the plan of their laws and religion. He is thought to have flourished about the time of king Solomon, or not much later. He was of royal extraction, and a man of severe morals. His writings contain many sublime moral truths, and show him to have been the greatest philosopher that ever lived. As he came nearer to the patriarchs in time, and received a more perfect tradition from them, he surpassed, in the excellency of his moral precepts, Pythagoras, Socrates, and Plato. He taught them to obey, honour, and fear the Lord of Heaven, to love their neighbour as themselves, to subdue irregular inclinations, and to be guided in all things by reason: that God is the original and ultimate end of all things, which he produced and preserves, himself eternal, infinite, and immutable; one, supremely holy, supremely intelligent, and invisible. He often mentioned the expectation of a Messias to come, a perfect guide and teacher of virtue; calling him the holy man, and the holy person, who is expected to come on earth. It is a tradition in China, that he was often heard to say, “That in the West the Holy One will appear.” This he delivered from the patriarchal tradition; but he not only mentions heavenly spirits, the ministers of God, but he also ordains the worship of these spirits by religious rites and sacrifices, and concurs with the idolatry which was established in his time. Saint Francis Xavier had made the conversion of China the object of his zealous wishes; but died, like another Moses, in sight of it. His religious brethren long attempted in vain to gain admittance into that country; but the jealousy of the inhabitants refused entrance to all strangers. However, God was pleased, at the repeated prayers of his servants, to crown them with success. The Portuguese made a settlement at Macao, an island within sight of China, and obtained leave to go thither twice a year to trade at the fairs of Canton. F. Matthew Ricci, a Roman Jesuit, a good mathematician, and a disciple of Clavius, being settled a missionary at Macao, went over with them several times into China, and in 1583, obtained leave of the governor to reside there with two other Jesuits. A little catechism which he published, and a map of the world, in which he placed the first meridian in China, to make it the middle of the world, according to the Chinese notion, gained him many friends and admirers. In 1595, he established a second residence of Jesuits, at Nanquin; and made himself admired there by teaching the true figure of the earth, the cause of lunar eclipses, etc. He also built an observatory, and converted many to the faith. In 1600, he went to Pekin, and carried with him a clock, a watch, and many other presents to the emperor, who granted him a residence in that capital. He converted many, and among these several officers of the court, one of whom was Paul Siu, afterwards prime minister, under whose protection a flourishing church was established in his country, Xankai, (in the province of Nanquin,) in which were forty thousand Christians when the late persecution began. Francis Martinez, a Chinese Jesuit, having converted a famous doctor, was beaten several times, and at length expired under the torment. Ricci died in 1617, having lived in favour with the emperor Vanline.

F. Adam Schall, a Jesuit from Cologn, by his mathematics, became known to the emperor Zonchi: but in 1636, that prince laid violent hands upon himself that he might not fall into the hands of two rebels who had taken Pekin. The Chinese called in Xunte, king of a frontier nation of the Tartars, to their assistance, who recovered Pekin, but demanded the empire for the prize of his victory: and his son Chunchi obtained quiet possession of it in 1650. From that time the Tartars have been emperors of China, but they govern it by its own religion and laws. They frequently visit their original territories, but rather treat them as the conquered country. Chunchi esteemed F. Schall, called him father, and was favourable to the Christians. After his death the four regents put to death five Christian Mandarins for their faith, and condemned F. Schall, but granted him a reprieve; during which he died. The young emperor Camhi coming of age, put a stop to the persecution, and employed F. Verbiest, a Jesuit, to publish the yearly Chinese calendar, declared him president of the mathematics in his palace, and consequently a Mandarin. The first year he opened the Christian churches, which was in 1671, above twenty thousand souls were baptized: and in the year following an uncle of the emperor, one of the eight perpetual generals of the Tartar troops, and several other persons of distinction. The succeeding emperors were no less favourable to the Christians, and permitted them to build a most sumptuous church within the enclosure of their own palace, which in many respects surpassed all the other buildings of the empire. It was finished in 1702. The Dominican friars, according to Touron, (Hummes Illustr. t. 6.) entered China in 1556, converted many to the faith, and, in 1631, laid the foundation of the most numerous church of Fokieu, great part of which province they converted to the faith. Four priests of this Order received the crown of martyrdom in 1647, and a fifth, named Francis de Capillas, from the convent of Valladolid, the apostle of the town of Fogan, was cruelly beaten, and soon after beheaded on the 15th of January, 1648, “because, as his sentence imported, he contemned the spirits and gods of the country.” Relations hereof were transmitted to the Congregation de Propagandâ Fide, under Pope Urban VIII.

Upwards of a hundred thousand souls zealously professed the faith, and they had above two hundred churches. But a debate arose whether certain honours paid by the Chinese to Confucius and their deceased ancestors, with certain oblations made either solemnly by the mandarins and doctors at the equinoxes, and at the new and full moons, or privately in their own houses or temples, were superstitious and idolatrous. Pope Clement XI. in 1704, condemned those rites as superstitious, utpote superstitione imbutos, the execution of which decree he committed to the patriarch of Antioch, afterwards Cardinal Tournon, whom he sent as his commissary into that kingdom. Benedict XIV. confirmed the same more amply and severely by his constitution, ex quo singulari, in 1742, in which he declares, that the faithful ought to express God in the Chinese language by the name Thien Chu, i. e. the Lord of heaven: and that the words Tien, the heaven, and Xang Ti, the Supreme Ruler, are not to be used, because they signify the supreme god of the idolaters, a kind of fifth essence, or intelligent nature in the heaven itself: that the inscription, King Tien, worship thou the heaven, cannot be allowed. The obedience of those who had formerly defended these rites to be merely political and civil honours, not sacred, was such, that from that time they have taken every occasion of testifying it to the world. By a like submission and victory over himself, Fenelon was truly greater than by all his other illustrious virtues and actions.

The emperor Kaug-hi protected the Christian religion in the most favourable manner. Whereas his successor, Yongtching, banished the missionaries out of the chief cities, but kept those Religious in his palace who were employed by him in painting, mathematics, and other liberal arts, and who continued mandarins of the court. Kien-long, the next emperor, carried the persecution to the greatest rigours of cruelty. The tragedy was begun by the viceroy of Fokieu, who stirred up the emperor himself. A great number of Christians of all ages and sexes were banished, beaten and tortured divers ways, especially by being buffeted on the face with a terrible kind of armed ferula, one blow of which would knock the teeth out, and make the head swell exceedingly. All which torments even the young converts bore with incredible constancy, rather than discover where the priest lay hidden, or deliver up the crosses, relics, or sacred books, or do any thing contrary to the law of God. Many priests and others died of their torments, or of the hardships of their dungeons. One bishop and six priests received the crown of martyrdom. Peter Martyr Sanz, a Spanish Dominican friar, arrived in China in 1715, where he had laboured fifteen years when he was named by the congregation bishop of Mauricastre, and ordained by the bishop of Nanquin, assisted by the bishops of Pekin and Macao, and appointed Apostolic Vicar for the province of Fokieu. In 1732, the emperor by an edict banished all the missionaries. Peter Sanz retired to Macao, but returned to Fokieu, in 1738, and founded several new churches for his numerous converts, and received the vows of several virgins who consecrated themselves to God. The viceroy provoked at this, caused him to be apprehended amidst the tears of his dear flock, with four Dominican friars, his fellow-labourers. They were beaten with clubs, buffeted on the face with gauntlets made of several pieces of leather, and at length condemned to lose their heads. The bishop was beheaded on the same day, the 26th of May, 1747. The Chinese superstitiously imagine, that the soul of one that is put to death seizes the first person it meets, and therefore all the spectators run away as soon as they see the stroke of death given; but none of them did so at the death of this blessed martyr. On the contrary, admiring the joy with which he died, and esteeming his holy soul happy, they thought it a blessing to come the nearest to him, and to touch his blood; which they did as respectfully as Christians could have done, for whom a pagan gathered the blood, because they durst not appear. The other four Dominican friars who were also Spaniards, suffered much during twenty-eight months’ cruel imprisonment, and were strangled privately in their dungeons on the 28th of October, 1748. Pope Benedict XIV. made a discourse to the cardinals on the precious death of this holy bishop, Sept. 16, 1748.

These four fellow-martyrs of the Order of Saint Dominick were, Francis Serranus, fifty-two years old, who had laboured nineteen years in the Chinese mission, and during his last imprisonment was nominated by Pope Benedict XIV. bishop of Tipasa: Joachim Roio, fifty-six years old, who had preached in that empire thirty-three years: John Alcober, forty-two years old, who had spent eighteen years in that mission: and Francis Diaz, thirty-three years old, of which he had employed nine in the same vineyard. During their imprisonment, a report that their lives would be spared, filled them not with joy, but with grief, to the great admiration of the infidels, as Pope Benedict XIV. mentions in his discourse to the consistory of cardinals, on their death, delivered in 1752; in which he qualifies them crowned, but not declared martyrs: martyres consummatos, nondum martyres vindicatos. In the same persecution two Jesuits, F. Joseph of Attemis, an Italian, and F. Antony Joseph Henriquez, a Portuguese, were apprehended in December 1747, and tortured several times to compel them to renounce their religion. They were at length condemned to death by the mandarins, and the sentence, according to custom, being sent to the emperor, was confirmed by him, and the two priests were strangled in prison on the 12th of September, 1748. On these martyrs see F. Touron, Hommes Illustres de l’Ordre de S. Domin. t. 6. and the Letters of the Jesuit Missionaries. On the history of China, F. Du Halde’s Description of China, in four vols. fol. Mullerus de Chataiâ, Navarrete, Tratados, Històricos de la China, an. 1676. Lettres Edifiantes et Curieuses des Missionaires, vol. 27, 28. Jackson’s Chronology, etc.

In Tonquin, a kingdom south-west of China, in which the king and mandarins follow the Chinese religion, though various sects of idolatry and superstition reign among the people, a persecution was raised against the Christians in 1713. In this storm one hundred and fifty churches were demolished, many converts were beaten with a hammer on their knees, and tortured various other ways, and two Spanish missionary priests of the order of Saint Dominick, suffered martyrdom for the faith, F. Francis Gil de Federich, and F. Matthew Alfonso Leziniana. F. Gil arrived there in 1735, and found above twenty thousand Christians in the west of the kingdom, who had been baptized by priests of his order. This vineyard he began assiduously to cultivate; but was apprehended by a neighbouring Bonza, in 1737, and condemned to die the year following. The Tonquinese usually execute condemned persons only in the last moon of the year, and a rejoicing or other accidents often cause much longer delays. The confessor was often allowed the liberty of saying mass in the prison; and was pressed to save his life, by saying that he came into Tonquin as a merchant; but this would have been a lie, and he would not suffer any other to give in such an answer for him. Father Matthew, a priest of the same order, after having preached ten years in Tonquin, was seized while he was saying mass; and because he refused to trample on a crucifix, was condemned to die in 1743: and in May 1743, was brought into the same prison with F. Gil. The idolaters were so astonished to see their ardour to die, and the sorrow of the latter upon an offer of his life, that they cried out: “Others desire to live, but these men to die.” They were both beheaded together on the 22nd of January, 1744.

Many other vast countries, both in the eastern and western parts of the world, received the light of the gospel in the sixteenth century: in which great work several apostolic men were raised by God, and some were honoured with the crown of martyrdom. Among the zealous missionaries who converted to the faith the savage inhabitants of Brazil in America, of which the Portuguese took possession in 1500, under King John II., F. Joseph Anchieta is highly celebrated. He was a native of the Canary Islands, but took the Jesuit’s habit at Coimbra; died in Brazil, on the 9th of June, 1597, of his age sixty-four; having laboured in cultivating that vineyard forty-seven years. He was a man of apostolic humility, patience, meekness, prayer, zeal, and charity. The fruit of his labours was not less wonderful than the example of his virtues. See his life by F. Peter Roterigius, and by F. Sebastian Beretarius. The sanctity of the venerable F. Peter Claver, who laboured in the same vineyard, was so heroic, that a process has been commenced for his canonization.

F. Peter Claver was nobly born in Catalonia, and entered himself in the Society at Tarragon, in 1602, when about twenty years old. From his infancy he looked upon nothing small in which the service of God was concerned; for the least action or circumstance which is referred to his honour is great and precious, and requires our utmost application: in this spirit of fervour he considered God in every neighbour and superior; and upon motives of religion was humble and meek towards all, and ever ready to obey and serve every one. From the time of his religious profession, he applied himself with the greatest ardour to seek nothing in this world, but what Jesus Christ sought in his mortal life, that is, the kingdom of his grace: for the only aim of this servant of God was, the sanctification of his own soul, and the salvation of others. He was thoroughly instructed that a man’s spiritual progress depends very much upon the fervour of his beginning; and he omitted nothing both to lay a solid foundation, and continually to raise upon it the structure of all virtues; and he sought and found God in all things. The progress which he made was very great, because he set out by the most perfect exterior and interior renunciation of the world and himself. Being sent to Majorca to study philosophy and divinity, he contracted a particular friendship with a lay-brother, Alphonsus Rodriguez, then porter of the college, an eminent contemplative, and perfect servant of God: nor is it to be expressed how much the fervent disciple improved himself in the school of this humble master, in the maxims of Christian perfection. His first lessons were, to speak little with men, and much with God; to direct every action in the beginning with great fervour to the most perfect glory of God, in union with the holy actions of Christ: to have God always present in his heart; and to pray continually for the grace never to offend God: never to speak of any thing that belongs to clothing, lodging, and such conveniences, especially eating or drinking; to meditate often on the sufferings of Christ, and on the virtues of his calling. F. Claver, in 1610, was, at his earnest request, sent with other missionaries to preach the faith to the infidels at Carthagena, and the neighbouring country in America. At the first sight of the poor Negro slaves, he was moved with the strongest sentiments of compassion, tenderness, and zeal, which never forsook him; and it was his constant study to afford them all the temporal comfort and assistance in his power. In the first place he was indefatigable in instructing and baptising them, and in giving them every spiritual succour: the title in which he gloried was that of the Slave of the Slaves, or of the Negroes; and incredible were the fatigues which he underwent night and day with them, and the many heroic acts of all virtues which he exercised in serving them. The Mahometans, the Pagans, and the very Catholics, whose scandalous lives were a reproach to their holy religion; the hospitals and the prisons were other theatres where he exercised his zeal. The history of his life furnishes us with most edifying instances, and gives an account of two persons raised to life by him, and of other miracles; though his assiduous prayer, and his extraordinary humility, mortification of his senses, and perfect self-denial, might be called the greatest of his miracles. In the same rank we may place the wonderful conversions of many obstinate sinners, and the heroic sanctity of many great servants of God, who were by him formed to perfect virtue. Among his maxims of humility he used especially to inculcate, that he who is sincerely humble desires to be contemned; he seeks not to appear humble, but worthy to be humbled; is subject to all in his heart, and ready to obey the whole world. By the holy hatred of ourselves, we must secretly rejoice in our hearts when we meet with contempt and affronts; but must take care, said this holy man, that no one think we rejoice at them, but rather believe that we are confounded and grieved at the ill treatment which we receive. F. Claver died on the 8th of September, 1654, being about seventy-two years old; having spent in the Society fifty-five years, in the same uniform crucified life, and in the constant round of the same uninterrupted labours, which perhaps, require a courage more heroic than martyrdom. In the process for his canonization, the scrutiny relating to his life and virtues is happily finished; and Benedict XIV. confirmed the decree of the Congregation of Rites, in 1747, by which it is declared, that the proofs of the heroic degree of the Christian virtues which he practised, are competent and sufficient.

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “Appendix on the Martyrs of China”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. Saints.SQPN.com. 4 February 2013. Web. 17 April 2014. <>