HY2207 Final Essay - Opium Wars A Watershed Moment for the Missionaries in China The Opium Wars of 1839 and 1856 were major watershed events for Qing

HY2207 Final Essay - Opium Wars A Watershed Moment for the...

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Opium Wars: A Watershed Moment for the Missionaries in China The Opium Wars of 1839 and 1856 were major watershed events for Qing China for it fundamentally reshaped the Sino-Western relationship. Prior to the wars, Qing China had always enjoyed a position of superiority over Westerners in their own domain. This relationship had enabled Qing China to largely confine the Westerners to the port of Canton, under the Canton System. Although trade was the dominant form of activity between the Chinese and Westerners, there was another element attached to the Sino-Western interactions. That element was religion. Christian missionaries from the Western world were the main agency promoting Christianity in China. Similar to how China represented a huge economic market, the large populace too represented a great “market pool” for evangelisation, which contributed to the idea of “Soles and Souls”. Similar to their mercantile counterparts, the missionaries were confined to Canton and Macau before the Opium Wars. Furthermore, Christianity was not tolerated by the Qing Court, further complicating matters for missionary work. The 1 st Opium War, however, saw a great change to the Sino-Western relationship. The immediate legacy of the 1 st war saw Beijing acceding to sweeping concessions to the British. These concessions allowed British activities such as missionary work to operate in new places within China. The 2 nd War brought even more religious concessions where Christians were granted the right to evangelise and full civil rights. Although there were still challenges, such as regionalism and religious resistance, for the missionaries, it was undeniable that the Christian movement was enjoying unprecedented freedom. Essentially, the wars had fundamentally improved the lot of the missionaries due to the unprecedented concessions received.
Prior to the implementation of the Canton System, there were already small but notable forays of Christian missions into China. As early as the 16 th Century, Jesuit Christians were actively engaging in mission work and had had considerable success and influence in the Qing Court. The Rites Controversy however caused the Qing Court to officially repress Christianity. This period of official ban on Christianity lasted until the Opium Wars. Such a restrictive climate did not subside even as Catholic and Protestant missionaries begun to conduct missionary work in China from the early 19 th Century. Robert Morrison of the London Missionary Society was the first of many Protestant missionaries who attempted to conduct missionary work in China. However, as mentioned, the Qing Court was not tolerant of any “cult like religious groups” partly due to the near success of the White Lotus (a Buddhist sect) rebellion. Christianity was also categorised under this group, effectively making it illegal. 1

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