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Opium Wars: A Watershed Moment for the Missionaries in ChinaThe Opium Wars of 1839 and 1856 were major watershed events for Qing China for itfundamentally reshaped the Sino-Western relationship. Prior to the wars, Qing China hadalways enjoyed a position of superiority over Westerners in their own domain. Thisrelationship 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 theChinese and Westerners, there was another element attached to the Sino-Western interactions.That element was religion. Christian missionaries from the Western world were the mainagency promoting Christianity in China. Similar to how China represented a huge economicmarket, the large populace too represented a great “market pool” for evangelisation, whichcontributed to the idea of “Soles and Souls”. Similar to their mercantile counterparts, themissionaries were confined to Canton and Macau before the Opium Wars. Furthermore,Christianity was not tolerated by the Qing Court, further complicating matters for missionarywork. The 1stOpium War, however, saw a great change to the Sino-Western relationship. Theimmediate legacy of the 1stwar saw Beijing acceding to sweeping concessions to the British.These concessions allowed British activities such as missionary work to operate in newplaces within China. The 2ndWar brought even more religious concessions where Christianswere 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 theChristian movement was enjoying unprecedented freedom. Essentially, the wars hadfundamentally improved the lot of the missionaries due to the unprecedented concessionsreceived.
Prior to the implementation of the Canton System, there were already small but notableforays of Christian missions into China. As early as the 16thCentury, Jesuit Christians wereactively engaging in mission work and had had considerable success and influence in theQing Court. The Rites Controversy however caused the Qing Court to officially repressChristianity. 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 begunto conduct missionary work in China from the early 19thCentury. Robert Morrison of theLondon Missionary Society was the first of many Protestant missionaries who attempted toconduct missionary work in China. However, as mentioned, the Qing Court was not tolerantof any “cult like religious groups” partly due to the near success of the White Lotus (aBuddhist sect) rebellion. Christianity was also categorised under this group, effectivelymaking it illegal.1