In 1870, the city of Tianjin exploded in a day of rage. By nightfall, 21 foreign residents of the city were dead, including 16 nuns dragged from an orphanage and publicly tortured to death. The still-new network of trans-continental telegraph cable spread word of the outrage around the globe.
In China, the court of the Qing Empire made ready for war. Officials from the coastal treaty ports warned the throne that the foreign powers would be swift in their vengeance. In response, the Qing court sent the most respected statesman in the empire, the legendary general and official Zeng Guofan (曾国藩), to Tianjin to see if his presence could reduce tensions and avert a war.
Zeng Guofan’s investigation painted a grim picture. The incident, he concluded, was the result of a misunderstanding compounded by arrogance and accelerated through official incompetence and inertia. He then, rather too conveniently, recommended that 21 “culprits” be apprehended and put to death so as to even the ledger.
The summer leading up to the massacre had been hot and dry. Floods can be devastating, but in Chinese history it is droughts which really bring out the crazy. Whispers swirled regarding the Catholic orphanage outside the East Gate of the city. The nuns took in many children, but few of the children were ever seen again alive. Meanwhile their cemetery filled with tiny, shallow graves.
There were rumors that the nuns murdered the children and used their hearts and eyes for medicine and sorcery. When people stopped handing over orphans to the sisters out of fear, the nuns started the questionable practice of offering cash rewards. This had the immediate—although unintended—consequence of starting a thriving business in stolen children.
Tianjin officials refused to intervene until residents apprehended a suspected kidnapper. The man, Wu Lanzhen, had been caught allegedly trying to use drugs to stupefy a victim to take to the Catholic church and collect a bounty. This cathedral, a short trip upriver from the orphanage, was a massive gothic structure built by the French just the year before. To construct the cathedral, French authorities had ripped down a centuries-old Daoist temple to make way for their church.
With the suspect in hand, the local magistrate and prefect prevailed upon the French consul to allow them to search the church grounds. At first, the French consul, Henri Fontanier, refused, citing the privilege of extra-territoriality which placed most foreign residents and property beyond the reach of local officials. At an impasse, both sides appealed to a higher authority: Wanyan Chonghou (完颜崇厚), a high-ranking member of the Qing court who was in charge of trade in Tianjin. Officially, Chonghou was outside the local administrative structure, but the magistrate and prefect respected his overall rank and the local consuls appreciated his overall pliability.
Chonghou reasoned with Fontanier and with the head of the French mission in Tianjin, Father Chevrier. Both finally agreed to allow the investigation to proceed. This victory by local officials was short-lived. When they brought their suspect Wu Lanzhen to the church to have him corroborate his testimony about accomplices within the cathedral, Wu’s story fell completely apart. It was quickly obvious that he had never been inside the cathedral. Humiliated, the Tianjin officials ended their investigation and Fontanier returned to the adjacent consulate to write his report.
A short time later, though, semiorganized gangs of local ruffians, known colloquially as hunhunr (混混儿), began gathering in front of the cathedral. Fights broke out between the hunhunr on the outside and the Chinese staff of the cathedral and consulate. The hunhunr might have been thugs, and they were often involved in low level corruption, but they also had a strange sense of honor and loyalty to their “turf.”
Fontanier and his assistant, thinking that the magistrate and prefect had organized this demonstration to save face, stormed down the street to enlist the aid of Chonghou to quell the disturbance and punish the recalcitrant officials. Their meeting went poorly. Chonghou claimed to be powerless over the situation and did his best Manchu impersonation of Pontius Pilate. This led in turn to Fontanier flying into a violent rage and attempting to shoot both Chonghou and the magistrate Liu Jie.
Once shots were fired, the scene descended into chaos. The hunhunr and other residents stormed the cathedral and the consulate, setting fire to the buildings and killing anyone who fled into the street. When the bells sounded to summon the militia and fire brigades, foreign residents trapped inside their buildings breathed a momentary sigh of relief, only to find that the militia and brigades were composed mostly of hunhunr. In the ensuing melee, Fontanier, his assistant, and Father Chevrier were killed along with several other foreign residents in the vicinity.
Once the church and consulate had been taken, the crowd turned their attention to the nearby orphanage. The nuns huddled inside. The crowds overwhelmed the doors, and the staff took the children out from the orphanage and set the building on fire. The nuns were dragged from their hiding places, stripped naked, repeatedly stabbed, and set on fire.
The violence of that day in Tianjin stunned the world. Even after decades of foreign imperialism on China’s coast, the idea that local residents of a treaty port would take to the streets against the presence of the foreigners was shocking. In the end, China avoided war only because the French were too busy that year losing the Franco-Prussian War to muster the forces necessary to chastise Tianjin. Zeng Guofan’s investigation, and especially his recommendation to execute 21 local residents for their alleged participation in the crime, was widely reviled and ridiculed in official Chinese circles. It was a poor ending to a distinguished career.
The legacy of Tianjin continues to this day. While the church was rebuilt (and then burned again during the 1900 Boxer Uprising and then subsequently rebuilt a second time), the sinister tales associated with its past linger. A woman from Tianjin who grew up near the church, recalls stories being told when she was a young girl in the 1950s and 1960s about how the ghosts of the nuns still haunted the church grounds. The phantoms prowled, eager to snatch young children so that the spectral sisters could carve out their eyes and hearts for use in their magic.
“Specter of the Tianjin Massacre” is a story from our newest issue, “Romance”. To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.