Preview Mode Links will not work in preview mode

Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Jul 24, 2023

Last time we spoke about the origins of the Big Sword Society and the invulnerability technique known as the Armor of the Golden Bell. China was certainly no stranger to sects and martial art groups. The Big Sword Society rose up to counteract the rebels and bandits that plagued parts of China like good old Shandong province. However when Christian missionaries began to get involved in the mix things got ugly quick. Bandits would exploit the conversion to christianity to protect themselves from justice. The Big Sword Society had been largely successful combating bandits, but when it came to matters involving the church they were powerless. Finally enough was enough and now the Big Swords were tussling with the Christians, truly raising hell. Yet for now the Big Swords averted fatalities and limited their attacks to property, but what would happen if they turned up the heat? 


#58 The Juye Incident & Scramble for China


Welcome to the Fall and Rise of China Podcast, I am your dutiful host Craig Watson. But, before we start I want to also remind you this podcast is only made possible through the efforts of Kings and Generals over at Youtube. Perhaps you want to learn more about the history of Asia? Kings and Generals have an assortment of episodes on history of asia and much more  so go give them a look over on Youtube. So please subscribe to Kings and Generals over at Youtube and to continue helping us produce this content please check out If you are still hungry for some more history related content, over on my channel, the Pacific War Channel where I cover the history of China and Japan from the 19th century until the end of the Pacific War.

The story of Pang Sangjie and the minor skirmish between the Big Sword Society and Church was quite minor. French Jesuits reported two main mission residence at Daitaolou and Houjiazhuang were attacked alongside Christian homes in over 16 villages. The church settled the losses with local Qing officials for only 2000 strings of cash on June 26th, before the final battle had occurred. The Germans in Shandong submitted their report which amounted to petty vandalism to chapels in 17 villages and the burning of 119 rooms in Xue-Jonglou. For this they received 12,020 strings of cash. There were no Christian casualties during the entire conflict either Chinese or foreign. The Big Swords got rowdy, targeted the property of the Christians, but made sure not to take lives. If they had wanted to take lives, they easily could have as they demonstrated. The Qing authorities were too busy with another ongoings, there was a large Muslim rebellion raging in Gangsu and Shaanxi seeing General Dong Fuxiang with numerous forces going into the northwest. Thus the trouble of the Big Swords was pretty small in comparison. 

But what if the Big Swords began killing Chinese christians, or some foreign missionaries? How would the church react, how would foreign nations react? We talked a lot about French Catholic missionaries, some protestant British and Americans, but another large group came from Germany. There were three missionaries working on behalf of the “Societas Verbi Divini” Society of the divine word. This was a catholic society founded in Steyl, Netherlands in 1875, which drew mostly German priests into its ranks. When Otto von Bismarck came into power, there was a conflict known as die Kulturkampf, basically the church wanted clerical control over education and ecclesiastical appointment. Otto von Bismarck and other enlightenment minded leaders sought a separation of church and state and this led to countless priests fleeing places like Germany. In 1882 the Society began sending missionaries to Shandong province. Three German missionaries working on behalf of the society of the divine wind, George Stenz, Richard Henle and Francis Xavier Nies were at a missionary residence in Zhangjiazhuang in Juye county. This was the mission station of Stenz, it was around 25km west of Jining. The two other men had come to visit. Henle was quite discouraged because his work was going very slow, thus Stenz urged him to take a break. The three men did their best to raise their spirits on the evening of November 1st, 1897, the night of all saints day. They sang songs from their childhood as Stenz played his zither. They practiced the requiem for the following day. When they retired for the evening, Stenz gave up his own room to his two guests and moved over to the servants quarters.

It was around 11pm, when suddenly shots rang out into the night, the courtyard was full of torches. A band of 20-30 armed men raced towards the missionary quarters. They charged the door to Stenz quarters which were unlocked as the priest had no reason to believe anything like an attack would occur. The mob grabbed Henle and Nies and hacked them to death. Apparently they realized neither were the local missionary, as the mob continued to ransack the building searching for Stenz. They checked the church, the missionary quarters and such, but they never checked the servants quarters. The christian villagers became aroused by the mob and raised their own mob to combat them, driving the assailants out. It was not certain who committed the murders, but people generally assumed it was the work of the Big Swords Society. So why the hell did all of this happen?

Nine men were rounded up by Qing officials, these men were vagrants, the usual suspect types. Two of men of the nine were executed for the crime, but no one really believed they were guilty. Stenz certainly did not believe them to be the assailants, everything was done in haste, with little to no actual investigation. The governor Yuxian claimed that it was the work of a band of robbers, but there was no evidence of robbery, except for a few pieces of clothing being stolen from Stenz’s room. Regardless, if it was a simple case of robbery, they would certainly have not resorted to murder, especially against foreign missionaries. It was certain, particularly to Stenz that this was a deliberate attack on German missionaries. Why might Stenz believe so, he had good reason to believe the residents of Juye would wish harm upon him and his colleagues. 

Local villagers told Stenz, that Henle’s failed work in the southern town of Yuncheng was the actual target of the attack. Henle had been interfering in lawsuits and made a few enemies. He apparently was a very difficult man to get along with, so much so, even his own christian congregations had revolted against him. However despite Henle’s reputation, its more than likely Stenz that was the target of the attack. He was the resident missionary and the mob literally targeted his room. According to Stenz, he heard them screaming his name as they searched for him. Stenz was not very popular. He was a particularly militant member of the society of divine word. In his autobiography the very first line reads "On September 29, 1893, I received at Steyl the mission cross which was to be at once weapon and banner in my fight for the Kingdom of God." He was also a racist, and I do not mean by today’s standards. When he first arrived to China, in Shanghai, he wrote a description of the people, it is as follows. “An entirely new world now opened before us. Crowds of slit-eyed Chinese swarmed about the harbor—prominent merchants in their rustling silks and poor coolies in ragged clothes that did not hide their filthy bodies. Confidence was not our first impression on reaching this gate of the Celestial Empire. Cunning, pride, and scorn flashed from the eyes that met our inquiring looks”. He often wrote about how lazy and procrastinating the Qing officials were and that the food was unpalatable in the nation. He was mortified when forced “to use two short pieces of stick” to eat.

Its easy to say Stenz had a rough time adapting to life in China. His experience as a missionary in China was that of suffering and homesickness. He was trained prior to coming to China, but this training was designed to steel himself into a martyr. Indeed he alongside countless other missionaries were taught their deaths in the service of god were a sign of grace. Father Xavier while in China had written back home "More than once I have prayed to God for the grace of martyrdom, but most likely it will not be granted to me. My blood is not deemed red enough by God, and is still mingled with the dust of this earth." The oral history of the event, passed down by local villagers had Stenz and other missionaries interfering in lawsuits. In the case of Stenz he was also accused of raping 10 local women, and participating in christian theft. Though these claims could easily be false, it at least tells us what the locals thought of such a man. Stenz also gave his own oral account of the incident.

In Stenz account he talks about how a few members of the White Lotus sect enrolled in his church from the village of Caojiazhuang. He refused the admission of the headman from that village, because he was accused of stealing and killing an ox from a neighboring village. This refusal lead to a lot of villagers becoming upset. Stenz recent converts were from some of the wealthiest families in that village and they began refusing to make normal contributions to village festivals such as paying for food for feasts. This led the other villagers to try and force the christians to pay, and they went to local Qing authorities to complain. Stenz became convinced it was all the work of the headman he refused and he believed that man joined the Big Swords to lead the attack on his mission. Given the previous instances of conflict between the church and Big Swords, such a explanation has merit. Perhaps the villagers sought revenge on the missionaries and went to the Big Swords for help or, perhaps they simply pretended to be members of the Big Swords. Regardless it seems clear, bandits were in their ranks.

A story often told of this incident includes a former bandit named Liu Derun who apparently was seeking revenge against the Juye magistrate who had arrested and tortured his wife or daughter. To attack a missionary could bring about the end to the magistrates career. Regardless of why it all happened, it seemed certain to the church that they were indanger. The anti-christian conflicts that had occurred in the previous years were well known, and the involvement of the Big Sword Society also. All of this was seen as a godsend to the missionaries and the new German government.

In 1897 Germany was an infant nation looking to flex her muscles on the world stage. Her economy was the largest in continental europe, she was emerging as Britain's rival in the world of trade. German’s new position in China reflected her competition with Britain and she was becoming a force to be reckoned with. In 1890 the Deutsch-Asiatische Bank became the first non-British foreign bank in China. However, while German trade was thriving, her military capacity to expand her foreign markets were lackluster. This was also coming upon the time Alfred Mahan’s “the influence of sea power upon history” had come out in 1890 which proscribed naked force to be employed to protect one's market in the age of imperialism. The German navy was the 5th largest in the world, far below her ranking in economics. Her navy was being developed by the legendary Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz backed by Kaiser Wilhelm II. A late 19th century navy required coaling stations, and for Tirpitz he desired one in China. Germany requested a lease for a naval base in China in October of 1895, and the following year Tirpitz scouted potential ports, and thought Jiaozhou Bay on the Shandong peninsula to be an excellent location.

Jiaozhou held a deep water port, and was surrounded by mineral resources. Alongside this, German missionaries of the society of the divine word were operating in the region which was a large bonus. By November of 1896 Germany was determined to acquire Jiozhou and Heyking in Beijing, looking for any means necessary to grab them. When news came to Berlin on november 6th of 1897 of the murdered missionaries, Wilhelm was delighted “that a splendid opportunity had at last arrived”. The next day Wilhelm met with advisors and argued "It is the last chance for Germany to get a possession anywhere in Asia and to firm up our prestige which has dropped.... [N]o matter what it costs, we must not under any circumstances give up Kiaochow. It has a future for economic development as well as industry, a future which will be greater and more meaningful than Shanghai is today."

Meanwhile back in China the Qing officials were as incompetent as usual. As was becoming typical of any incidents involving missionaries, the Zongli Yamen received news of the missionaries murders on November 7th from the German ambassador, before any local officials ever reported it. The Qing court immediately understood the dangerous situation, the Emperor realized Germany would use the situation to seize a harbor. The Emperor ordered governor of Shandong, Li Bingheng to be reprimanded for his incompetence, but on November 14th, German warships arrived at Jiaozhou bay. The local Qing garrison withdrew from the area, without firing a shot. Li Bingheng immediately reported the potential invasion to the Qing court urging them to fight the invaders ''Since they started the feud, we have no alternative but to resist.' He proposed they raise 5 additional companies of soldiers in Caozhou to drive the Germans out. However the Qing court rejected his proposal stating such recruits would be worthless in battle. The Qing court responded with this to Li "although the enemy has certainly acted arbitrarily, the court will definitely not mobilize its troops. The foreigners' actions rely entirely on power. If our power cannot assure victory, we will absorb a great loss." They were not wrong in this regard, do remember they literally just lost a war against Japan. The Qing navy was shattered, the imperial treasury was on the verge of bankruptcy already paying indemnities to Japan, how could China resist Germany at this time? One thing the Qing court understood was the balance of power theory. Europe was divided and all competing in China. When Japan claimed the Liaodong peninsula, the triple intervention of Russia, France and Germany had occurred. The Qing court expected Russia to yet again intervene against the Germans now, hell Russia had also shown desires for Jiaozhou bay. However the Qing did not know Wilhelm had been talking to Tsar Nicholas, convincing him to take Port Arthur and Dalien, while Germany could seize Jiaozhou.

You have probably heard of the great scramble for Africa during the late 19th century. This involved multiple world powers literally scrambling to seize colonies in Africa, well this situation was also occurring in China. You may have seen a famous painting by the Artist H. Meyer, depicting China as a pie being carved up by the leaders of the great powers. There is a description of the painting which helps greatly for a audio podcast haha

“En Chine: Le gâteau des Rois et... des Empereurs”

Le Petit Journal Supplément Illustré, January 16, 1898

Artist: H. Meyer

In this French rendering, Queen Victoria glares at the German Kaiser, while the Russian, French, and Japanese figures look pensively at China. The Kaiser stabs his knife into the German-leased territory Jiaozhou (Kiao-Tcheou) in Shandong, acquired in 1898, while the Russian Tsar puts his fists on Port Arthur (the Chinese port of Lüshun, leased in 1897). The caption reads: “China: The cake of Kings and Emperors.

The Germans had long been seeking a port on the Chinese coast, and the Juye incident was a perfect pretext to grab Jiaozhou. On November 6th Kaiser Wilhem sent a telegram to the Tsar stating “sending a German squadron to Jiaozhou, as it is the only port available to operate from as a base against marauders. I am under obligation to Catholic party in Germany to show that their missions are really safe under my protection”. For quite a while, the great powers had engaged in a sort of gunboat diplomacy with China, to compel her government to bring persecutors of Christianity to justice. However now Germany was taking things into her own hands to suppress anti christian activity on Chinese soil. This was quite a novel departure from what the great powers had been doing. Germany had been strong arming China for awhile now, back in October of 1895 the German minister threatened China after some disturbances in Yanzhou. The Qing had failed to act effectively to protect some Christians prompting the minister to say  "my government will have no alternative but to devise methods to protect them ourselves." This was the type of threat the Germans would continue to make and after the Juye incident the Germans demanded a guarantee. However the Qing as much as they wanted to avoid conflict could not guarantee anything, they replied areas like Caozhou were unruly in nature and impossible to guarantee 100% protection. Thus the minister now sent this message "Since China cannot guarantee that in the future such incidents will not recur, our warships are in Jiaozhou and can help you handle the matter." The Qing responded with this "this concerns the internal affairs of China, you need not interfere in it."

On December 16th, Wilhelm made a speech and sent his brother in command of an additional squadron to China “Make it clear to every European there, to the German merchant, and, above all things, to the foreigner in whose country we are or with whom we have to deal, that the German Michael has set his shield, decorated with the imperial eagle, firmly upon the ground. Whoever asks him for protection will always receive it.... But if any one should undertake to insult us in our rights or wish to harm us, then drive in with the mailed fist and, as God wills, bind about your young brow the laurels which no one in the entire German Empire will begrudge you. “ So yeah, the kaiser meant business.

The Germans pushed extremely hard upon the Qing forcing them to do some pretty extraordinary things. The Qing agreed to construct new cathedrals in Jining and Caozhou where the missionaries were killed and the funds would be coming from their pockets. They were forced to put inscriptions over the doors of the new cathedrals reading "Catholic church constructed by imperial order." On top of this they were forced to build new residences for missionaries in Yutai, Cao, Chengwu, Shan, Yuncheng, Heze and Juye. Five magistrates from those countries were dismissed, one was impeached, a daotai was transferred, and a army commander was also dismissed. Governor Li Bingheng was supposed to be receiving a promotion, viceroyship over Sichuan, but instead he was stripped of his promotion and demoted two grades down. Li Binghengs punishment was largely a result of his anti christian behaviors. The Germans pointed out that in the wake of the Big Sword Society causing troubles in 1896, Li Bingheng had made statements like "Ever since the Western religion came to China, its converts have all been unemployed rascals [xiu-min, lit.: weed people]. They use the foreign religion as protection to bring suits for others and oppress their villages. They use the Church to avoid prosecution, and gradually the local officials, to avoid trouble, bend the law in their favor. After a while the people's long-suppressed anger becomes unbearable. They feel the officials cannot be relied upon, and that they must vent their spleen in private disputes. Thus they gather crowds and seek quarrels, burning and destroying churches." Li Bingheng proposed prohibiting missionary interference in lawsuits, so that local Qing officials could do their job. This all obviously angered the Germans, who complained to Beijing about him.  Now for the common people of Shandong, Li Bingheng was quite loved. Li Bingheng was seen as an honest man and rather good at administrating economic affairs. He managed yellow river works that saved over a million taels in 1895, raised money for the board of revenue about 100,000 per year. While he was seen as anti christian, he also was seen as an uncorrupt official, something quite rare in the late Qing dynasty.

The German move was met with exhilaration by other great powers. Sir Claude McDonald, the minister to Beijing from Great Britain said "The effect on the security of our own people will be of the best. It seems hopeless to expect the Chinese to do their duty in protecting missionaries and discouraging anti-foreign movements unless they are forced thereto by some measure as the Germans have taken." An American missionary working in northwestern Shandong named Henry Porter said "the German Government deserve the admiration of all right-minded men, the world over. A great sense of relief was felt by the foreign residents of China. .. . The immediate effect throughout Shantung province is to strengthen every form of mission work.. .. We welcome the German vigor and the German advance." And of course such people were ecstatic about Germany flexing its arms in China, the Big Sword Society had ruffled many feathers. Getting rid of Li Bingheng was seen as a major play to increase conversions in Shandong. Indeed there was a dramatic change with Li Bingheng gone and a German squadron present. A missionary working in Qingzhou reported the proclamations made by the new governor, Zhang Ru-mei to be "much more favorable to the missionary than anything we have been accustomed to in times past." Another missionary working in Wei county reported "The most marked effect we see is the prestige [the Jiaozhou seizure] gives to the foreigners, a prestige that is pitiful to see. The officials seem for the time being to stand in abject fear of any complications with foreigners.

The Germans were pushing the envelope, after the Juye incident, German missionaries got into the habit of placing blame on the Big Sword Society for any difficulties that came about. It was clear to all what they were doing, Governor Zhang Ru-mei remarked "They wish to stir up trouble in this way and let the German troops enter the interior." Local Qing officials began bending over backwards to Christians and lawsuits got worse and worse. Zhang Ru-mei gave an example of one bad situation that arose in the village of Wenshang. There was a dispute over the rights to a village temple, and a Christian had been assaulted. A German missionary sent a message to the magistrate stating the Christian had been killed, prompting the magistrate to rush to the scene to find the man had only light injuries. Nonetheless the magistrate prepared a list of 20 people guilty of the crime and they were forced to kneel and beg for forgiveness before converting to christianity. The German missionary praised the 20 chinese who he called good people, then he stated none of them should be prosecuted as he pulled out his own list with 5 other guilty chinese villagers. The 5 were forced to pay a sum of around 170 strings of cash. Then the same missionary demanded the village as a whole be fined 900 strings of cash. The magistrate anxious to be rid of the situation, increased the sum and added a banquet to be made for the missionary. 

So as you can see the church was really abusing this situation. The protestant missionaries in the region were quite jealous, one of their missionaries went on to say "The influence of the Catholic persuasion is felt in nearly all parts of the field. Multitudes are flocking to them for the sake of 'help' in various forms, chiefly for the 'power' that is supposed to reside in them more than in the Protestant."

The Kaiser famously was quoted to say “hundreds of thousands of Chinese would feel the iron first of Germany heavy on their necks”. Indeed Germany humiliated China and received a lease of Jiaozhou bay from 1898 that would last until 1920. 50 kms of the Jiaozhou bay area was proclaimed a neutral zone in which Chinese sovereignty was limited in favor of the Germans. Germany did not stop there, they immediately went to work grabbing mining and railway concessions within Shandong province. The scramble for concessions was on. Germany seized influence over Shandong; Russia seized influence over Northern Manchuria, Mongolia and Xinjiang; France seized Yunnan, most of Guangxi and Guangdong; Japan seized Fujian; Britain seized influence over the whole of the Yangtze river valley and Italy requested Zhejiang province and was rejected by the Qing government haha. I always loved that aspect of this, despite China literally being torn apart, Italy was still seen to be too small to grab a piece, get rekt. 

The Kaiser’s actions had reinforced China’s fears about missionaries, or as many of the locals called them “devils”. In common Chinese believed the missionaries were working on behalf of their respective governments as a pretext for seizing territory in China. To the common Chinese things looked like things were getting wildly out of hand. The Christian converts were becoming not only more numerous, but had extravagant demands. In one famous case a Christian agricultural worker forced his non christian employer to serve him a feast. Over in Beijing, Empress Dowager Cixi bitterly resented hearing these reports and would go on to say “These Chinese Christians are the worst people in China. They rob the poor country people of their land and property, and the missionaries, of course, always protect them, in order to get a share themselves.” It was truly a problem, it was breaking the social fabric of village life. Chinese christians were barred from traditional ceremonies and festivals in their own villages and more crucially they no longer had to share the costs of them. They were not allowed to practice ancestor worship which was a fundamental aspect of Chinese society. As one Qing scholar using the pen name Wen Ching put it “As soon as a man becomes a Christian he really ceases to be a Chinaman”. It was commonly believed many only converted because they were too poor to afford food and were disparagingly referred to as “rice Christians”. 

Empress Dowager Cixi asked a foreign diplomat at one point “Why don’t these missionaries stay in their own country and be useful to their own people?” At the time she made this remark there was over 700,00 Catholic converts ministered by more than 850 nuns and priests, mostly from France. Another 85,000 protestant Chinese were under the guidance of 2800 missionaries, mostly from Britain and America. As Ron Burgundy once said “boy that escalated quickly”. China was being carved up, her social fabric was being torn apart, foreign powers were bearing their boots down upon her, who could come to her rescue? 

I would like to take this time to remind you all that this podcast is only made possible through the efforts of Kings and Generals over at Youtube. Please go subscribe to Kings and Generals over at Youtube and to continue helping us produce this content please check out If you are still hungry after that, give my personal channel a look over at The Pacific War Channel at Youtube, it would mean a lot to me.

China was literally being carved up by the great powers of the globe. The Kaiser had ushered in a scramble, and now China braced itself for further humiliation. Was there anyone who could save China for the foreign menace?