Auguste Chapdelaine was the French Christian missionary whose violent death at the hands of Chinese authorities on February 29th,1856 became the casus belli for a French participation in the Second Opium War (October 8th, 1856-October 24th, 1860).
Chapdelaine was born on February 6th, 1814 on a farm near La Rochelle in northwestern France. He finally entered the seminary in 1834 after overcoming his parents´ long opposition.
Ordained a priest in 1843, Chapdelaine was an associate pastor until in 1851 due to his zeal he was accepted by the Paris Foreign Missions (MEP), an organization founded in 1660 dedicated to the evangelization of Asia, despite being two years past the age limit.
He left from Antwerp in late April 1852 and landed in Singapore in early September. Following some setbacks, in the spring of 1854 Chapdelaine reached the southwestern Chinese province of Kweichow, which at that time was not open to foreigners.
Arrested and kept in prison for over two weeks, he did not heed the advice of a friendly magistrate to go back to Canton. On the contrary, on December 8th, 1854 Chapdelaine celebrated his first mass in the village of Yaoshan in Kwangsi province in front of some 300 Christians from the area.
Following personal threats, he travelled back and forth between the two locations. Denounced on February 22nd, 1856 by an angry relative of a recent convert, he was detained in Yaoshan, together with other Chinese Catholics, by orders of a new local official on 25th February.
Condemned to decapitation for stirring up insurrection, Chapdelaine refused to pay a bribe to be set free and was kept overnight in a small cage at the gate of the jail to be ridiculed by passersby.
After Chapdelaine died of exhaustion the following morning, his head was chopped off and remained on display on a tree at the execution ground for several days.
The French chargé d’affaires in Macau learned of the murder on July 17th and sent a report to Paris on July 30th. In the meantime, he had filed a vigorous protest to regional Viceroy Yeh Ming-chen (1807-1859).
Yeh responded by pointing out that Chapdelaine had already violated Chinese law by preaching in the interior, as the Treaty of Whampoa signed between France and China on October 24th, 1844 only allowed the propagation of Christianity in the five treaty ports opened to the French.
He also claimed that the priest was in rebel territory and that many of his followers had already been arrested for acts of treason. Therefore Chapdelaine’s mission actually had no strictly religious purpose.
Under diplomatic pressure, the mandarin who ordered his death was later demoted. When Britain went to war with China the same year France initially declared its neutrality, but made known its sympathy with the British due to the Chapdelaine incident.
The next year French Ambassador Alphonse de Bourboulon (1809-1877) attempted to negotiate reparations for the assassination of Chapdelaine and to revise the treaty, but failed to reach an agreement with Yeh.
The Viceroy stated on December 14th, 1857 that he had received a report that the deceased person was in fact an executed triad member with a similar Chinese name to Chapdelaine’s.
He also cited the case of six missionaries arrested for ministering outside the designated areas and handed over safely to the French, which found Yeh’s reply to be evasive, derisory and a formal refusal of their demands. In consequence, French military action began soon afterwards.
As in such situations vengeance wasn’t the norm, there’s no doubt that France used Chapdelaine’s sad fate merely as an excuse to join Britain and declare war on China in order to make its own imperial gains in Asia in the wake of an expected British victory.
Article six of the Sino-French Convention of Peking, which ended the armed conflict, gave Christians the right to spread their faith everywhere in China and French missionaries the permission to hold property.
Frenchman Chapdelain was beatified on May 27th, 1900. by Italian Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903) and canonized on October 1st, 2000 by Polish Pope John Paul II (1920-2005), together with 120 Christians martyred in China between the 17th and the 20th century.
While the Chinese state-run Xinhua News Agency two days later issued a strong press release painting a very negative portrait of Chapdelaine, a museum opened in 2016 in Dingan, the settlement where he died, celebrated the “patriotism” of his execution and condemned the “spiritual opium” of religion. The enemies of Imperial and Red China seem to be the same!