Beijing South and East Cathedral (section 3 of In the footsteps of the CICM Missionaries)

Our next visit was to the South and East Cathedral.

François Vranckx wrote of their experience when discovering Beijing:

Nantang0001« Représentez-vous des portiques de bois, détraqués, jadis dorés et peints, mais aujourd’hui vermoulus et étayés par des poutres branlantes soutenues elles-mêmes par des étais tombant de vétusté…toutes les constructions y ont un air délabré qui fait mal au cœur. Tout dans cet empire s’est tellement immobilisé qu’on ne se donne pas même la peine de réparer les murs qui supportent les fastueuses constructions des siècles passés.

Voyons si parmi ces débris d’une splendeur qui s’écroule nous ne découvrirons point quelques souvenirs européens. Et d’abord, voici la cathédrale catholique bâtie au dix-septième siècle par les Jésuites dans le style particulier qu’ils ont adopté pour tous leurs monuments de cette époque. Cette église a été restituée au culte en vertu du traité de Péking. Une nouvelle cathédrale en style gothique s’élève sur un autre point de la ville, tout à côté du séminaire. Ce sera, sinon un édifice d’une vaste étendue, du moins une belle église qui fera honneur au culte. En face de la nouvelle cathédrale se trouve l’asile de la Sainte-Enfance. »[1]

In the above extract Vranckx refers to the South Cathedral when talking about the cathedral built in the XVIIth century as to the new Cathedral it is probably the North Cathedral but it could also be the East Church both churches were under reconstructions at that time. [2]

It is often said that Matteo Ricci has built the South Cathedral but in reality the small church he built has been destroyed soon after his death and was located elsewhere. When Matteo Ricci finally reached Beijing in 1601 and authorized to stay there he received also an authorization of the Emperor to build a residence near Xuanwumen. A small chapel in Chinese style was part of his residence. It is only at a later stage in 1650 that the small chapel was transformed by Johann Adam Schall von Bell into a church. The church was built thanks to the Emperor a tablet in the courtyard read “Cathedral Built by Imperial Order.” This fact will preserve the cathedral to be destroyed in later years. [3]

The church had a Ceremonial gateway with the words “Respect the Teachings of the Way of Heaven”. [4]

In 1690, the Franciscan Bernardin della Chiesa became the first bishop of Beijing, the church became a cathedral.

The Cathedral was damaged by two earthquakes and a fire. Restoration of it took place after each disaster.

Since the beginning of the XIXth century an anti-Christian action was going-on in China which culminated in a restriction of Christian activities in China and confiscation of churches. In 1827, Emperor DaoGuang ordered all Roman Catholic priests to leave the capital; ownership of the Southern Cathedral was transferred to the Russian Ecclesial Mission. [5]

But the mission didn’t have the means to take care of the cathedral which after some years was a ruin, with great rents in the roof, and grass growing on the floor. Inside, every decoration and pew had been carted away while the courtyard outside was occupied by hawkers.[6]

entrance south cathedralAt the end of the Second Opium War in 1860 treaties were concluded between the Qing Empire (China) and the United Kingdom, France, and Russia by which  “the religious and charitable establishments which were confiscated from Christians during the persecutions of which they were victims shall be returned to their owners through the French Minister in China”.[7]

The South Cathedral was reopened in 1860 by Bishop Joseph Martial Mouly.[8]

The South Cathedral that Verbist and his group visited was the one reopened by Mouly.

Then in 1900 another disaster; the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 during which all the churches in Northern China and in particular Beijing were targets of vandalism. On 14 June 1900, the cathedral was totally destroyed. The Boxer uprising ended when China was defeated mid-1901 by the Eight-Nation Alliance military forces. Very soon thereafter the missionaries were rebuilding what had been destroyed this was also the case for the South Cathedral that was built in 1904 in Baroque style and which is the one we visited. [9]

Next was a visit to the North Cathedral which is sometime referred to as the most beautiful Church in Beijing. It is also known as the Church of the Saviour[10] .

The church was built on a piece of land given to the Jesuits Gerbillon and Bouvet  by the Kangxi Emperor in gratitude for treatment of malaria. The church was officially opened in 1703.

north cathedral
The Northern church was closed in 1827 when all Catholic missionaries were expelled from Beijing except those who were useful for the Country. In accordance with the 1860 Sino-French Treaty, the site was given back to the Christian Community and a larger cathedral was erected there in 1867.  In 1885 at the request of the Empress Dowager the Cathedral was  destroyed and moved to another site and rebuilt in 1887.

Then came the Boxer revolution; the North Cathedral was not in the vicinity of the foreign legations and could therefore not rely on the “allied” military forces. Alphonse Favier, the bishop of the cathedral, decided to organize the defense of the church against the Boxers.

“Inside the grounds were 3,000 Chinese Christians some only armed with spears and swords, together with thirteen foreign missionaries, some hundred seminarians and eleven Italian and forty French marines under the command of Sub-lieutenant Paul Henry, who died just a day before the rescue. The Boxers began their attacks on June 5, 1900 and continued without a truce until the Japanese troops relieved the cathedral on August 16 1900.”[11]

On Easter Sunday in 1901, Mrs. Archibald Little visited the ruins of Bei Tang and recorded these recollections in her book Round about My Peking Garden[12]:

“When I was there fifteen years ago no one ever cared to visit the Southern or the Eastern Cathedrals. To-day the shattered, tottering wall, holding out its gaping windows to the eastern Tartar city, is gazed upon in silence and tears. We do not know how many murders – martyrdoms – those eye-less windows witnessed but last summer. Even the Pehtang or Northern Cathedral, when intact, was but a fine church, built to replace that earlier Northern Cathedral to which the Dowager Empress had objected as overlooking her garden, and which was therefore just about to be ceded to her on the occasion of our previous visit. But now its façade riddled with shot, its aisles propped up by many beams, the trees behind with their bark gnawed off… masses of brick and mortar behind the broken walls, the great pits where the mines exploded, engulfing children by the hundred, all recall memories of heroism … We visited the Bishop. “Did any of your Chinese recant?”. A few, very few. I think 12,000 Christians have lost their lives,” said Monseigneur Favier. “

The Church was renovated and opened soon after the boxer revolution.

08 17 2006 Beijing eglise de l est DSCN3479We visited the East Church located close to our hotel on Wangfujing. The East Church is also known as St. Joseph’s Church  or Wangfujing Church was built by Lodovico Buglio in 1653 and finished in 1655 on land given by the Shunzhi Emperor[13][14][15][16][17]. It was the oldest church in Beijing after the South Cathedral. It was struck and damaged in 1720 by an earthquake and damaged some ninety years later. It was almost entirely destroyed by fire in 1812 and whatever had survived was finally totally destroyed during the anti-Christian actions in the early XVIIIth century.

After the Second Opium War the land was given back and a new church was built which was totally destroyed during the Boxer rebellion.  The East Church which we visited was built in 1904 in a Romanesque Revival style with some elements of Chinese design. From 1950 until 1957 the church was used as a primary school.

[1] Supra 2 page 41

[2] Today the South Cathedral (Nantang 南堂) is known as “The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception” (Shèngmǔ wú rǎn yuánzuì tang 圣母无染原罪堂), sometimes also known as the Xuanwumen church ( 宣武门天主堂  Xuānwǔmén Tiānzhǔtáng)

[3] R.A. Blondeau; Mandarijn en Astronoom, Ferdinand Verbiest S.J. aan het hof van de Chinese keizer, Desclée de Brouwer 1970, p 237

[4] 钦宗天道

[5] Daoguang (道光帝) 16 September 1782 – 25 February 1850

[6] The Search for a Vanishing Beijing: AGuide to China’s Capital Through the Ages Paperback – April 8, 2008, p  219

[7] Article 6 of the Convention between China and France

[8] Joseph-Martial Mouly, (Figeac 1807 – 1868 Beijing) was a member of the Congregation of the Mission founded by St. Vincent de Paul, known as Vincentians or Lazarists. He went to China in 1833 at the age of 26. In 1842 he was ordained the first bishop of the newly created vicariate apostolic of Mongolia.

[9]The Eight-Nation Alliance (Chinese: 八国联军; pinyin: Bāguó Liánjūn) was an international military coalition against the Boxer Rebellion composed of Japan, Russia, the British Empire, France, the United States, Germany, Italy and Austria-Hungary.

[10]North Chiurch Beitang: 北堂 or the Church of the Saviour jiùshìzhǔtang 救世主堂) sometimes also called Xishiku Church 西什库天主堂)

[11] The Search for a Vanishing Beijing: A Guide to China’s Capital Through the Ages Paperback – April 8, 2008, page 143

[12] Round about my Peking Garden, Mrs Archibald Little, Fisher Unwin London, 1905, page 10

[13] 王府井天主堂


[15] Dongtang  東堂

[16] Italy Mineo, Sicily, 26 January 1606; China Beijing, 7 October 1682 worked together Johann Adam Schall, Ferdinand Verbiest.

[17] Shunzhi Emperor (15 March 1638 – 5 February 1661) was the first Qing emperor to rule over China, from 1644 to 1661