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“To Tear out the Heart and Rip out their Eyes”

A ‘souvenir fan’ in circulation after the Tianjin riots, depicting the burning of the cathedral

One summer afternoon in 1870 in the city of Tianjin, thousands of residents, led in part by local volunteer militia known as the “Fire and Water Brigades,” stormed the French consulate and a cathedral before turning their sights on an orphanage run by a group of Catholic nuns.  Before the day ended, 21 foreigners – including all 16 of the nuns – had been killed, many of them brutally stabbed, beaten, burned, or simply ripped apart by the furious crowd.  Three decades of foreign aggression and unequal treaties had created a lot of anger and hostility toward foreigners — and there had been a few instances of foreigners being killed in local disputes — but never before had there been such a display of rage and violence against the foreign presence in China and it didn’t take long for the overseas press to dub the event “The Tientsin Massacre.”[1]

What sparked such fury? Well, the short answer is that you can build concessions, sell opium, and burn a few palaces and people might be pissed off about it, but there are few quicker ways to get a man to take action and do battle than messing with his kids.

The proximate cause of the riot was a jurisdictional dispute between local Chinese officials and the French consul, but the cause was a climate of parental fear and social anxiety surrounding a spate of kidnapping which had occurred in and around the city for months.  As hysteria grew, suspicions began to swirl around the Catholic orphanage.  The Sisters’ practice was to take in unwanted children from the local community. The problem was that many of these children were unwanted for a reason; they suffered from diseases or birth defects and their low chances of survival was what led to their being abandoned by their parents.  The Sisters did what they could medically, but unsurprisingly the orphanage still had a high mortality rate, and when a series of epidemics swept through Tianjin that summer the small Catholic cemetery across the river began to be filled with tiny graves.  While the Sisters could take some comfort in young souls saved, local residents began to look upon the orphanage with a mixture of revulsion and horror.  Rumors filled the streets of the Sisters’ real mission – the harvesting of organs for use in Western medicine, and local residents reported seeing corpses in the Catholic graveyard with their chests wide open and parts of the body missing.

Such rumors were fueled by stories of debauchery and deviltry which followed missionaries wherever they went in China. One well-circulated polemic described the Christian liturgy thus:

On this day work ceases entirely and old and young, male and female, all assemble in the Christian Church. The pastor takes his seat in front and extols the virtue of Jesus.  The whole group mumbles through the liturgies after which they copulate together to consummate their joy.[2]

Faced with growing hostility and dwindling admissions, the Sisters took the bold step of offering cash bonuses if parents would bring them their unwanted children to be saved.  Several other foreign residents in the concessions, including the British consul, saw where this was headed and were strongly critical of the practice, but the Sisters persisted, and in no time, apparently unbeknownst to the Sisters, a lively ring of kidnapping for profit developed.  What had started as rumors and innuendo began to look very real.

As the fear and loathing grew, residents demanded that the local officials investigate. Finally, a kidnapper was caught red-handed, and under pressure from authorities he claimed that he had been duped by Chinese working for the Catholics, given “stupefying powder,” and sent out to bring back children for their rituals.  Even when the suspect’s testimony collapsed (he was taken to the Church and was unable to find his way around or identify a single person), the accusations were sufficient for most Tianjin residents to demand further action.  When the French consul – citing the right of extraterritoriality — rebuffed further investigations, local protection societies, such as the Fire and Water Brigades, as well as other, even less savory, elements, took matters into their own hands. Afraid for the safety of the French community in the city, the consul begged the local commissioner of trade, a Manchu official known as Chonghou, to send his men to break up the disturbance, only to have Chonghou play Pontius Pilate.  The consul, a hot-headed young man in the best of circumstances, tried to shoot Chonghou and, failing that, started back to the consulate. Along the way though he did manage to shoot a member of the local magistrate’s staff (He had aimed for the magistrate and missed.) and with that all hell broke loose. The French cathedral was immediately torched by the mob and two priests and several Chinese congregants were killed when they tried to flee.  The real horror show however occurred on the opposite shore of the river, where a large crowd dragged the nuns from their orphanage, stripped them naked, and then stabbed and bludgeoned the women before throwing them onto a fire.  All 16 were killed.  When the rioters broke into the orphanage they found about 150 children inside, many of whom ran away in the smoke and confusion.  According to foreign sources, none of the remaining children said they had been kidnapped, but the damage had already been done.

Whatever the truth to the allegations which sparked the riot, the fact remains that despite all of the hatred which existed at the time toward foreigners at the time, the one thing which could truly enrage a community and inspire people to great violence, were threats to their families and their children.  Later acts of mass violence, notably the Boxer Uprising of 1900, touched on an even broader sense of danger to ‘the homeland’ but in 1870 it was the idea that somebody ‘from outside’ was threatening the community and going for their children first.

Such a reaction is hardly unique to China or this period of history.[3] In times of tension and great anxiety, what nightmare can compare to the abduction of a child? These stories are the stuff of countless scary stories and legends.  The very idea fills parents and communities with a visceral horror.

Even today in the city of Tianjin, my mother-in-law says that as late as the 1950s and 1960s, children playing in the area of the cathedral (which was rebuilt in 1903) were warned to watch out for the ghosts of the nuns who would snatch them unawares, drag them underground, tear out their hearts and carve out their eyes, a terrifying story told by anxious parents still scared of forces – either foreign or supernatural – out to rob them of their children.


[1] With that great irony which history often provides, many historians have noted that the number of foreigners killed was almost equal to the number of Chinese brutally lynched in the “Chinese Massacre” which took place just over a year later in the city of Los Angeles.

[2] Translated in Paul Cohen, China and Christianity: The Missionary Movement and the Growth of Chinese Anti-Foreignism, 1860-1870 (Cambridge, 1963)., p. 49.

[3] Even in the 20th and 21st centuries, there are frequent cases of people – particularly in parts of Africa and Latin America — being killed after the community suspected them of kidnapping children for nefarious, often supernatural, purposes.