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Challenging the Imperial Order: The Precarious Status of Local Christians in Late-qing Sichuan

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In the last decades of the nineteenth century, Roman Catholics in China were under the active protection of a Western power and they benefited from the steadfast support of French missionaries. In Sichuan province specifically they frequently fell victim to arson and plunder during anti-Christian incidents (jiao'an), as they were commonly perceived as despicable characters beyond the reach of Chinese law, although most of them acted responsibly and inoffensively in their respective communities. However, the Fathers of the Society of Foreign Missions consistently behaved in many ways as the main agents of foreign influence, particularly with the local mandarins, whom they urged to comply with the treaties and to protect Chinese Christians against any form of open hostility. Under these circumstances even those Christians who did not call for missionary intervention on their own behalf could hardly rid themselves of their image as outsiders who would potentially challenge the shaky imperial order. In 1878 and 1886, the two most powerful representatives of the Roman Catholic cause in eastern Sichuan, had to pay the ultimate price for asserting their arguments too aggressively. Such incidents help to explain how much the status of Sichuanese Christians could fluctuate in a general climate of public suspicion and decline of state authority.


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