The Eastern Orthodox Mission to China

[The following is from the larger video “A History of Eastern Orthodox Missions Part II” and can be found here]

In the 1680s, a small group of Cossacks residing in Siberia settled along the Amur River and named their settlement “Albazin” When the Chinese invaded the area, they captured several hundred of the Albazinians along with their priest and settled them all in Beijing where they repurposed an existing building making it into the Church of St. Sophia. In addition, and as part of their settlement, the men were given wives from a group of Chinese women whose husbands had been executed for criminal activity. These wives were baptized but it appears they never stopped practicing their paganism.  Under Czar Peter the Great, a token move was made when he sent a group of four monastics to Beijing to study Chinese language and culture but nothing much came of it. Then, in 1713, an archimandrite was sent to Beijing but he was primarily concerned with the care of the Russian mercantile class residing there.

A new approach was attempted in 1721 when St. Innocent Kulchitsky was consecrated a bishop for Beijing. A graduate of the Kiyevan Theological Academy, he was ordained and tonsured a hieromonk at the Alexander Nevksy Lavra where his skills were brought to the attention of Emperor Peter the Great who chose him for the mission to China. Despite the general hatred for Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and Ivan the Terrible, to their credit, they funded a tremendous amount of Orthodox missionary work. It can be argued they did so only to further Russian imperial ambitions and in various cases, that seems very much to be the case but that is essentially the same reason Catholic powers, especially Spain, were sending missionaries out. Further, however correct that assessment of the Russian rulers’ motives might be, the missionaries they sent certainly were not going for the glory of a government but instead gave up everything and risked their lives for the glory of the Kingdom of God.

St. Innocent Kulchitsky was consecrated to the episcopacy in 1721 and assigned to the mission in Beijing but was held in Irkutsk on the Russian side of the current border with Mongolia as he was unable to enter China due to intrigue by Jesuits missionaries at the Chinese court who had managed to convince the Chinese government to ban his entrance. Therefore, the saint resided at the Ascension Monastery in Irkutsk until 1727 when he was installed as bishop of Irkutsk and Nerchinsk. He established a school for missionaries at the monastery where Chinese and Mongolian were taught to the students and by the time of his repose in 1731, he had increased the number of churches from 42 to 73 and the number of monasteries from four to seven. His main feast day is celebrated on November 26th.

In 1729, an earthquake destroyed the Church of St. Sophia and a new church, the Dormition of the Mother of God, was constructed in its place. At this point, in all of Beijing, there were less than 40 Chinese males who were Orthodox Christian in addition to around 50 Albazinian households in all of Beijing but an additional church, named after the Lord’s Presentation in the Temple, had to be built on the same compound to house the small yet growing community while the Sretensky Monastery was officially established at the parish.

It was during the 4th mission, which was from 1745 to 1755 that Archimandrite Gervasiy Lintsevsky began his preliminary translations of liturgical texts into Chinese. The 6th mission was headed by archimandrite Ambrose Yumatov and 220 Chinese were baptized under him. The 9th mission was destructive as the priest who was sent out there, Archimandrite Iakinfa Michurina, became so obsessed with mastering the Chinese language and studying the culture that he neglected his pastoral role and only 28 people were baptized in the 14 years between 1807 and 1821. On top of it, the mission had to sell its property due to funds not arriving from Russia and Archimandrite Iakinfa was sent to Valaam Monastery in what is now Finland as punishment for neglecting his flock. It was finally under the 10th mission, administered by Archimandrite Peter Kamensky from 1821 to 1830 that a school was opened for the handful of Albazinians and translations were made of the Creed, prominent prayers in the liturgy, and the most important hymns. Fr. Peter realized early on that the most effective way to missionize the Chinese was to teach the Chinese converts to do it instead of the Russians – this is poignant because it shows that by this time, the mission’s main goal was evangelizing the Chinese as opposed to simply caring for the Russians. It was in the 11th mission from 1830 to 1840 that Archimandrites Avvakum and Palladium compiled a two-volume Chinese-Russian dictionary though it was not published until 1888. The most significant event up to this time was in 1838 when 500 of the Manchu people were baptized as they found the lives of the Russian missionaries inspiring and by 1858, most Sundays, there was at least one baptism. 

Up until this time, the Orthodox missionary activity was legally limited to the Russian compound in Beijing but due to the Treaty of Tianjin in 1858 and the Treaty of Beijing in 1860, the Russian mission was free to spread out from Beijing and began moving into the countryside. This mission asked for a bishop from Metropolitan Filaret Drozdov but he declined citing the relatively small number of faithful and so the mission continued doing what it had been doing but increased the number of translations it was making and so during the time of the 16th mission, which was from 1879 to 1884, the mission was capable of beginning to perform services entirely in Chinese. This was made possible due to the fact that Archimandrite Flavian Gorodetsky and his assistants Hieromonk Alexy Vinogradov and Nicholas Adoratsky collected and then proofread liturgical books which had been made by Archimandrite Palladium and Hieromonk Isaiah. Further, Fr. Flavian and his assistants translated the ochtoechos into Chinese.

Also significant for this time period was the ordination to the priesthood of the [129] native Chinese Orthodox, St. Mitrophan Yang. It should be noted that due to a dearth of bishops near Beijing, the St. Mitrophan and several of the mission staff traveled to Tokyo where St. Nicholas of Japan performed the ordination at Holy Cross Church in June 1882. On their return, St. Mitrophan continued translating pertinent works into Chinese. Even at this point, the mission consisted of less than 500 native Chinese Orthodox Christians.

The 17th mission ran from 1884 to 1895 and was supervised by Archimandrite Amphilochia Lutovinove who, taking advantage of the favorable conditions created by the Treaties of Tianjin and Beijing, began to hold services in other cities in China. In addition, two small schools were established in Beijing: one for males and the other for females but only about 60 students total were enrolled by 1898 when the Boxer Rebellion broke out. Similarly, schools run by the Russian Church were found in the city of Ulaanbataar, in what is now Mongolia, as well as the Chinese cities of Wuhan and Tianjin, and the Uygur city of Urumqi in northwestern China. By 1884, a 20-volume set of liturgical services books in Chinese had been published

It was the 18th mission that marked the beginning of success when it came to bringing in converts. Archimandrite Innocent Figurovsky came to China in 1897 and for the next 35 years, first as a priest and then as a bishop, he made it grow exponentially, ordained Chinese clergy, led it through the Boxer Rebellion, and then through the fall of the Czar in 1917. Widowed in his early 20s, he was tonsured a monk and served as the principal of the Alexander Nevsky Theological School followed by a position as rector at the St. Petersburg Theological School for two years and then another two years at a monastery in Moscow. In 1896, he was assigned to the Beijing mission but it took him nearly two years to arrive. Thinking it best to consult a former head of the Beijing mission, the now Archbishop of Kiyev Flavian Gorodetsky, Fr. Innocent traveled to Kiyev. He then spent time in England, France, and Italy where he sought training in mission methods, ironically, from Catholics and Protestants. After that, he spent time on Mount Athos in search of monks who would help him in the Beijing mission, and made a final pilgrimage to the Holy Land before setting out for Shanghai. Arriving in Shanghai in 1897, he took the overland route to Beijing and upon arrival at the mission, he began studying the Chinese language and culture as well as creating a printing press and bookmaking operation on the mission compound, which, it should be noted, was essentially a small district within a district within Beijing.

Now, a tremendous amount of resentment had been building up in northern China due to the influence of foreign powers and towards Christian missionaries whom the locals saw as destroying the traditional Chinese way of life and so in November 1899, a rebellion that soon became known as the Boxer Rebellion broke out. The main target of the Boxers were Christians, whether foreign or Chinese, and the cruelty they unleashed on Christians was legendary: burning alive, disemboweling, gouging out eyes, dismemberment, and decapitation were all tactics used by the Boxers against Christians and in June of 1900, the Boxers captured Beijing where they wrought destruction on anything that even hinted of being foreign. For two months, a total of 4,000 Christians, 3,000 of whom were native Chinese and Orthodox, holed themselves up in the Russian Embassy while Russian soldiers resident at the embassy and the civilians who had formed a militia held off the Boxer forces for two months until European and Japanese forces arrived and lifted the siege. 

Fr. Mitrophan and his family were not fortunate, though, as they had been living outside the mission compound. When Boxer forces stormed the city, many of the local Orthodox Christians fled to his home seeking protection but when the Boxers heard of this, they surrounded his residence and after breaking in, they exhibited exceptional cruelty in torturing and killing everyone present. 

When British Commonwealth, French, and Japanese forces liberated Beijing in August, the Orthodox community returned to the mission to find that it had been leveled. Worse yet, 220 of the mission’s Chinese converts had been tortured, murdered, and their bodies were thrown into the mission’s well. The churches had been destroyed, the cemetery had been desecrated, the libraries and schools had been burned, the mission’s entire archive was now in ashes and the printing press, bookstore, and library were all gone. A month later, the Boxer Rebellion was officially over and devastated at the loss of so many of his flock, Fr. Innocent left for the coastal city of Tianjin to the southeast of Beijing. With him, 70 of the Chinese converts purchased land and started a new mission with a school. Shortly thereafter, Fr. Innocent moved to Shanghai where he repeated the process to start a new mission but almost immediately, he was recalled to Russia and consulted on whether the Beijing mission was even sustainable. The Russian authorities had decided resources could be better spent elsewhere and were prepared to close the mission permanently but Fr. Innocent convinced them otherwise and urged them to send a bishop to China in order to handle the large number of converts coming in and so in 1902, much to his surprise, the Holy Synod decided to elevate Fr. Innocent to the episcopate and sent him back to Chinas as “Bishop Innocent of Beijing.” Bishop Innocent began a campaign to attract monastics to assist in the Chinese mission and by August 1902, he had nearly three dozen monastics with him in Beijing to run the mission. 

At the end of the Boxer Rebellion, the Chinese government, which had openly supported, if not ordered, many of the massacres was forced to pay reparations to each of the communities that had lost property and lives. Using that money, Bishop Innocent built parishes in Harbin to the northeast, Shanghai to the south, and Tianjin to the southeast but he fully reconstructed the mission in Beijing and constructed the parish of the Holy Chinese Martyrs installing their relics therein. The printing press was also reestablished and liturgical works, as well as catechisms in Chinese, were quickly produced.

By 1917, the Beijing mission had three monasteries in and around Beijing, 19 parishes, 20 schools with 500 students, and a minor seminary. The mission’s official paperwork states it had nearly 5,600 believers while it had more than two dozen priests, both Russian and Chinese. 

The rest of the story of the Chinese mission must be saved for the following video but it should be noted the largest problem for the Chinese mission is it was consistently underfunded by the Russian government, which was placing most of its missionary expenditure into Eastern Europe, the Asian Steppes, Siberia, and Alaska while the Catholic Church had made China, Japan, and Vietnam three of their main missionary fields. At the same time, the Catholic missions in China had exponential growth largely for the same reason they had devastating losses: they allied themselves too close to the newest regime. This allowed them to have preference by manipulating existing laws as well as having new laws set into place which were to their advantage but when a new regime came in, this was usually completely reversed and Catholicism would then be seen as an accomplice to the overthrown regime that needed to be stamped out. We actually see the same issues with the Catholic missionaries in Japan and Vietnam as well. 

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