Asian Icons

120 Martyrs and Saints of China

120 Martyrs and Saints of China

Annually on July 9 the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of the 120 Martyrs of China. Religious persecution has a long history in China, especially persecution of Christians, thousands of whom have died for their faith in the last millennium. Chinese Martyrs is the name given to a number of members of the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church who were killed in China during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Most were Chinese laity, but others were missionaries from various other countries; many of them died during the Boxer Rebellion. 

The 120 Catholics who died between 1648 and 1930 as its “Martyr Saints of China” were canonized by Pope John Paul II on October 1, 2000. Of the group, 87 were Chinese laypeople and 33 were missionaries; 86 died during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. The 33 foreign-born missionaries, mostly priests and religious, included members of the Order of Preachers, Friars Minor, Jesuits, Salesians, and Franciscan Missionaries of Mary.

One of the more well-known native martyrs was a 14-year old Chinese girl named Ann Wang, who was killed during the Boxer Rebellion when she refused to renounce her religious faith. She bravely withstood the threats of her torturers, and just as she was about to be beheaded, she radiantly declared, “The door of heaven is open to all” and repeated the name of Jesus three times.

Another of the martyrs was 18-year old Chi Zhuzi, who had been preparing to receive the sacrament of Baptism when he was caught on the road one night and ordered to worship idols. He refused to do so, revealing his belief in Christ. His right arm was cut off and he was tortured, but he would not deny his faith. Rather, he fearlessly pronounced to his captors, before being flayed alive, “Every piece of my flesh, every drop of my blood will tell you that I am Christian.”

Augustine Zhao Rong was the first native Chinese priest to become a martyr. Born in 1746, he was one of the soldiers who escorted Bishop John Gabriel Taurin Dufresse to his martyrdom in Beijing. The witness of the bishop led Augustine to seek baptism at age 30. He was ordained a priest five years later and was martyred in 1815. 

Fr. John Gabriel Perboyre, CM, was the first canonized martyr of China. He was tortured and died on the cross. Through his intercession and many miracles, people received graces. The Pope canonized him on June 2, 1996, and he became the first canonized martyr of China.

Fr. Francisco Fernandez de Capillas was the first martyr in China. He was assigned to evangelize China in 1641. He set out from Manila, passing Taiwan, stayed for some months before he went to evangelize in the Fujian province. He was arrested by soldiers, beheaded and died in Fu-an on January 15, 1648.

The Chinese Martyrs Catholic Church in Toronto, Canada is named for them.