John Gittings

The Vegetarian Outrage of 1895*

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This is a semi-fictional reconstruction of the Kucheng  (Kutien) massacre on August 1, 1895, later seen as the first precursor of the Boxer Rebellion. See further note at end of text.

It was a steamy summer evening in the South China hills. They had walked out from the bungalows at Huasang, along a narrow little path on the side of the mountain, till they came to an open space looking over the valley. Stands of tall bamboo on the nearest slopes were touched by the setting sun which turned the tips of each branch into golden feathers. They were at the midpoint of an amphitheatre of great peaks, wrapped in soft purple shadow as the light receded. Far-down below through the foothills, the town of Kucheng sat next to the river with a pagoda on a small hill beside. The missionaries pointed out to their children, far in the distance, the silver band of the river, the little wood next to the mission compound beside it, and the paved track through the villages and the paddy fields which led eventually up to their holiday retreat here in the mountains.

Some distance from the town, over towards the hills on the other side, was a temple perched on a small crag. That evening they could hear, across the valley, the sound of flutes and drums, and just see the stage for opera performers.

“Don’t they make such an awful screeching sound?”, said Topsy Saunders. “I know my head would ache if I was down there. They go on in such an utterly stupid way.!”

“Never mind about your headache,” said Nellie Saunders severely to her sister. “Think of those poor sinners worshipping idols in their ignorance. You should be blaming Satan, not the noise.”

Robert Stewart, the senior missionary in the group, moved away from his own family and from the sisters, walking along the bluff to exchange a few words with Mr Thomas, a young recruit to Fukien province also on summer furlough at Huasang.

“There must be several hundred of them down there,” he murmured, “Vegetarians and riff-raff. We are lucky to be well away from town. The magistrate is weak-kneed and will do nothing.”

Topsy caught a snatch of what he said. “We’re not afraid of them,” she cried out cheerfully. “We think they are silly old Vegetables, don’t we, Nellie?”

Nellie looked stern and Mr Thomas cleared his throat, as he always did before speaking – it made Topsy giggle. “There is no call to be afraid, young ladies. You have menfolk to protect you and I venture to count myself in that number.”

Herbert, the young Stewart boy, fidgeted and tugged his father’s hand. “Papa, papa! Ah Cheng says they have spears, and swords, and they can talk to spirits, and they can smash stones with their hands!” He chopped the air sideways with excitement.

“They are heathens,” said his father not unkindly, “and we must pray for them tonight.” His wife shivered and pulled her shawl closer around the baby. “The air is getting damp. We must go back now to the house.”


The opera stage had been built out on a raft of bamboo poles over a steep drop in front

of the temple. Two performers with rouged faces and fans were carrying on a comic cross-talk, accompanied by a pair of clappers, but no one paid much attention. On the dusty ground between the stage and the temple, iron braziers filled with pitch-soaked reeds had been placed in a rough circle. Four young men were limbering up, snapping their muscles and kicking their legs in the air.

A dozen or more older men, barefoot but with heads wrapped in red kerchiefs, squatted to one side, talking quietly among themselves. Outside the circle a crowd of local peasants, including a few from the village of Huasang, also squatted in a restless way. "We've waited since noon for the magic," one of them shouted out as the darkness fell. "So far we haven't seen a fart!"

As if waiting for this cue, one of the older men stood up revealing himself at least a head higher than anyone else on the scene. Two of the others leapt up, ran to one side and came back with a large flagstone which they propped against the side of the stage.

The tall man threw off his loose shirt and paraded carelessly around the circle, practising a few kick-jumps which made the peasants recoil. "What are you afraid of, stupid dolts?" he muttered and then declared, more loudly: "You have waited since noon? I have waited till dusk when the Spirit comes down from heaven."

He completed the circle, then casually launched a kick at the side of the stage, as if taking aim. The entire structure swayed on its bamboo supports: the two performers stopped in mid-sentence, and leapt to the ground.

He kicked again, this time hitting the flagstone with one heel. There was a moment of suspense, and then with a loud crack it split jaggedly into two pieces and keeled over.

Very quickly he then lay down, and his two colleagues picked up the two pieces, stacking them on his chest. One produced a mallet from under the stage and smashed it down twice onto the stones which shattered into smaller pieces.

The tall man underneath seemed unaffected: they lifted off the pieces and he stood up, spitting into the nearest brazier. "Tonight we shall do great things," he announced, "and those who dare can join us. Those who do not dare, go back to your wives and your pigs."


Huasang was the missionaries' summer retreat -- they called it the Sanatorium -- but it was still oppressively hot. Every day Nellie rose early to study Chinese, complaining after only an hour’s work she felt like a “boiled owl”. For their constitutionals, they wore pith helmets and carried umbrellas lined with waxed paper but suffered badly. Another young lady from England, who had claimed to have “the constitution of a crocodile”, was soon worn down. There were black rings around her eyes and she could not talk on almost any subject without beginning to cry. It was still better, said Nellie, than being “steamed alive” down in Kucheng..

That evening Mr Thomas had changed for dinner into a lightweight linen suit: he was sweating heavily as he climbed the small incline from the native house in the village where he was staying up to the two houses. He brought with him, wrapped in a leaf, a small handful of wild strawberries. Far away he could hear the gongs and clappers from the opera stage. The path was dark, but he knew the way, winding up the side of the hill with some scrubby bushes and undergrowth on the left. When he reached the first of the two bungalows near the top he rapped on the door where five women missionaries of the Zenana Missionary Society were staying.

"Good evening, young ladies, may I escort you to dinner?", he said, bobbing his head in a slight bow.

"We would feel ever so much safer if you did, Mr Thomas", said Hettie from Ireland, and and ran off laughing to fetch the others.

They walked the few steps to the next house, where Nellie and Topsy were staying with the Stewarts, and stepped directly onto the verandah. Ah Cheng, in a white jacket, handed round glasses of cold water mixed with syrup. Then they went into dinner: Mr Thomas took in Topsy and the English lady with rings round her eyes linked arms with Nellie.

"Let us pray," said Mr Stewart. "Lord, may we be thankful for what we are about to be eat, and may we be given the strength to continue our labours. We know that Satan rages but we know better still that God reigns. Lord, save our Chinese brothers and sisters in darkness and may we learn to do Thy work better. Amen".

They sat down and began to eat: it was a simple meal. Tomorrow was Herbert's birthday and the best food was being saved for the breakfast table. Mr Thomas had only joined them from his outpost in the next valley three days before. It was his first year in China and Mr Stewart encouraged him kindly to tell something of his tale.

He had just qualified as a surveyor in London, when one Sunday he walked by the China Inland Mission on Stoke Newington Green. He saw the placard: "Jesus needs you, by Dr J. Hudson Taylor, lately in China: All welcome. Refreshments will be served." After a magic lantern show, titled "from God's battlefront", Hudson outlined his grand plan of campaign. If one thousand men and women volunteered for service, and each one preached to six thousand Chinese every year, every Chinese family would hear God's word by the end of the century.

Thomas was inspired and inscribed his name on the register that same evening. Six months later he was on his way with passage paid. "I answered God's call", he finished, "and I have felt better for it ever since. My health is also much improved. The fog in north London troubled my chest dreadfully in the winter".


That evening while Topsy played Happy Families with Mr Thomas and the Stewart children, Nellie wrote home to her mother in Melbourne. "My darling Petsy," she began, as she had started every letter since the sisters had left their comfortable red-brick home two years before.

"We came up to Huasang yesterday in chairs. It was a very nice trip up, quite cool till about ten o'clock and then not so bad, as we had got a little higher. One old scamp of a coolie tried to make the children walk. He argued fearfully but in the end I got my way.

"We had to walk when we got to the last stairs up the mountain. They are called liang and are especially terrible. When I got to the top I sank expiring into my chair. The coolies were sympathetic but inexorable."

"The Stewarts are staying in the Church Missionary Society House -- mud and wood shanty would be a better name for it. There is a verandah along the front and two fair-sized rooms behind, and then little rooms at the back.

Did I tell you that Mr Stewart is a grandson of the Duke of Wellington? He does not like it to be mentioned.

This time we are staying with the Stewarts but usually we stay next door in the Kuniong's precincts -- you remember, the Kuniongs are the Misses. There is a nice-sized room with folding doors always kept open, and bedrooms six in number. Each has a little comfortable bed, table, chest of drawers and a bamboo chair. There are five other Kuniong there now.

We had to leave Kucheng not only to escape the heat but because of the Vegetables: hundreds are there under pretence of seeing the theatre. The Vegetables have the upper hand with the Mandarin, and they like people to know it. But I am sure you will not have a particle of fear for us. Pray instead for those poor darkened souls in bondage to the devil.

Dear Petsy, let me cheer you up with something more amusing. Mr Thomas would dearly like to become Topsy's beau: he is short and not hugely good-looking but in these parts que voulez-vous. But every time we look at him we remember the tale they tell about him in Foochow.

It is said that when he came from England, he proposed to a mission lady after they had passed through the Suez Canal. Because he was so shy, he did it in writing. And at the end of the letter he asked her, if her answer was unfavourable, to help him in approaching another young lady on board!!!"


After three hands of Happy Families, the children were sent to bed and Mr Stewart said he would accompany the new arrival back to the village.

"I wished to warn you to take particular care," he said as soon as they went outside. "I know for a fact that some of the local villagers support the Vegetarians: you should be on your guard at night: sleep with a stick at your side."

"Surely", asked Mr Thomas, " those who claim to be Vegetarians will not kill human beings if they will not even eat from the animal kingdom?"

"I fear that is too simple a view. The diet is a discipline which binds the society's members together when they have taken a secret oath. They are opposed to opium smoking as well as to eating flesh -- and blame us foreigners, not without reason, for bringing in the noxious drug."

Mr Stewart hesitated, and then went on. "There are more particular reasons too for their hostility here around Kucheng. Last year there was a dispute in a village between the Vegetarians and a man who hung the Ten Commandments in his house. The tale is too intricate to explain to you now, but I took the case up and four of the Vegetarian leaders were arrested. Their followers then threatened the magistrate and the four were released. Since then they have become more arrogant: I have already reported the facts to the British consul in Foochow, but he is a weak reed and will do nothing. "

By this time they had reached the little village: the two men paused for a moment at the sound of a distant shout in the valley, then bid each-other goodnight.


Mr Stewart was right: the Tsaihui -- or Vegetarians -- had attracted a good measure of local support. For several weeks placards with the words "officials oppress and the people rebel" had appeared in Kucheng town without being taken down: at the least, it showed that the "rebels" had friends among the gentry. Some soldiers had been sent from Foochow, but they stayed within the city limits and no one was arrested. Someone else came from Foochow -- the fortune teller Cheng Chiu-chiu, a man of the people but able to write poetry who let his finger-nails grow long. Later there came also a message from the White Lotus secret society saying that the time had come for action.

On the night of July 30, 1895, more than a hundred people "dared to join" the Tsaihui at the opera stage overlooking the valley, hangers-on and regular braves mixed up together. Most were poor peasants, but there also some coolies, charcoal burners, noodle makers, and one man dressed as a Buddhist priest.

Many had had their fortune told by Cheng: he always gave the same advice. They suffered from an ill fate which could only be averted if the foreigners were killed. "Have they not already poisoned you with opium, stolen your babies, brought foreign goods into the shops and taken your livelihood away? Now is the time to kill, to burn and plunder -- but make sure that you bring back all the goods to be shared out equally". The band took a solemn oath: "If I am faithless, let me be burned alive or drowned or pulled apart by wild horses".

Late in the evening they marched for Huasang, behind a flag bearing the characters "the dragon will conquer the foreigners' god". Timid militiamen in a village on the way, peeping from their wooden fort, counted nearly two hundred on the move -- but many of those marching had second thoughts and slipped back to town.

When they came near Huasang they doused their torches and entered the village where their friends had prepared boiled water. Cheng rinsed his mouth, spat out, and repeated his order. Without any attempt at concealment, they ran raggedly up the hill, led by Cheng who waved a red flag.


The two Stewart girls, Kathleen and Mildred, had got up early to pick flowers for Herbert's birthday from a little mound behind the houses. "Look, Milly", she called out. "There are ever so many dang-dang men coming up the hill". The dang-dang men were the local porters who carried bamboo poles. Milly, a year older, had sharper eyes: "Those are spears in their hands, Kathie," she cried. "Quick, we must run back to Mama."


Mr Thomas, sleeping in his "native house", had heard shouting which he thought at first was the children at play. Yet it sounded too loud for that, and he remembered Stewart's advice. For some minutes he shut his eyes, hoping that the worrisome sound would disappear. There was more shouting: he got up and carefully dressed.


Nellie and Topsy were woken by three men with trident spears who tipped their beds over and dragged them out. Nellie was stabbed immediately and collapsed at the door. Topsy was marched outside and surrounded by several more men.

"Walk ! Walk!" they shouted at her, " tell us where you have hidden gold!"

"We have no gold," she replied: " there is money in the bedroom. Go and take it." Angry, one of the braves dug a spear into her. She was marched too and fro and asked more questions. At every answer, she was stabbed again.


Most of the band had rushed past the lower house in their excitement: a servant there burst into the two rooms where the five Kuniong were sleeping. "Quick, the Vegetarians have come and are beating people," he cried. "Quickly leave and hid on the hill." He tried to drag them out, but the Kuniong shut their doors upon him for privacy while they put on their day clothes.

Minutes were lost while they dressed: some of the band returned and caught the five Kuniong climbing out of the back windows. They were immediately surrounded and ropes produced to bind them.

"May we fetch our umbrellas? The sun will be too hot," said one of the Kuniong -- probably the English girl with dark eyes.

"We can give you money: we have done you no wrong -- do not kill us", said another Kuniong.

There was a pause. Some of the villagers had followed and were watching: one old man stepped forward. "Take their money and let them live, otherwise you will make great trouble for yourselves and for us," he urged.

The men hesitated, and looked back at the upper house which some of their comrades had started to loot. At this moment Cheng returned still waving his red flag: "You have your orders: kill everyone!" He struck the first blow, almost severing the English girl's head.


Kathleen and Millie hid in a bedroom, were discovered and whacked about but survived. So did little Evan. Herbert was badly wounded: he would die later. So would the baby, stabbed in one eye. His nurse was killed on the spot. No one knows how the Stewart parents died: their bodies were burnt when the house was set on fire.


Mr Thomas had finally dressed and stepped outside: the village was deserted except for several mules in the shade of the sloping thatch. The sound of shouting had grown louder: he knew something was very wrong and walked slowly up hill, wondering at his own calm. A villager whom he did not recognise ran towards him and pulled him to one side with a shout: "they are killing people!" He continued more cautiously, working his way through the bushes to within 20 or 30 yards of the houses.

"Here I could see everything and appeared not to be seen at all", he would record later in his written account of the tragedy. By that account, he saw very little and to come out of his hiding would have meant "certain death". A retreat horn was sounded, the main house was fired, and the Vegetarians withdrew crying out repeatedly "now all the foreigners are killed". Afterwards all was action, finding the wounded, stemming the blood with old calico and cold water rags, sending for the magistrate from Kucheng, organising the bearers to carry the dead and living to the Min River, there to board a steam launch for Foochow.

In his statement, Mr Thomas showed only one brief emotion. "Had they (the Kuniongs) been able to escape into the brushwood round, there seems little doubt they might have been saved. The great misfortune was that only two were dressed." Who knows what more might he have written in his private diary. An admission of doubt that this terrible deed was permitted by "Him without Whom not even a sparrow falls to the ground?" Or perhaps a confession of weakness?


A week later an Indignation Meeting was held in Shanghai by the China Association: the Astor Hall was packed. Those who attended must truly be in earnest, said the North-China Herald, "who will give up the Gardens, the cool breeze, and the Band, when the day's work is done, to sit crowded in a hot hall, and listen to speeches from men whom they meet every day."

There were fierce speeches denouncing this latest Outrage by Chinese which must, said every speaker, have been instigated by the fertile brains of anti-foreign Mandarins. But the greater wrath was directed at the home governments and especially the one in London. In the past they had failed to take effective action to impress on China the gravity and heinousness of its crimes. The officials were laughing in their sleeves: this time there must be no more humbugging, but Prompt and Vigorous Action.

Protests were made and various Vegetarians were eventually executed. One matter still had to be cleared up. "Refined and delicate ladies have been brutally massacred in cold blood," the Rev Hykes had told the Astor Hall in a thunderous speech, "and God only knows that horrors preceded their murder." Later it was concluded that the reports about torture and worse indignity were "without foundation." When Kathleen saw Topsy being prodded with spears, she must have been mistaken. The others too died without being mutilated: that was a comfort indeed.


Mr Thomas married another young lady from the Zenana Missionary Society a few months later: within three years he had died of a fever.



NOTE:  I have relied heavily on the letters home by Nellie and Topsy Saunders, edited by D M Berry and published as The Sister Martyrs of Ku Cheng (London: James Nisbet & Co., n.d.). The origins of the Tsaihui (Caihui) or Vegetarians and their reasons for staging the Kucheng massacre have been carefully researched by Mary Backus Rankin in "The Ku-t'ien Incident (1895): Christians versus the Ts'ai-Hui", Papers on China: XV (1961), pp. 30-61 (Harvard University, East Asian Research Center).

Kucheng is modern Gutian, a three hour bus ride from Foochow (Fuzhou) in Fukien (Fujian) province. I visited there briefly in 1998, and walked past a new reservoir to a temple in the valley, with an out-jutting opera stage. From there I looked up at the encircling hills where the missionaries used to retreat to Huasang (Huashan). The mission buildings and the city wall of Kucheng have disappeared: there were not yet taxis in the streets, but there were new smart restaurants and hair salons.

The failure of the missionaries to understand Chinese resentments at their presence is reflected in almost everything they wrote and said. So is their goodwill, their self sacrifice, and their obstinacy. The only name I have changed, and whose character I have imagined, is that of the young missionary, Mr Thomas in my account, who watched from the hillside. It would be unfair to invest him by his real name with my own speculations. His bare narrative was published in the North-China Herald, August 9, 1895, and we can only guess at what more or less he may have seen or done. Today, as a century ago, everyone who visits or works in China remains a watcher of some kind, even with the best of intentions.


* This story was originally published in Rachel May & John Minford eds., A Birthday Book for Brother Stone: for David Hawkes, at Eighty (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2003), pp. 133-45.


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