Skip to main content

04 - Petrus Lin, assistant to the first Scheutists in Mongolia 1865-1867

On a seminar of the Verbiest Foundation in 1990, Françoise Aubin explained how difficult it was to find out about the Chinese Christians in the nineteenth century. “Christians appear mainly as numbers to fill up statistics (the more, the better); or as a nice lot of lovable people”, she said. Ten years later in an article with the title ‘Quelques échos des prêtres chinois dans les missions de Scheut’, she wrote: “Chinese priests… are… the absentees in the handwritten or printed missionary literature, until the 1920s… The Chinese priests only exist at a statistical level, or on an individual level, as heroic figures of the past”.
   But I am happy to say that there are a few Chinese priests of which we know quite a few things, not only about themselves, but also about their feelings towards the Europeans, who had come from so far for the conversion of their countrymen into the Catholic Church. The young priest Petrus Lin Daoyuan (1837-1891) at least was expressing himself quite clearly in a letter which he wrote on December 14, 1866, to the French Lazarist Tagliabue (1822-1890). In this letter he described the situation which had arisen at the arrival of the second Scheut caravan a few weeks earlier:
  Pater Lin gezicht-1
Petrus Lin
“Now I am going to speak with an open heart. Recently four Belgian priests and a brother have arrived here in Xiwanzi. They were chilled to the bone and one of them had been ill for several days. You met them in Shanghai. These Belgians have spent a lot of money and here nothing is left…
   Poor Father Verbist cries often, he doesn’t know what to do any more. He doesn’t accept any more children in the Holy Childhood, he has fired the baptists and several members of the household personnel, he has sold animals, our supply of cereals is hardly enough for six months and he hasn’t been able to make any purchases this year…
   They have made excellent barley-beer here. I would love to send you some, but that is impossible: it should be drunk right away, it can’t be kept long.. All in the house drink it, nobody drinks any tea, they drink thirty bottles a day. I think these are superfluous expenses, but they say it is absolutely necessary… The Belgians eat almost nothing, they drink incessantly. Father Vranckx drinks six to seven bottles a day, as if it were water…
   I do not want to stay with them. Most of them do not have enough respect for Holy Affairs or for the Holy Sacraments. Some say Mass in a quarter of an hour, some begin Mass without any preparation, and afterwards they run away again for chattering, singing or just having a walk. This spring some of them threw the Holy Oil into a trough. You do understand the sad situation in which we find ourselves. It is the will of God that I suffer so much and because of my vow I have promised to stay for three more years. I will be as good as my word… but as soon as I will have regained my freedom, I will leave and offer my services elsewhere”.
Vranckx (3)
Petrus Lin was a native of Xikouwai, a region in what is now Inner Mongolia. About this priest and his background I will be able to give more interesting details.
An era of persecutions and opium wars
In the years 1829-1830, an era, notorious for the persecution of Christians, the Chinese Lazarist Matthias Xue (1780-1860) had been left alone in Beijing as the only representative of the Church of Rome, after his European superiors had been forced out of the capital. Xue, however, felt also compelled to escape from the terror. Accompanied by a group of his followers he travelled north, over the Great Wall, and all of them arrived in a valley in the midst of mountains.
   The village Xiwanzi, east of Xikouwai, became the headquarters of a catholic community without any European assistance. Father Xue spoke Latin fluently and besides that he had all the knowledge and experience to function as the head of the Catholic Church in an area where more and more Chinese decided to settle. When he died in 1860, he was called a holy priest by the French. (Segvelt 1866: 33)
But the Europeans returned. In 1835, the French Lazarist Joseph Mouly (1807-1868) arrived in Xiwanzi. In the middle of the Opium War (1839-1842), which was lost by the Chinese troops, the pope in Rome decided to found the apostolic vicariate of Mongolia, and it was self-evident that the Frenchman, and not the Chinese, would be its first administrator. There was this little problem, the French were, even after the Treaty of Nanjing, not permitted to stay in Beijing. Therefore the French Lazarists built in their headquarters Xiwanzi a seminary for Chinese and Mongolian students (Segvelt 1866: 34).
   One of those students was Petrus Lin. He learned Latin, philosophy, theology and everything else that was required to be a Roman Catholic priest. In 1865 he was ordained. In 1865, also, there were no less than twenty-seven students in the seminary (Verhelst 1991: 46).
Succession of the Lazarists by the Scheutists in Mongolia
In the second half of the 1850s, the Chinese troops lost another war against the Europeans. The Qing government, this time, was forced not only to welcome the European barbarians into their own capital but also to protect the Christian religion from that time onward. The French Lazarists decided to return to Beijing and the important town of Tianjin – and that’s what they did. After the departure of several of the French missionaries, there now were not enough European priests in this huge vicariate. Rome could have decided to return the outer territory of the Lazarist mission to the Chinese clergy – there were more than enough inland priests to do the job. In the 1860s, however, that was unthinkable. The Propaganda Fide, the mission office of pope Pius IX, came to the decision in cooperation with Jean-Baptiste Étienne, general superior of the Lazarists in Paris, that the area outside the Chinese Wall would constitute a mission for a new group of European priests, the Mission of Scheut (Verhelst 1991: 39).
The Belgian fathers of Scheut were not given enough time to prepare themselves properly for their pioneer activities in China. They had only read about their work-to-be in the daily papers, in the Annals of the Holy Childhood and in Souvenirs d’un voyage dans la Tartarie, le Thibet et la Chine pendant les années 1844, 1845 et 1846, the book that the Lazarist Huc had published in 1853. Some of them had met Msgr. Mouly when he was in Belgium. They didn’t have any knowledge of the Chinese language.
   In spite of this they were ordered to leave immediately for China in July 1865, and obedient as they were to the Church authorities, they said good-bye to their relatives and friends. At the very last moment, Ferdinand Hamer (1840-1900), a young Dutch priest, was added to their mission. In his summer palace, pope Pius IX received Verbist, Vranckx, Van Segvelt, Hamer and servant Paul in audience and off they went on a boat for Mongolia. On December 5 they arrived safely in Xiwanzi, the headquarters of the Lazarists and the Chinese priests.
Before long, the Scheutists found out that they had a far too optimistic notion of their mission in Mongolia. Their superior, Théophile Verbist (1823-1868), reacted: “I really don’t know how such false information could be believed in Europe” (Verhelst 1991: 43). The Belgians had planned to start learning the local language in Mongolia, but time was running out. The Lazarists in China had not been involved in the arrangements, made between Paris and Rome, and were not willing to cooperate for a smooth transition..
   One of the problems to be solved was the position of the Chinese priests and students in the seminary. Did they have an obligation to the mission of the Lazarists (now in Beijing) or to the mission of Mongolia? For the Lazarists, the solution was clear and easy: they would take all Chinese priests and students with them to Beijing. Verbist and the Belgians had to solve their own problems. The Chinese catholics in the area, however, exerted pressure on the French: they had paid for the education of their relatives and forced some kind of arrangement.
Petrus Lin’s missionary journey to the eastern part of Mongolia
One of the deals, brought about with much difficulty, was the journey of Petrus Lin, under the supervision of Ferdinand Hamer to the eastern part of the vicariat. Their goal was to explore the Christian villages, animate the Christians with the holy sacraments and achieve some sort of division of the properties of the mission. To this end the Chinese priest Vincent Fan Mingdao (1821-1883), who anyhow had decided to stay with the Lazarists, was going to join them. A brother of Lin, who was going to act as a guide, servant and courier between the travelling fathers and Xiwanzi, more or less completed the missionary group.
On December 20, 1865, Hamer wrote in a letter to his friends in Scheut, Belgium:  “Our Superior [Verbist] has informed me of his plan to send me, together with a young Chinese priest, to the northeastern part of Mongolia, as soon as I have mastered the language a little bit”. Hamer dreaded this enterprise, but he had a nice prospect: “Soon someone else, either a Belgian or a Dutchman, will come and help me”. As far as his travel companion was concerned Hamer stated: “An excellent gentleman, who speaks the best Latin of them all. Frankly I associate with him very well”. Hamer and Lin started to do some welfare work in Xiwanzi and some villages in the area; in that way they could get used to each other and Lin was able to teach to Hamer some of the Chinese customs.
From the very beginning of the journey, Petrus Lin had to learn what his position was. The vicariate of Mongolia was now administered by the Belgian mission. Alois Van Segvelt was the parish priest of the eastern part of that vicariate and Ferdinand Hamer was the assistant of Van Segvelt. It was possible for a Chinese priest to become more or less associated with the Lazarists, but the Scheutists hadn’t got so far yet.
   It thus boiled down to it that Father Lin acted only as an interpreter, language teacher and assistant to Hamer during their missionary travelling. Neither did Lin have access to the missionary money that was the joint property of the Scheutists. Some of the correspondence shows that Lin had some money at his disposal, but certainly less than Hamer and the Lazarist Fan. The relationship becomes quite clear, for instance, in a letter which Petrus Lin wrote to superior Verbist on February 22, 1866: “Father Hamer, under pressure of the christians, has given ten taëls [for the purchase of musical instruments], and I, poor as I am, I had to give eight taëls and Father Fan also ten taëls”.
Frictions in the beginning, afterwards harmony between Lin and Hamer
Hamer als provicaris 1870-1
You will not be surprised to hear from me that frictions arose between Lin and Hamer . In his first report, probably sort of a diary that the Dutchman sent to Xiwanzi, he writes about the very first day: “At noon I had the first affair with my colleague. His horse was not good enough”. Lin was trying out Hamer, but he was firm: “Do not expect another horse from me, before I have got an answer from Xiwanzi: so do whatever you like”.
   The next day Hamer wrote: “Departure was fixed at five o’clock in the morning, but my colleague had so much to do that we were not able to leave before eight. It will not be difficult for you to understand how this got on my nerves”. On the way Lin wanted to buy a makoatze (‘majia’?, waistcoat) as a present for Verbist, but Hamer forbade him to do that. “This time I won and so my superior has no fox-skin makoatze”.
In those early weeks, the European missionary didn’t have any knowledge of the Chinese language. Lin was dispatched to visit the sick and to do most of the talking. “He was preaching our religion and had a discussion with a man of letters, about the teachings of Confucius”. Lin was also dealing with the affairs of the mission with a catechist, a salaried missionary assistant, who had been sent to the east in order to teach new believers who hadn’t been baptized yet. Lin was preaching again in an overcrowded chapel in a christianity.
   But whenever he wanted to tackle certain affairs, Hamer stated that he and Verbist had made other arrangements in Xiwanzi. Father Lin had to realise that Hamer was the leader of this expedition and he had only to carry out what had been decided.
In spite of all this the Chinese and the Dutchman had slowly but surely come to a good understanding, at least that was the opinion of Hamer. On March 18, he wrote: “Everything is going well in the mission. Whenever Father Lin has some spare time, he is prepared to teach me… We have achieved the best harmony, we read the breviary and do the spiritual exercises together. The only fault I could find with him is that he is a Chinese, which means that he is tired soon, and is only able to make a decision after long deliberation. However that is the way of the Chinese, so I tolerate that with love. We Europeans have also brought our faults, which the Chinese have to bear”. There was yet one major problem left: “The Chinese priests have already spent more than two thousand francs. We have to live too!”.
Verbist and Van Segvelt distrust Petrus Lin
One gets the idea that Lin was considered a cross-grained fellow by superior Verbist. On 9 September 1866 Father Lin replied a letter sent to him by Verbist with the words: “Hamer and I, we get along rather well, we consult each other in difficult matters, don’t we have a conversation with each other two or three times a week? Since early age I have never undertaken anything on my own free will, but always according to the advices and exhortations of others. What would be the reason to do something now without consulting anybody, to be my own judge, my own boss?”
   It was reported that Lin wanted to quit the Scheut mission, but that he denied: “I understand from the words of Father Hamer that you do not answer because of the rumour, started by my brother, that I would flee and go elsewhere. That is untrue… Certainly not! I have never had the intention to do that. What has been promised, has been promised. I have made a pledge to God, not to the people. Do you believe I would act fraudulently towards God? Never, never, would I do that. It disgusts me to cheat people, even more to cheat God. This is not my kind, this is not my character. I would blame anyone who would do that, how then could I do it myself?”
Verbist decides to transfer Petrus Lin to Xikouwai
in the western part of the vicariate
There were not enough European priests in the huge vicariate of Mongolia; moreover, the Lazarists were going to withdraw soon from Xikouwai. Verbist had no choice. He selected Lin as the superior of the mission in the west. As his general superior he sent him a letter on September 8: “I am convinced that you, coming from this region and more familiar with it than the other priests, will be more effective in the missionary work. I demand you to come to Xiwanzi right away. I will send you a courier and a horse… I herewith give you an explicit order to make sure that this is an occasion for you to show obedience and acquire merit”.
   Lin’s personal opinion had not cropped up in the letter of Verbist.
Alois Van Segvelt (1826-1867), parish priest of eastern Mongolia, didn’t agree at all with the decision of Verbist. On November 11 he sent one of his customary letters to Xiwanzi, as always written in French. But in this particular letter he added a few lines in Flemish, without any doubt to be certain that the Chinese priests could not understand them.
   Van Segvelt was aware, he wrote, that Hamer and Lin were on good terms. “But I have to do my very best to hold back that he sends bitter complaints to the Lazarists and depicts us as step-fathers, as lazy people who leave the work to others and refuse to do anything themselves… So I do hope that you are not going to appoint him to lead [our mission] in Western Mongolia”
Interception of the letters of Lin to the Lazarists
Petrus Lin obeyed the explicit order of Father Verbist and was in Xiwanzi when four new European fathers arrived at the Scheut headquarters. The journey had been terrible. They had spent the money which they had collected in Europe and that Verbist and the others had been waiting for. In the letter of 14 December, from which I have quoted before, Lin described the scenes he had experienced.
   In another letter, to the Lazarist Bray (1825-1905), his former superior in Mongolia, he reported that he and the other Chinese were satisfied at the moment about how they were treated by Verbist. “But I do not know whether this is politics or likewise out of love for us”. Thereupon he criticized two members of the first caravan of Scheutist fathers. “Van Segvelt doesn’t love the Guandong [his headquarters in Eastern Mongolia]… [He] has said often to me: the people of Guandong are not good, they are too sly, they only seek their profit at my expense”.
   Next he reported Bray about his conflict with François Vranckx (1830-1911), who had succeeded Tagliabue as the director of the seminary in Xiwanzi: “Repeatedly he reproaches us that we are not singing but screaming. He criticizes all the hymns we have learned, he always makes critical remarks. One day, at the refectory, while everyone was present, he praised his own hymns and ran down the old songs. Then, the three of us, Chinese, were not able to suffer it any longer, we rose in order to protest… He confirmed that he only knew the real songs of the church. You, he said, you have always been screaming and not singing… Then, irritated as I was, I said: ‘Monsieur, stop injuring the others; if we are fools, then those who have taught them to us before are fools as well’” (December 21).
The letters which Petrus Lin wrote to the Lazarists Tagliabue and Bray were never sent; before they were given to a courier, they were intercepted. The outcome of it was not surprising. Lin recapitulated it two days later in a letter to Verbist. “You have addressed me in not very decent words, in a very violent way, in the presence of several persons. Vranckx even wanted to hit me… And this from those in which I had complete confidence, those who I had helped to my ability, in the study of the language and the explanation of the Chinese customs. In the eyes of a big number of people I have completely lost face” (December 22)
   Verbist even decided to have a formal meeting of the Council of Scheut, in which there was no representative of the Chinese priests. It was decided that Lin ‘for a punishment will have to go to [the mission post of] Jehol and live there in isolation’ (Verhelst letters IIb : 1409). The decision to send Lin eastward again meant that his mission work in the Xikouwai had to be cancelled.
   Lin, twenty-nine years of age, must have been very sad, when he wrote to Verbist. “For fourteen years I haven’t seen my parents or my family. How shall I ever see them if I have to go to Jehol. Maybe I will never have the occasion any more” (December 22).
Punishment and pardon
Van Segvelt, a member of the General Council of Scheut in Xiwanzi, left again for his mission post in Guandong. Three months later he fell ill and died, on April 5, 1867. Verbist needed the services of Lin desperately, and his sins were forgiven. Father Lin was to function again as a full-grown, experienced priest, which means as the assistant of Martin Guisset (1836-1919), the newly arrived European who succeeded Van Segvelt in Guandong, in the eastern part of Mongolia.
   This doesn’t mean, however, that he acquiesced in his subordinate position as a Chinese in his own country. When he wrote a letter to Verbist, on May 22, 1867, he stated: “There is something I would like to talk about with you. You wrote me that I have to help Father Guisset in a sincere way and with all my heart. What you ask is just and I am prepared to do it. But how could I help the priests if they never ask my opinion, if I do not know what measures they have taken? Father Yao, a very kind man, has suffered a lot when he was with Father Van Segvelt, but because he is loyal, he prefers to suffer rather than to speak”.
   He accused Guisset to be a greedy man: “Father Guisset has three violet chasubles. I talked to him about it, but he is not prepared to give me one. I have a black chasuble with a yellow ribbon in the middle, but this can hardly replace a violet chasuble”.
Contrary to what he wrote in his letter to Father Tagliabue, Petrus Lin decided to continue his cooperation with the Scheutists. He died in November 1891, not because he fell ill or because of old age. Father Petrus Lin Daoyuan was murdered during the Revolt of the Zaili, more than a quarter of a century after the arrival of the Belgians in Inner Mongolia (Missiën 1892: 36-41). Petrus Lin was prepared to sacrifice his life for the Roman Catholic Church. As far as I know, nobody started the process for his canonization.
Pater LIN-1
Marteldood van Petrus Lin
Françoise Aubin, ‘About Chinese catholics. Late Qing, Early republican era’, in Jeroom Heyndrickx (ed.), Historiography of the Chinese Catholic Church. Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Leuven 1994
Françoise Aubin, ‘Quelques échos des prêtres chinois dans les missons de Scheut’, in Koen de Ridder (ed.), Footsteps in deserted valleys. Missionary Cases, Strategies and Practice in Qing China, Leuven 2000
Harry Knipschild, Ferdinand Hamer 1840-1900. Missiepionier en martelaar in China, Leiden 2005 (PhD dissertation)
Missiën in China en Congo, Brussels 1892
Alois Van Segvelt, Les missionnaires belges en Mongolie, Brussels 1866
Daniël Verhelst and Hyacint Daniëls (ed.), Scheut vroeger en nu 1862-1987, Leuven 1991
Letters taken from:
Daniël Verhelst and Hyacint Daniëls (ed.), La Congrégation du Coeur Immaculé de Marie, II a, 2003
Daniël Verhelst and Hyacint Daniëls (ed.), La Congrégation du Coeur Immaculé de Marie, II b, (not yet published)
27 januari 2006
De Verbiest Stichting (Leuven) nodigde mij uit op 2 september 2004 een lezing te geven tijdens een symposium over Chinese christenen. Vervolgens schreef ik op verzoek van de stichting bovenstaand artikel. Dat zou, werd mij uitgelegd, gepubliceerd worden in een boek met bijdragen van alle sprekers. Het boek werd in 2009 door de Verbiest Stichting gepubliceerd onder de titel Silent Force: native converts in the Catholic China Mission.
   Van het verschijnen werd ik niet op de hoogte gebracht. Mijn artikel, ontdekte ik, was niet opgenomen. Ik heb hiervoor noch een verklaring noch een excuus ontvangen.
Harry Knipschild
21 mei 2011
  • Hits: 13962