The Chinese Empire. A General & Missionary Survey/The Province of Kwangtung


By the Rev. J. Campbell Gibson, M.A., D.D., English Presbyterian Mission.

The province of Kwangtung, or Canton, is of special interest on many grounds. From its maritime position, its natural wealth, and its convenient harbours, it became in ancient times the seat of an extensive foreign trade, and had an earlier knowledge of foreign nations than any other province. It appears to have been in touch with the Roman Empire, and Arab, Dutch, and Portuguese traders early brought it within the reach of Western commerce. It was almost the first field of labour of the Romish Missions in China, and it was there also that Robert Morrison began, in 1807, the work of the Protestant Missions. The Hakka section of the province was the cradle of the great Taiping Rebellion, and its people are always strongly inclined to revolutionary schemes. These plots are usually fruitless, but the great Taiping Rebellion held on its conquering course for years over a wide region of the Empire, and it held its own until the moral degeneration of its chiefs, under their unexpected successes, prepared the way for their defeat and failure. The numerous estuaries of the province, and the complicated network of its rivers and canals, not only lend themselves to legitimate commerce, but have from time immemorial been the shelter and hunting-ground of hordes of daring and formidable pirates.

This province stretches along the southern seaboard of the Empire for a distance of nearly 800 miles. It lies for the most part within the tropics, has an agreeably variegated surface of plain and mountain, is well watered by four ample river systems, with several smaller ones, and has large areas of fertile soil. Its products are of great variety and value, comprising silk, sugar, indigo, rice, tea, tobacco, fruit, salt, and oil; and it exports also large quantities of fish, fresh vegetables, and live stock.

Its population was reckoned at the census of 1812 at about 19,000,000, and has greatly increased since. It is now taken at 31,865,251. The people present strongly marked features of natural character, with very considerable variations in different portions of the province. Three principal varieties of language are spoken, and these represent the most ancient forms of the language. The "Swatow Dialect," also called the "Tie-chiu Dialect" (from the local pronunciation of the name of the prefecture in which Swatow is situated), occupies about 140 miles of the coast-line, and extends from 40 to 60 miles inland in the eastern portion of the province. To the north and west of this district is found the "Hakka Dialect," which meets the "Tie-chiu Dialect" along an irregular line running from east to west, stretches eastward into the province of Fukien, northward into the provinces of Kiangsi and Hunan, and shades off into the "Mandarin Dialect" of Central China. The western and southern sections are occupied by the "Cantonese Dialect," also called the "Pun-ti Dialect," which in varying forms is spoken by more than half of the whole population.

The Hakkas have few large cities, and occupy for the most part scattered villages and hamlets in the mountainous districts, which are only capable of maintaining a rather sparse population. They are a manly and vigorous race, chiefly occupied in agriculture, but are better educated than those in the more crowded plains. At the same time, they are a turbulent and lawless people, and revolutionary and other secret societies flourish among them. Many of them go into other districts as blacksmiths and as barbers, and many find employment in the yamens as clerks and runners, and in the lower ranks of the mandarinate. The Cantonese and Swatow men, on the other hand, have their numerous large towns and cities, and thickly crowded "villages" of large size. The country people are hard-working agriculturists, while the people of the principal towns, and especially those of the sea-ports, are distinguished as the ablest and most enterprising of Chinese merchants. The "Canton Guilds" and the "Swatow Guilds" are the leading powers—and usually rival powers—in most of the trading communities of China, being found in great force in Shanghai, and as far north as Tientsin and Newchwang.

From this province, too, come the most fearless and industrious of emigrants. They are found in large numbers not only in Singapore and the other Straits Settlements, in Borneo and the Philippines, but also southward in Australia, westward as far as South Africa, and eastward as far as British Columbia and California. The number of emigrants from the port of Swatow alone reached 103,202 in 1904, and 95,173 in 1905, or an average of close on 100,000 yearly. There is a return stream of about 83,000 yearly, and, although no figures are procurable, there is a flow of money earned by these emigrants and sent home which must reach to several, perhaps many, millions of dollars annually, and brings a considerable amount of comfort into many homes in the poorer country districts. The conditions of emigration are equitable and allow complete individual freedom. After paying off the cost of passage, which is not a large sum, many become landholders or shopkeepers, and come home for a time to take out with them relatives or friends to assist in their undertakings. Thus in various ways the whole system alleviates substantially the poverty of some country districts in the Kwangtung province. In some cases considerable fortunes are made, and emigrants sometimes return finally to their homes as men of wealth and influence.

The coast towns and villages have a large population of bold and hardy seamen and fishermen, who reap the harvest of the sea, and often suffer terribly from the devastating tempests of these tropical waters. Many of these find employment on foreign steamers, the Swatow men having a high reputation as deck hands and carpenters, and the Cantonese as engineers.

The literary annals of the province are perhaps less glorious than those of some other portions of the Empire, but it can claim by right of residence, if not of birth, the illustrious names of Han Yü, the brilliant statesman and essayist, and of Su Tung-p'o, the hardly less famous poet. In recent times the Kwangtung province has produced the well-known "Modern Sage" and apostle of reform, K'ang Yu-wei, the adviser of the Emperor in his memorable and epoch-making efforts to regenerate his country. On the other hand, popular rumour, rightly or wrongly, claims for this province also the birth of the notorious head of the opposite party, the Empress-Dowager,[1] who has presented to the astonished world the spectacle of a Chinese woman defying at once the most enlightened opinion of her own people and the allied fleets and armies of nine civilised powers.

Taken as a whole, the people of this province have few rivals, either in physique or in mental capacity. They form an important element of the national strength, and are well worth winning for the Kingdom of God.

The first Christian missionaries in the Kwangtung province were the Jesuits. François Xavier had only reached the island of San-siang[2] to die there in the year 1552. In 1579 the Jesuit Michel Eogger was sent to Macao, and succeeded in effecting an entrance into Canton; and he was joined soon after by the more famous Matthew Ricci. Their literary attainments greatly impressed the Chinese, but one of their own colleagues has frankly admitted that they gained more applause than spiritual fruit. Chaoking, to the west of Canton City, and Shaochow, to the north, seem to have been the centres at which they first established themselves. Romanist writers claim that by the end of the thirteenth century they had two churches, 6000 Christians, and a Papal Legate at Peking. But the Mission to the Kwangtung province near the end of the sixteenth century was the real effective beginning of the Romish Missions in China. Its leaders made it their aim to reach Peking by way of Nanking, and so establish themselves in touch with the Chinese Court. In this aim they were successful to a remarkable degree. But the Jesuit orders were suppressed in 1773 by Papal Bull; and ten years later the Lazarists were put in their place, in possession of all their property in China. In 1848 the Pope entrusted the care of the two provinces of Kwangtung and Kwangsi to the "Missions Étrangères de Paris."

According to a recent authoritative Catholic work (Les Missions Catholiques Françaises au XIXe Siècle), the position of these Missions in Kwangtung in 1900 may be gathered from the following figures:—1 bishop; 55 missionaries; 11 Chinese priests and 201 catechists; 1002 stations and 303 churches and chapels; 38,552 "Catholics." Adult baptisms in 1899, 2627; infant baptisms of children of Christian parents, 887; infant baptisms of children of pagans, 12,124.

These figures, especially the last, give cause for many reflections, but space will not admit of their discussion here. It does not appear exactly what is meant by "Catholics," of whom 38,552 are reckoned, and there is no distinct statement as to the number of communicants, but 51,400 "communions" are reported, though nothing is said as to frequency of participation. How far these figures are trustworthy it is difficult to judge, as the only item one can check is so ludicrously incorrect as to suggest grave doubts as to the accuracy of all. The number of "heretics and schismatics" is said to be 3200! whereas the communicants alone in the Protestant churches of Kwangtung numbered 8180 in 1893, and 17,715 in 1901.

The history of Protestant Missions in the province begins with Robert Morrison in 1807. For many years he toiled bravely with no encouragement, until he baptized the first convert in a quiet spot by a little stream on the beach near Macao. The great work of his life was the preparation of his dictionary and his translation of the Bible. Both of these have been superseded, but Morrison's faith and devotion are a permanent inspiration to all who follow him. One of his contemporaries estimated in those early years that by the end of the first century of Mission work in China there might possibly be as many as 2000 Christians in the Empire. How amazed these men would have been if they could have foreseen the actual results! One or two years[3] of the century are still to run, and, instead of the scarcely hoped-for 2000 Christians in the Empire, we have, of communicants alone, close on 40,000 in the Kwangtung province itself, with nearly as many baptized children growing up under Christian influence, and a multitude of hearers, worshippers, inquirers, and candidates for baptism, which must bring up the Protestant Christian community of this province to some 160,000 or 200,000 souls. Besides these, there remain uncounted the many thousands who have already finished their course in the faith and fear of Jesus Christ. These, so often forgotten, are the ripest fruit of our Mission work.

To borrow the fine remark of a Romish writer, these numbers "are few to one who dreams of the foundation of a church and the conversion of a people; they are great to one who reflects that each of these souls has been bought by the blood of Jesus Christ."

Protestant Missions in the province of Kwangtung present a large variety of method. There are now close on twenty different Missions at work, which, with one or two exceptions, work harmoniously together. They are of different nationalities—American, British, Colonial, German, Scandinavian, and International—and present every type of ecclesiastical development. Scholarship has been nobly represented in the literary work of such Chinese scholars as Morrison, Legge, Chalmers, Eitel, Faber, and Schaub, now, alas! all, but one, gone to their rest. Evangelistic preaching has had a large place both in street chapels, as in Canton City, and also in village itineration throughout the country districts. This province has been the scene of the unequalled medical missions carried on for so long, and on so large a scale, in Canton by Dr. John Kerr, and in Swatow by Drs. Gauld and Lyall. The growth of the Church has led to much attention being given to church organisation, especially, perhaps, in the Presbyterian Missions. Education, both elementary, secondary, and theological, has had a foremost place, especially in the Basel Mission. In some of the churches the independence, self-support, and self-propagation of the Chinese Church have been specially aimed at, with a good measure of success. In the Presbyterian Church of England Mission there are about ten well-trained Chinese ministers, ordained to the full responsibilities of the Christian ministry, and supported entirely by the contributions of their own people. There are also native Mission societies, who support from native funds several Chinese evangelists in outlying islands on the coast, and direct their work through the organisations of the native Church. It is an indication of the stage reached as regards self-support, that in 1904 the whole personal staff of congregational school teachers, preachers, and ordained ministers in the Tiechiu branch of the English Presbyterian Mission was supported by the gifts of the native Church to the extent of $4835, or 83 per cent of the entire cost, only $1003, or 17 per cent of the whole, being furnished by Mission funds.

In some of the Missions a beginning has been made in providing a Christian education in English, to meet the new demand for an English education and Western learning, both among the Christian and the non-Christian community. In Hongkong much attention has been given to education, both English and vernacular, under the fostering care of the Hongkong Government. The largest effort to meet the new demand in this province is the founding of the Canton Christian College. It has now been in operation in temporary premises for some years, but, a suitable site having been found, it will soon be more worthily housed. The College is being built at Honglok, two miles south-east of the city of Canton, on an extensive site, which will admit of very large extensions in future. A comprehensive plan has been prepared, providing for dormitories and other college buildings for 2000 students, including an auditorium, chapel, and residences for professors, an athletic field, and a hospital as part of a medical school. The first building is nearly complete, and measures 166 feet in length and 53 feet in depth. A College on a smaller scale, but with a similar object, has just been built at Swatow. It consists of a quadrangle, enclosed on all sides by blocks of buildings about 135 feet in length, including large hall, dining-room, class-rooms, dormitories, gymnasium, rooms for resident Principal, and extensive playing-fields. The cost of the site and nearly half the cost of the building is the gift of a large-hearted Chinese Christian gentleman who had long desired to found such a College, and the remainder is the gift of other Chinese friends, many of them not Christians, who were stirred up by his example, and had themselves an enlightened appreciation of the undertaking. It has accommodation for over one hundred resident students, and the site will admit of large extensions if required. It is placed by the donors in the hands of the English Presbyterian Mission. In all parts of the province there is a strong demand for the " New Learning," and great efforts are being made, both by officials and people, to reorganise their educational system, and to provide schools of all grades to meet the needs of the time.

Space will not admit of any details of the history or features of the several Missions. The grand result of their united work is the building up of a Chinese Church whose dimensions can be gathered from the statistical table which is given on p. 53. From this it appears that the number of communicants, which had more than doubled in the eight years from 1893 to 1901, and stood in the latter year at over 18,000, has now more than doubled again in the four years from 1901 to 1905, and now stands at between 39,000 and 40,000.

The present outlook is of the most encouraging kind. Recent events and the movements of the public mind for many years have led to a large amount of inquiry into Christian teaching. The persistent preaching of the truth for so many years, and the testimony, both by life and word, of the young Christian community, have created a very widespread knowledge of the outlines of our teaching. Multitudes who have not yet professed themselves Christians have become satisfied that the Christian teaching is morally sound, and there is a very general recognition, both by officials and people, of the good character of the Christian communities. All this constitutes a most favourable opportunity for the presentation of the Gospel message, and promises at no distant date a large ingathering.

Two serious dangers confront us. One arises from the hostile attitude of the French Catholic Missions to all others, their political action as advance-agents of French prestige, their policy of interference in litigation and clan feuds, and the free use of physical force by their large bodies of armed "converts." Intense irritation is thus created in the minds of both people and officials, which forms a serious danger to the peace of the province. On the other hand, these excesses tend to defeat their own end, and sometimes react favourably on the public mind by compelling attention to the wholly different character and aims of the Protestant Missions. The other danger which we have to meet is sometimes closely connected with the first. It arises from the large numbers of persons who are seeking to connect themselves with the Christian movement. Many of these are attracted to a growing cause by worldly and unspiritual motives, and the utmost vigilance and faithfulness are needed, both to enlighten and to sift these multitudes of people.

The movement in favour of the "New Learning," already referred to, while full of hope, constitutes, if not a danger, at least a difficulty for Mission work. Our most intelligent younger men, in full sympathy with these new movements, and attracted by a wider outlook, are drawn to many spheres of activity outside the older lines of church work. It will become increasingly difficult to retain the best of our men in the direct service of the Church, and, on the other hand, men of a lower intellectual grade will become increasingly unequal to the demands made upon them. At the same time, the growing sense of power, and love of independence, in the Chinese Church will need full recognition, and will call for the most sympathetic and kindly welcome and guidance on the part of all missionaries.

What is needed, in view alike of our opportunities and of our dangers, is the gift to the Chinese Church and to the missionaries alike of a more intense and manifest spiritual life. There have been movements of quickening in the churches of Manchuria, Fukien, and other parts of the Empire. May a like experience of revived life, manifesting itself in larger fruits of holiness and energy, be granted soon to the churches of Kwangtung!

Statistics of Missionary Societies at Work in the Province of Kwangtung

Figures for Year 1901. Figures for Year 1905.
Number of Stations occupied by Resident Missionaries. Number of Out-Stations. Number of Chinese Preachers and Teachers. Number of Communicants. Number of Stations occupied by Resident Missionaries. Number of Out-Stations. Number of Chinese Preachers and Teachers. Number of Communicants.
London Missionary Society 3 ... 30 900 3 5 49 1,049
American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions 2 16 31 912 2 37 64 3,500
American Baptist Missionary Union 5 92 90 2,260 6 132 119 3,258
American Presbyterian Mission, North 3 43 99 3,253 8 88 144 6,946
Church Missionary Society 3 ... 27 360 5 11 78 722
Basel Mission (Hakka) 15 65 138 4,176 (20 100 200 8,350)
English Presbyterian Mission (Hakka) 1 21 46 578 2 42 63 985
English Presbyterian Mission (Hoklo) 3 58 54 2,140 3 72 70 2,773
Rhenish Mission 6 8 19 764 8 14 28 1,031
Wesleyan Missionary Society 3 27 27 1,196 4 35 50 1,967
American Baptist Mission, South ... ... ... ... 3 16 52 2,613
Society for Promoting Female Education (Under Church Missionary Society.)
American Scandinavian Mission (No Returns.)
Berlin Mission 6 53 70 1,377 10 150 294 5,442
United Brethren in Christ ... ... ... ... 2 8 27 235
Christian and Missionary Alliance 6 ... 13 67 10 ... 20 150
Presbyterian Church, New Zealand ... ... ... ... 1 4 6 69
Reformed Presbyterian Church ... ... ... ... 1 ... 1 40
Bible Baptist Mission ... ... ... ... 1 ... 2 38
Seventh Day Advent Mission ... ... ... ... 1 ... 3 5
Totals for 1901 and 1905 57 394 644 17,983 90 714 1,180 39,168

The figures within brackets are estimated.

  1. I have the best authority for saying that "the Empress-Dowager is certainly a Manchu of Peking."—Ed.
  2. The Mandarin spelling would be Shang-ch'uan.—Ed.
  3. Written in 1906.—Ed.