A display depicting the court case of French missionary and Catholic St. Auguste Chapdelaine in a "patriotic" museum in the Chinese town of Dingan where he was executed in 1856. The museum "celebrates" the "patriotism" of his execution and condemns the "spiritual opium" of religion. (Photo by AFP)
A museum for patriotic education was recently opened in the Chinese town of Dingan in Xilin county of southern Guangxi province that features the 1856 trial and grisly execution of a priest, St. Auguste Chapdelaine.
The idea driving the museum is to promote patriotism and condemn Western religions as being "spiritual opium."
St. Chapdelaine was a priest of the Paris Foreign Missions Society and was one of the 120 martyrs in China canonized by Pope John Paul II on Oct 1, 2000.
The Chinese government has maintained a hostile attitude towards the canonization. As part of that it denied the efforts and contributions the saints did for China, even negating and distorting their deeds and histories.
This makes unsurprising to see what they have done with the Dingan museum. In fact it was entirely expected.
According to the museum St. Chapdelaine was charged of cooperating with corrupt local officials and for being a rapist.
His being a saint makes these claims ridiculous.
There are historians outside of China believe St. Chapdelaine was confused with a bandit called Ma Zinong. Others say he was accused of fermenting an insurrection and refused to pay a bribe.
Before the opening of the museum, the communist government called for literary works on St. Chapdelaine in what is known as the so-called "Xilin Church incident."
There was even an award-ceremony for what the authorities perceived to be the best-written piece.
Many people participated but there were some who objected to the whole idea, which they viewed as something that would probably turn writers into flattering clowns of the ruling Party.
As for me I have collected the related information on the Xilin Church incident.
But being in China, I am largely unable to find any fair evaluations related to it. The authorities have set the tone for this incident. They have not allowed St. Chapdelaine's case to be reversed or for the official conclusion to be overturned.
I did though find something bordering on being an honest report on the Xilin Church incident by Yuan Weishi, an expert on contemporary history in Bingdian, which was published in a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily way back in January 2006.
Yuan, a former professor of contemporary history and philosophy at Sun Yat-sen University, said Chinese textbooks were "still a mess" on the historical account of the incident.
But Yuan's 2006 article was not aligned with the official view of the incident, which resulted in the authorities temporarily shutting down the weekly and firing two of the chief editors.
When the weekly resumed publication in March 2006, it ran an article that criticized Yuan that had the title of "Anti-Imperialism and Anti-Feudalism is the Main Theme of Contemporary Chinese History."
Yuan wrote a reply titled "Why, When and How to deal with Anti-Imperialism and Anti-Feudalism?" which the weekly refused to publish.
Yuan wrote in another publication that Zhang Mingfeng, the acting magistrate of Xilin during 1856, sentenced St. Chapdelaine to death.
Yuan cited Chinese textbook saying that St. Chapdelaine "sneaked into Xilin area and misbehaved" himself, and was thus executed.
When concerned French diplomats two years later asked about St. Chapdelaine's fate, Zhang denied any execution had taken place. The chief prosecutor in Guangxi and the Viceroy of Guangdong and Guangxi believed Zhang and told both French diplomats and the imperial court accordingly.
Based on the terms of Treaty of Whampoa, which was signed between China and France in 1844, the activities of French citizens were restricted to "within agreed boundaries" of five designated trade ports.
If any French citizen violated the restrictions set in the treaty and went beyond those boundaries, Chinese officials could arrest them and where then obligated to send them to a French consulate in the nearest port.
Chinese officials and citizens were not allowed to assault, injure or abuse those individuals, as it would damage reconciliation efforts between the two countries.
St. Chapdelaine had been preaching in Xilin — which was outside of those boundaries — since 1842. His remaining there after 1844 violated the treaty.
But torturing and then executing St. Chapdelaine by local officials in Xilin also violated the treaty's obligations by not sending the priest back to a French consulate.
Despite these points, the demonization of St. Chapdelaine remains. The Dingan museum's claims that St. Chapdelaine was a "devilish rapist, bandit and spy" has its roots in the 1960s, back when Mao labeled the West as imperialists.
It fits nicely into the increasing anti-Western rhetoric being pumped out by the state. St. Chapdelaine was assumed to be an accomplice of imperialism and that narrative continues until today.
On top of this any opposing views to such a narrative is not allowed in China. It is a typical example of political interference that academics have to face and deal with.
It is the exact opposite to academic freedoms that the Chinese authority consistently claims it allows.
The existence of the museum and the demonization of a Catholic saint display how Chinese authorities suppress freedom of human rights and academic freedom.
It does not bring the authorities any glory. It is only more evidence on how they deny human rights and distort history for their own benefit.
Jiangnan Ke is a lover of history and literature who lives in mainland China.