A Tianjin Haunting

Grave behind Purple Bamboo Grove Church outside of the old English Concession. Watchmen of the church say it belongs to a young boy, anonymous.

Photos by C.S. Hagen  –  Grave behind Purple Bamboo Grove Church outside of the old English Concession. Watchmen of the church say it belongs to a young boy, anonymous.

By C.S. Hagen

TIANJIN, CHINA (PRC) – Behind the crippled Purple Bamboo Grove Church rests a poorly made grave.  Tiered red brick forms a horseshoe shape, yawning in the middle to reveal blackness beneath.  Ground surrounding the grave is moist and springy, a perfect breeding ground for the poison ivy that surrounds the site in warmer months like so many sentient soldiers.

Three carefully placed ceramic toys adorn the grave’s left side.  The most undamaged toy is of a Christmas tree with four smiling Santas holding hands.

“It is the grave of a child,” the night watchman said.  Fearing to lose his metal rice

The ceramic toy Santa at the grave

The ceramic toy Santa at the grave

bowl of a job, he preferred to keep his name private.  “An elderly foreign lady once visited this spot.”

The watchman didn’t know who placed the ceramic toys on top of the grave, but admitted the old church was haunted.  The boy’s grave was not the only body buried in the back of the Purple Bamboo Grove Church, but no other headstone or marker remain.  In June 2012 a man quit working as a second watchman because he believed the ruined church became alive with the dead at night.

The night watchman who remained knew of the atrocities that were once committed at the church’s front doors and agreed that if any place in Tianjin (formerly spelled Tientsin), should be haunted, the old church stood high on the list.

Cement mixing buckets, bricks, pipes and tarps lay forgotten at the entrance.  Trees are warped and mostly leafless in mid August.  The old Red Cross sign that once advertised the Sisters of Charity Orphanage in the midst of Purple Bamboo Grove, the heart of the red light district and a stone’s throw from the old English Concession, has been chiseled away.  Remnants of communist propaganda painted in revolutionary red still remain.

‘Mao Zedong Thought,’ the slogan says.

Entryway to the Sisters of Charity Orphanage, the Cultural Revolution slogan is painted on left side pillars

Entryway to the Sisters of Charity Orphanage, the Cultural Revolution slogan is painted on left side pillars

Ironically the entrance’s doors remain, but the archway is blackened by fire, reminiscent of the brutal atrocities committed in 1870.

“The sisters were stripped naked, and, one after the other, in full sight of the remainder, their bodies were ripped open, their eyes gouged out and their breasts cut off.  As each one was mutilated the body was hoisted on long spears and thrown into the burning chapel.”  O.D. Rasmussen wrote in his book Tientsin: An Illustrated Outline History (Tientsin Press, 1925).

Missionary reports dating back to 1871 report nine nuns from the Sisters of Mercy Orphanage were burned beyond recognition.

“…And of these most have been mere unrecognizable fragments; how as a fit accompaniment to the rest, thirty or forty of the children of the hospital were smothered in the vaults where they had taken refuge,” reported Charles William Wason in the Shanghai Evening Courier in September 1870.

Inside the Purple Bamboo Grove Church

Inside the Purple Bamboo Grove Church

The original church was destroyed, but was rebuilt.  Pillars the sisters were tortured upon are not the same ones dating back to the Tientsin Massacre in 1870.  The ground, however, hallowed or desecrated, is the same.  The sisters bodies were buried across the street from the Astor Hotel outside the British Consulate, Gordon Hall, demolished in 1984 after the Tangshan Earthquake.  A memorial was erected over their charred remains.

Purple Bamboo Grove altar

Purple Bamboo Grove altar

Events that led Tientsin’s populace to bloody deeds in 1870 and again in 1900 are not without merit, if one was to look through the eyes of the locals at that time.  In a world spiraling toward locomotives, electricity and division of labor, the average Chinese person in 1870 was still mired in superstition and ancient tradition.  Rumors began to spread in Tientsin of the paper man, a demon who rose from the Hai River, (then called the Peiho), to kidnap, injure and kill the natives.

The paper man, of course, had pale skin, colored hair and green eyes.

“…He transforms himself, by the aid of some mysterious power, into paper.  At times, it is asserted, he will appear as a scrap of plain paper; at other times he comes in the guise of an old newspaper.  A favorite dodge with him is to get himself made into a kite.  He thereby accomplishes his object of getting into people’s houses with greater facility…” wrote George Thin in his book The Tientsin Massacre, published in 1870.

According to George Thin the most common remedy was for families to sprinkle bathing water on every scrap of paper in the house, which would “certainly give the paper man his quietus.”

The paper man also took the form of women, and in Tientsin more specifically the Sisters of Charity, who in their black robes and horned white hats struck horror into the local populace.  Such an image to the Chinese sparked fear, for white is the color of death, and rumors the sisters were kidnapping children to make powerful magic spells and medicines quickly became panic.

In truth, the Sisters of Charity provided shelter, food and medicines for orphans, but due to Christian doctrines and the symbolization of communion the populace believed the nuns, as well as all Christian congregations, were cannibals, and were secretly slaying the city’s children to make Eye and Heart Bewitching Philtres.

Citywide panic turned to rage when graves were exhumed behind the Wanghai Lou, or Victory Mary Church.  Inside the graves were bodies of children, who according to missionary journals of the time died from plague.  Rage then became a riot when yamen officials caught three Chinese men who confessed they sold ten children to the Sisters of Mercy.  The rumors raged like a conflagration to every Tientsin district, coming to a head on June 21, 1870.  Missionaries were boiling babies to sell to opium merchants, the people cried.  Pettifoggers, or yamen clerks, ran through the streets and rain dancers with green wreaths, swinging peach wood swords, stirred the local populace to rise up against the foreigners.

Before the sun set more than twenty-two politicians, priests, nuns and merchants were killed.

Daoists believe each person has three spirits: the hun, or cloud spirit, which exits the body on death, the p’o, or the white spirit, which stays behind, and then a third part that enters a spirit tablet and demands reverence from surviving family.  Another essential part of the Daoist beliefs demand that a body must return home in order for its souls to be at rest.

If any credence is given to such beliefs, then surely, the Purple Bamboo Grove Church must be one of the world’s most haunted sites.  A trip within the decrepit structure is harrowing.  The original altar still sits where the church’s last sermon was given.  An unreadable bronze plaque in the wall commemorates the deaths of unknown members.  Stray sections of stained glass in back room windows defy the stench and decay and a humid breeze, sifting through the buildings cracks, whines as loud as screams.

Partially stained glass window

Partially stained glass window


Back room behind pulpit inside the Purple Bamboo Grove Church

Back room behind pulpit inside the Purple Bamboo Grove Church



  1. What an article! Slight typo about the George Thin book , in the second paragraph after the Purple Bamboo Grave altar picture (“writes George Thin in his book The Tientsin Massacre, published in 1870.” // but I really enjoyed reading this. I had no idea about this story, am off to hunt through google for more infor 🙂

  2. admin

    November 23, 2013 at 4:01 pm

    Thanks Chloe, happy hunting!

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  11. Hi Chris

    I also live in TJ and enjoy researching the expat past here.
    Note with reference to your above article:
    1) Tangshan earthquake was 1976
    2) This church was not around in 1870 and as far as I know, it wasn’t the orphanage site. Land across this side of town, technically in the British concession rather that the French which was more likely for the Catholic Church and Lazaristes who were mostly French, was given following the 1870 Incident/Massacre as restitution. Similarly the French Consulate was moved to the road behind the church where the building remains. The ‘new’ orphanage was further up that same road in a building that has a plaque obliquely hinting at its use.
    The story is never-the-less compelling if not completely accurate. The church is currently being refurbished with what I fear is also some artistic/architectural license!

    • Thanks for your input, Andrea. Yes, the church today is not the exact church, but as far as my research allowed, it is on or very near the same site. The original Purple Bamboo Grove church was of course demolished, burned to the ground, and the one standing today has been under construction for many years, with nothing being done except building the scaffolding, it appears. Hope it can be refurbished. The orphanage was a connected building to the church. Most people think the massacre occurred at the Wanghailou, which is not accurate. Where the French Consulate was in 1900 is a mystery to me, although the early 1940s building was a few roads behind, and was destined for destruction in 2012. If you have compelling evidence where the Purple Bamboo Grove church was exactly, I would love to see it.

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