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
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.
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.
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.
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.