Protestant missionaries first entered Guizhou in 1877, almost 300 years after the arrival of the Catholic Church. The Catholics had suffered many martyrdoms in this province before the first Protestant worker tasted death there for the sake of the gospel.
In 1896, the China Inland Mission started to reach out to the many minority tribes living in the province, and Mr. and Mrs. F. B. Webb rented a house in a Hmu village near Panghai. The Chinese were bemused as to why foreigners would choose to live among the Hmu, whom they considered to be lower than dogs, and after gentle efforts failed to persuade the missionaries to leave, the most senior Chinese official in Panghai resorted to threats of force. He sent a mob of 150 men to try to intimidate the Webbs and their colleagues, saying: “If you don’t go away, we are going to beat you, pull down the house, and carry off your things.” Still the missionaries refused to move.
The threat seemed to subside for a while, until October 1898, when William S. Fleming arrived in Panghai to oversee the work for a few months while the resident missionaries had a period of rest on the coast. Fleming was a native of Broughty Ferry, near the Scottish town of Dundee. At the age of 17 he became a sailor, and he travelled the seas for six years before his life changed dramatically in Australia. He wrote home to tell his family he had given up his life to Jesus Christ, had left the navy and was studying at Belair Lodge in Adelaide with a view to becoming a missionary. After three years, he was accepted by the CIM and he departed for the Orient in 1885.
With a local Christian, Pan Xiushan, acting as his interpreter, Fleming travelled widely among the Hmu villages for three weeks, preaching the gospel. One day, while they were away, the Hmu burned down 300 houses in the Chinese part of Panghai as a protest over the day of the week the market was held on. The atmosphere was so tense that Fleming decided to make his way to Guiyang and wait there for the trouble to blow over. He never made it.
He left for Guiyang on 4 November 1898, accompanied by Pan Xiushan, an evangelist named Pan Xiyin and a coolie he had hired to carry their luggage. After about 15 miles (24 kilometers), they stopped for lunch in the village of Chong’anjiang, in the Qingping District. They crossed the river on a hand-pulled raft in the company of three men, one of them armed with a long cavalry sword, who had been instructed by the headman of Chong’anjiang to kill Fleming. As they stepped onto the far bank,
the people of the town streamed out along a road on the town side of the river to see the devoted foreigner done to death. … Just as they reached the bend where the road began to lead up the hill, the man with the cavalry sword came behind the unsuspecting Pan Xiushan and struck him down, killing him almost instantly. He uttered a cry, and Mr Fleming, turning around, saw what had happened. … Mr Fleming struggled for some time with his assailants, but was finally done to death with many wounds.
Pan Xiyin and the coolie fled up the hill and made their escape, though the assassins pursued them for some time before giving up the chase. Several days later, the evangelist reached Guiyang and reported the murder of Fleming and Pan Xiushan. Two missionaries set out immediately, with an official escort, to recover the bodies of the two slain men, who they found unburied on the side of the road.
It was later revealed that Fleming and Pan were killed because of a rumor that the missionaries were importing weapons and ammunition to support a Hmu uprising—a belief only strengthened by the burning of Chinese homes in Panghai. After the two Christians were butchered, people immediately looked for evidence to confirm this suspicion, “but when they searched [Fleming’s] luggage, and ransacked his house, they found no arms, nothing but good books; he was certainly a good man and it was a mistake to kill him.”
Several of his colleagues paid tribute to him. One wrote: “Mr Fleming was a very willing helper, truly zealous in his Master’s cause. In studies he was exceedingly persevering, and he always wore a smiling, happy face, and was respected by all. He has been counted worthy to suffer.” William Fleming was the first ever martyr of the CIM. God had protected their many workers for 33 years since Hudson Taylor founded the mission.
China’s Book of Martyrs. Carlisle: Piquant Editions, 2007. Used by permission.
- Samuel R. Clarke, Among the Tribes in South-West China (London: Morgan and Scott, 1911), p. 144
- Ibid., pp. 156-57
- Ibid., p. 159
- “Particulars of Mr. Fleming’s Death”, China’s Millions (February 1899), p. 22