Che Jinguang (Chea Kam-Kwong in Cantonese) was a most unlikely candidate to be China’s first Protestant martyr. Until he was in his 50s, he worked as a keeper of the Confucian Temple in Boluo, about 40 miles east of Guangzhou. In early 1856, he was visited by two Chinese Christians from Hong Kong. They shared the Gospel and left him a Bible, and when they returned in May, he asked to be baptized. He offered as evidence of the sincerity of his new faith the tablet used to worship his ancestors’ spirits, which he had defaced with a chisel. In Hong Kong, Che met Pastor He Jinshan (何进善牧师-Ho Tsun-sheen) and Scottish missionary James Legge. They were reluctant to baptize him due to the concern that he might be looking for work. Che persisted, and one night he waited outside for Legge after a prayer meeting. It was raining, and as Che let the rainwater fall on his head, he told Legge that God would baptize him even if Legge would not. Legge then baptized Che, and Che returned to Boluo where he began a self-supported ministry as an itinerant evangelist. The Manchu Qing Empire was then at war with Great Britain and France, so these were tense times to be associated with the “foreign” religion. Che was arrested a few months after his return, but the authorities released him after seizing his books. Despite much anti-foreign sentiment, Legge decided to purchase property for the London Missionary Society in Boluo. In October 1861, he turned the keys to the property over to Che. A few days after Legge’s departure from Boluo, Che was seized, tortured for several days, and finally beheaded on October 16 when he refused to renounce his faith.
Che had returned to Hong Kong each year to give a report of his work, and in May 1861, Legge and several others journeyed to Boluo and baptized 101 people who had responded to the Gospel. Many testified that they were attracted not simply by Che’s preaching but even more by his lifestyle of love and holiness. Legge traveled with Che for several weeks and saw first-hand much of the hostility Che encountered. In response to one beating, Che declined to press charges and said, “I only pray our Heavenly Father to have pity on them.” After Che’s martyrdom, Legge pursued the case vigorously with the British and Manchu governments, but to no avail. Now that the British government was assisting its former adversary, the Manchu government, in defeating the Taiping Rebellion, neither was interested in taking up a new religious controversy. Nonetheless, the blood of China’s first martyr has since yielded a harvest of millions.
How can I deny Him who died for me?
The Proto-Martyr of the Chinese Protestants: Reconstructing the story of Chea Kam-Kwong. Lauren Pfister, Unpublished Manuscript, p. 32.