----  — 1900

Ch'en Ta-Yung

Gatekeeper, Preacher, Martyr

Young Chen was a country lad born a few miles outside the southeast gate of Peking. Like most Chinese boys, he had been taught to read some of the Chinese primers, and he was then employed in an incense shop. He was a short, plump, round-faced, good-natured, honest boy who enjoyed a good conscience and two meals a day.

He showed interest when he heard that a missionary was about to enter the shop.

“Have you seen any of these books?” asked the newcomer as he entered the store.

“No, what are they?”

“Various kinds. Here is the ‘Entrance to Virtue and Knowledge’; ‘Glad Tidings’; and ’Evidences of Christianity,’” the foreigner said as he spread out a variety of books and pamphlets upon the counter.

Both Chen and his boss were interested in the books as well as the man, and they began plying him with questions about himself, his books and his teachings, which was, of course, the object he sought.

Young Chen bought a book.

A few days later, Chen was present at the Sunday services of the London Mission. In a conversation with the missionary, he said he had read the book which, by a series of cross-questioning, appeared very evident. He had not only read it, but made himself master of its contents.

“I am deeply interested in this doctrine,” he said.

“Indeed,” said the missionary, “I am glad to hear it.”

“I should like to get more books,” Chen continued, upon which the missionary selected several books that would give him an intelligent idea of the elementary principles of Christianity. These he took with him, and for several months was a regular attendant at the Sunday services.

Chen’s parents and the parents of the girl to whom he had been betrothed, the Li family, could say nothing in opposition to his reading of the books, for he gave no occasion for offense by his conduct, but they were not well pleased that their son and prospective son-in-law should exhibit such fondness for the teachings of the foreign devil, as they called the missionary.

This, however, did not affect Chen. He was not easily influenced. When his mind was made up, it was not easily unmade. He continued to study, continued to go to church, and asked to join on probation, and when this period was ended, young Chen was baptized.

Each step taken by the young man increased the opposition from his own family. His mother was especially bitter against him, and yet she dare not express it too openly, for she did not want to break with her son. She proposed to consummate his marriage, thinking that by giving him something different to think about, she would wean him from this strange doctrine. To this he was not loth, and especially as, only a short time previously, in consideration of certain services Chen had rendered him, a foreigner had presented him with one hundred taels of silver; consequently, he gave up his position in the store and entered the London Mission school.

When the matter of his marriage was fully settled, Chen announced his determination to be married according to the Christian ceremony. A storm arose in his home. His mother was furious. Chen was filial but firm, and when the storm had spent its forces, it left a young couple very happy but without a home, for young Chen was married according to the Christian ceremony.

A new occupation

Married life and school life could not be pursued together without a bank account, however, and as Chen was not at liberty to put away his wife – and be it understood he did not wish to do so – he found it necessary to forego further study in school.

It so happened that the Methodist Mission, which was then being established in the city, was in need of a servant and, on inquiry of some friends of young Chen, they were told that they were welcome to him if they could get him to do anything, which was more than they of the London Mission were able to accomplish. Not that he was lazy – Chen was never lazy – but he had a constitutional indisposition to leave his books. He was willing to do anything if only that thing was studying his books, and either because the newcomers were in desperate straits, or because they approved of such a disposition in a young man, they concluded to try him.

They first took him as a house servant, but in this capacity Chen was a failure. He could eat food, but he could not cook it, and the office of “boy” was too much like women’s work – “never done.” He had so approved himself to them, however, that they concluded to try him in another and more responsible position, and so young Chen was installed as a gatekeeper.

This was a position exactly suited to the man and the man to the position, at least for the time. Here was an important office connected with no duty, except to see that there “was no admittance [to the mission compound] except on business,” which Chen was careful to attend to. He had ample opportunity to converse with all classes, educated and uneducated, on the subject which lay nearest his heart … the gospel, for no office furnishes a better opportunity for preaching than a Chinese gatehouse. Chen magnified his office and furnished evidence that only the most faithful character should occupy the gatehouse of the foreign missionary.

A new idea began to take form in the mind of Chen that his position in life was not to be gatekeeper in the mission compound, but “gatekeeper in the house of the Lord” – and he attacked his books with renewed vigor. He determined that someday he would be a preacher of the gospel.

There were obstacles, however. The first and greatest of these was that his wife could not read, and while she was a helpmeet to him in his home, unless she learned to read, she would be a hindrance to him as a preacher. How was this difficulty to be overcome? He brought the matter to his wife’s attention in the hope that she would suggest that she could learn to read. This solution, however, was studiously avoided, and after broadly hinting the possibility of such a method, but to no purpose, he suggested, “Perhaps you could learn to read.”

No, Mrs. Chen could not learn to read. She had too many family cares, too many duties, too much work; she was too old; it would not be of any use to her; she did not want to read. He tried many times to persuade her, but without success. Finally, being young in the faith and too eager to have his wife learn to read, he beat her until she promised to study the catechism. He later greatly regretted his hasty action.

First attempts at evangelism

When he was installed as gatekeeper, he did not cease to be a student. He studied divinity [theology] in the gatehouse, which he transformed into a theological school as well as a “gospel hall.” He preached in the street chapel, in the school, in the home, everywhere, as the following quotations from the mission history testify:

“Thus far, only one has made a profession of Christianity in the North China Mission. His name is Chen Cheng Mei, and he is the father of our gatekeeper, an old man nearly sixty years of age, formerly by occupation a shoemaker.”

Two pages later, the history reads:

“The rite of baptism was administered to Wen Hui and Yang Su, whose probations [time of testing before baptism] have been satisfactorily passed. They stood at the altar, representatives of widely different classes, the former a literary graduate of the second degree, a Manchu Tartar, and belonging to the Imperial army; the latter a type of the laboring class. The chief credit of bringing forward these two converts is to be given to Chen Ta-Yung, whose studious habits and blameless life have of late given us reason to hope that he may yet find his proper sphere in the field of the ministry. Already his aged father has taken his place as gatekeeper, and his time has been more exclusively given to study and work as an exhorter.”

A scholar with the first degree in Beijing studying for the examination for the next degree somehow came to their chapel, being interested in the Word of God being preached there. He came again and again, made the acquaintance of Chen Ta-yung, and soon presented himself as a candidate for probation for baptism.

By this time, Chen was acting as a native preacher with the rank of student helper. In his traveling from place to place, it not infrequently happened that scholars came to the inn and tried to enter into discussion with Chen as to the relative virtues of Confucianism and Christianity. After one such discussion, the missionary said to him, “You are not an educated man.”

“No,” said Chen, “I am not.”

“How is it that you do not fear to enter into discussions with these scholars?”

“Oh,” said Chen, “I just stick to the Bible, and I know more about that than they do.”

Chen had in reality become a preacher – one who feared not the scholar nor despised the coolie.


When his first child was born on the first day of the first month, Chen’s mother was very distraught that it was a girl, predicted that there would be no sons in the family, and also predicted that they would be visited by nothing than bad luck for the rest of their lives. Others said she was the most beautiful Chinese baby they had ever seen, however. Chen was satisfied to have her, and he called her Mary (Ma-li) in Chinese.

Chen’s mother was greatly upset by this stoke of ill luck, and when the next baby came – which was a boy – the old woman only shook her head and remarked that it would take more than one boy to avert the calamity of having your first baby a girl, born on the first day of the first month.

Chen, however, continued to pursue his soul-saving work, read omnivorously, prayed fervently, cracked an unusual number of jokes, and waited for the next baby – which was a boy.

Again the old woman sighed. Chen called his second boy Jacob, and as beautiful little Mary was growing to be a big girl, he began to teach her to read the catechism. As the little girl repeated it, she sometimes made mistakes. But her mother, sitting by, making a pinafore, was always able to correct them from memory. And the next baby was a boy.

Now, when this third boy came, the old lady sighed much more faintly than before. But it was not until the fifth child was born, which was also a boy – as were the sixth and seventh – that she finally gave up her superstition that the first baby, if a girl and born on New Year’s Day, will bring bad luck to a Christian home.

And little Mary grew up an educated woman, married a doctor, and had two little boys and two little girls as beautiful as herself, while Chen continued steadfastly in his work of soul-saving.

“Train up a child in the way he should go”

“Your turn to remain at home today,” said Pastor Chen to his third son, Weiping, a boy of nine, as the family were starting to church.

“Very well,” said the boy.”

“I shall expect you to repeat this portion of Matthew without a single error, when we return,” he continued as he locked the door of the small room, leaving the child on the inside. As he passed out of the courtyard he locked the gate, as he had locked the door, the children all the while calling to their brother not to get lonesome.

This might seem harsh treatment for a lad of nine, if we did not remember that in China a house is never quite safe alone, and the only way to be certain the boy would not run away or burn the house down was to lock him in and give him something that would keep him employed. And what better on a Sunday than committing a portion of the Gospel to memory?

Mr. Chen was not one of those who set himself to preach so much gospel and rest from his labors. He was not satisfied when he had preached to strangers. His wife, children, and parents claimed a portion of his time. When the children were home from school during their summer vacation, it was their custom to have two meals a day – the one in the morning at nine, and the other in the afternoon at four. After breakfast they were set to studying the Scriptures.

A definite task was assigned to them, for which, if they recited without mistake, they received ten large copper coins. For every character they missed, one coin was deducted. If they missed many characters they were given extra time to review without loss of reward, and with money thus earned, they were allowed to buy cakes for their lunch at noon-day. This training produced good results. When Number 3 graduated from college and had an offer of forty dollars a month in business, he refused it, and accepted a salary of two and a half dollars a month as a preacher of the gospel beyond the Great Wall.

Wei-ping and family

When the Allies arrived in Beijing (in 1900, after the defeat of the Boxers), this same young man was employed as an interpreter on a salary of ninety dollars a month. But as soon as the remains of his scattered church could be brought together and a hall secured – for his church had been destroyed – he gave up his position as an interpreter, and entered upon his work as a preacher on a salary one-tenth of what he was then receiving.

Number 4 followed in his footsteps. He proved to be one of the best English-speaking students the college had ever graduated. He was offered, and accepted, a position in the Imperial Customs Service, with a high salary, and with opportunity to double this amount as a teacher or translator.

After having passed the examination and secured the position, he regretted what he had done, sent in his resignation, and became a teacher in the college, where his salary was only five dollars a month.

After a few months the great Viceroy, Li Hung Chang (Li Hung Zhang), asked him to teach English to his two grandsons, two hours a day, for which he promised him thirty-five dollars a month. He did so, but not until he had obtained permission from his principal, and when he received the money, he put it in the school for the education of a student and continued to work for his former salary.

Chen did not neglect the souls of his children in his efforts to save the souls of strangers. Chen’s children (at the time that this biography was written) are without extravagant ideas, are strong mentally, physically, and spiritually, and Chen’s two sons who have graduated are engaged in religious work on salaries one-tenth what they could be getting in business, while his fifth son, now in college, promises to be equally self-sacrificing and useful.


“You must leave here at once and flee to the mountains,” urged the members of Chen’s church during the Boxer movement (1900), when they heard of the murder of Christians in other places and learned of the disturbed condition of the surrounding country.

“No,” answered Chen; “I will not leave until all the members of my flock are hidden away.”

On June 5, after the close of the conference held in Beijing, Chen had taken his wife and his youngest son and daughter, both of whom were in school, and started for his appointment at Chi’ing Chou, outside the Great Wall.

On July 22, the crisis came. The Christians had repeatedly urged him to leave. They were familiar with the surrounding country and told him of the best places in the mountains where he and his family could hide with the greatest prospect of security. When they finally succeeded in persuading him to leave, they sent the chapel-keeper to show him the way. When they were three miles from the city, they were met by a man who inquired, “Who are you?”

“I am the preacher in Yeu Ching Chou.”

“Where are you going?”

“I am going to the mountains.”

The man hurried back to the village and informed the Boxers that a group of Christians were fleeing to the mountains. The Boxer chief, followed by his rabble, at once pursued, and soon overtook them. After asking the same questions the other man had, he continued:

“Have you any money?”

“Yes,” said Chen and gave them what he had.

“Throw down your clothing and bedding.”

Chen did so, and turning to the rabble, the chief said, “Now I am through with them. You may do as you like.”

His little daughter, whom they called Apple – not an ordinary apple, but the best variety known in the north – ran screaming to her mother’s arms, from which she saw the savage Boxers and the irresponsible rabble kill and behead her father, the chapel-keeper, and her brother, a boy as generous and noble as any of the three already mentioned, while she in childish fear cried out, “Oh, mother, what shall we do? What shall we do?

“We will all go to our heavenly Father together,” said the old woman, her faith never failing her to the last, and she and her beautiful baby daughter of thirteen were hacked to pieces, locked in each other’s arms.

Chen entered the list of martyrs, a hero in his death, as he had been in life.


It was some months later when the third son visited the place and gathered up the bones of his loved ones, their bodies having been burned, to give them a proper burial. The skulls, however, were nowhere to be found. Five months later, these were found by some of the villagers and placed with the others in the family burial ground.

Was the young man’s heart filled with bitterness and resentment, as he looked upon the remains of those he loved? Let the following request testify:

“I should like to go to the church and preach the gospel to those who murdered my parents,” said he with the simplicity of a child.

When the matter of indemnity for native Christians was brought up for consideration, the officials would gladly have paid any bill the young man would have put in. All the property his father had, had been taken, and seven children had been left orphans. But when asked what indemnity he wanted, his answer was, “We are not in need; we do not want indemnity.”

Chen’s investment of influence in his sons and daughters is appearing in the form of the noblest Christian character and self-sacrificing service.

Chen Wei-cheng, son of Ch’en Ta-Yung


From Bentley, W. P. Illustrious Chinese Christians: Biographical Sketches. Cincinnati, OH: The Standard Publishing Company, 1906.

About the Author

Isaac Taylor Headland (1859-1942) was an American Methodist Episcopal missionary in China who later taught at Peking University and then became principal of the Anglo-Chinese College in Fuzhou. His books about China were very popular in the late 19th and early 20th century, especially The Chinese Boy and Girl, and Court Life in China.