Tomb­stone marks sac­ri­fice by Dutch priest in Chi­nese vil­lage

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - LIFE - By SUN RUISHENG and LI YANG in Yuanqu, Shanxi Con­tact the writer at xingyi@chi­

The tomb of Ae­mil­ianus van Heel lo­cated on top of a small hill in Shi­tou Geda vil­lage, Yuanqu, North China’s Shanxi prov­ince, over­looks a patch of a wheat field he re­claimed from the wild in the 1930s.

The newly built white-mar­ble tomb­stone, which looks con­spic­u­ous against the Loess Plateau, is 310 cen­time­ters tall, rep­re­sent­ing the 31 years of the Fran­cis­can mis­sion­ary’s life. He was from Lei­den in the Nether­lands, and known as Fa­ther Hu Yong­sheng among lo­cals.

This year marks the 110th birth an­niver­sary of Van Heel.

The res­i­dents of Shi­tou Geda re­gard him as a fam­ily mem­ber, who is still alive, re­sid­ing on the hill, and a pa­tron saint of their home­town.

The Im­pe­rial Ja­panese Army in­vaded the Yuanqu county on Sept 13, 1938. Then, more than 2,000 refugees hid in the Catholic church in Shi­tou Geda.

Van Heel sat at a ta­ble in front of the church to pre­vent the Ja­panese troops from ha­rass­ing those in­side at the time.

On Oct 8, the Ja­panese army broke into the church hunt­ing for women. But he threw a Ja­panese sol­dier out of the church, just like an “ea­gle catch­ing a lit­tle chicken”, many se­nior vil­lagers say.

The fu­ri­ous Ja­panese sol­diers then sent him an ul­ti­ma­tum de­mand­ing he hand over 20 young women and 10 cat­tle to them.

Van Heel is be­lieved to have replied: “You can take my mule. There are no cat­tle in the church. As long as I am here, you will not get a sin­gle woman from the church.”

The vil­lagers found him ly­ing in a pool of blood in his bed­room the next morn­ing. It is be­lieved that he was mur­dered that night with two shots in the chest and a deep cut on each of his wrists.

The Ja­panese army claimed he had com­mit­ted sui­cide.

The refugees then buried his body in the church yard and fled, leav­ing his as­sis­tants who hid a flee­ing Kuom­intang gen­eral Gao Guizi two years later from the Ja­panese army, af­ter Gao was de­feated in a bat­tle in the re­gion.

Gao Shi­jie, the daugh­ter of Gao Guizi, funded the ren­o­va­tion of the tomb and the build­ing of a new tomb­stone to re­mem­ber Van Heel’s sac­ri­fice and the as­sis­tance to her fa­ther.

Ac­cord­ing to Hu Liany­ing, a vil­lager in her late 80s, Fa­ther Hu also had a sense of hu­mor. “He once joked with me: ‘Hey, lit­tle girl. We are from the same fam­ily. You see. We share the same fam­ily name Hu’.”

Hu Liany­ing says Fa­ther Hu missed his par­ents in the Nether­lands very much, and of­ten looked at their pho­tos, which he also showed to lo­cal res­i­dents.

The vil­lage’s res­i­dents also say that Fa­ther Hu was a good doc­tor as well.

He treated pa­tients for free. And he also raised a dozen of or­phans, some of whom are still alive.

Gao Shi­jie says in her state­ment on the ren­o­va­tion of his tomb: “Al­though Fa­ther Hu had no off- spring, and his heroic be­hav­ior is un­known in his moth­er­land, we, the sur­vivors of the War of Re­sis­tance Against Ja­panese Ag­gres­sion (193145) are his suc­ces­sors if we can em­u­late his spirit of self-sac­ri­fice.”

The Dutch peo­ple did not know about Fa­ther Hu un­til 1990, when a lo­cal vil­lager in Shi­tou Geda, Song Min­hui, wrote a let­ter to the Dutch em­bassy in Bei­jing.

The then-Dutch am­bas­sador Roland van den Berg wrote to Song ap­pre­ci­at­ing his ac­count of the young Dutch priest and the em­bassy trans­lated Song’s let­ter into English to let the Dutch peo­ple know about Fa­ther Hu.

The Dutch for­eign min­istry also then as­signed a pro­fes­sor to in­ves­ti­gate his early life. He found that there were no rel­a­tives alive, but a bishop then aged 94 who had known Fa­ther Hu re­mem­bered his story and said: “He was a brave and coura­geous man.”

Van Heel was born in 1907 in Lei­den, and came to China in 1933.

He learned Chi­nese in Luzhou, Shanxi, be­fore join­ing the Shi­tou Geda Catholic church in 1936.

The church, which was built by Western mis­sion­ar­ies in 1917, op­er­ated schools for boys and girls. And he was the third priest to be posted to the area.

The church was shut in 1949, and was de­mol­ished in 1985 to pro­vide build­ing ma­te­ri­als for pub­lic in­fra­struc­ture in the county.

The church was re­opened in 1986 in caves neigh­bor­ing the old site of the church.

In his state­ment mark­ing the ren­o­va­tion of the tomb, the former Dutch am­bas­sador writes: “It is with great sat­is­fac­tion that now — 110 years af­ter his birth — a fit­ting memo­rial has been estab­lished to re­mem­ber this coura­geous Dutch­man, who gave his life to pro­tect the Chi­nese peo­ple against a for­eign ag­gres­sor. It marks an­other proud page in the long his­tory of the re­la­tions be­tween the peo­ple of China and the Nether­lands.”

Le Yongyue, the cur­rent priest in the church, who has been work­ing there for 19 years, of­ten goes to the hill to sweep the tomb.

He say: “Fa­ther Hu gave his life to pro­tect the Chi­nese peo­ple. He is a role model for me.”

Con­tact the writ­ers through liyang@chi­


in Shanxi prov­ince builds a tomb to mark the 110th birth an­niver­sary of Dutch priest Ae­mil­ianus van Heel, who spent years in the vil­lage in the 1930s and gave his life to pro­tect the res­i­dents against Ja­panese ag­gres­sors.

A vil­lage

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