January 15 is the feast date, and the 1648 execution date, of the Catholic protomartyr of China — St. Francis Ferdinand de Capillas.
The pride of a tiny Castilian hamlet, de Capillas was a Dominican who got his start saving souls proselytizing in the Philippines, where Spain did a robust trade.
In 1642, he joined other Dominican friars on a mission out of Fu’an in the south of China. Spain and Portugal had made steady inroads* for Christianity in the peninsular locale of Macau over the preceding decades but de Capillas’s was a mission to make converts in the mainland. There, things could, and did, get trickier.
Their mission coincided with the collapse of the guardedly friendly Ming dynasty. Seen from the long-run perspective — you know, the one in which we’re all dead — this dynastic transition would widen the field for missionary work under new regimes that would be largely amenable to Christian preaching until the 18th century. But in the short term, it was de Capillas who was dead, because the remnants of the defeated Ming and their dead-end emperor fell back into their area as the rump Southern Ming dynasty — and the province became a war zone.
Christians were not alone among the populations caught perilously between the rival sovereigns, where wrong-footing one’s allegiance was liable to be worth your life. In the mid-1640s, Christians and Ming got on favorable terms: not so much an alliance as an affiliation.
These contacts cultivated between Christians and court came a-cropper in the war. After the Qing conquered Fu’an, a counterattack by the Southern Ming besieged the city in late 1647. The Qing were going to win the larger struggle, but at that moment, they were going to lose Fuan — and by Eugenio Menegon’s telling in Ancestors, Virgins, and Friars: Christianity as a Local Religion in Late Imperial China,
military leader of the Qing camp captured a loyalist soldier, he extorted the names of the Fuan citizens who were collaborating with [the Ming commander] Liu. Among the best known were [Chinese convert Christians] Miao Shixiang, Guo Bangyong, and Chen Wanzhong. Other Christians also sided with Liu. This leak provoked retaliation against relatives and friends of the loyalists still inside the besieged town. Among the victims was the Dominican Capillas. He was taken from prison, accused of being one of the leaders of the Christians and connected to the [Ming] loyalists, and executed in mid-January 1648.
This association did not go well for any of those involved; Liu did not survive the year, forced to commit suicide under a later Qing invasion, circumstances that also saw Miao Shixiang and Guo Bangyong themselves put to summary death.
* Kaijian Tang estimates 40,000 Christians in Macau by 1644. (Setting Off from Macau: Essays on Jesuit History During the Ming and Qing Dynasties)