Pioneer CICM Lay Missionary and Benefactor
Monday, 12 December 2011 08:00
by Jeffrey M. Centeno, PhD

Paul Splingaerd (1842-1906)

“There are many kinds of gifts, but there is one Spirit.” - 1 Corinthians 12:4

The sesquicentennial foundation anniversary of the CICM in 2012 recalls to mind the crucial figure of layman Paul Splingaerd who accompanied the pioneer CICM missionaries to China in 1865. In the eyes of historians and missioners today, he is arguably larger than life for his contributions to the promotion of mutual Belgian-Sino relations in the early 19th century. He was born on April 12, 1842 in Brussels, Belgium.

Together with CICM founder Théophile Verbist and companions, the young Splingaerd embarked on the historic journey to China on August 25, 1865 “to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to China, especially to the abandoned children therein.”  Prior to this trip, Splingaerd has already been an assistant to Fr. Verbist in Belgium for two years. With thoughtful dedication to the cause of his superior, he joined the pioneer CICM missionaries to China.

In China, Splingaerd distinguished himself as an asset to the work of the missionaries. He showed an incredible talent for languages. He learned the Chinese language in no time and interpreted and translated the sermons of the missionaries.  He also spoke Dutch, German, English, and French.


Splingaerd’s proficiency in languages was very useful in his relationships with local and foreign traders. He was a judicious businessman engaged at first in the wool industry.  Later, he found himself acting as guide to and negotiator for a Belgian commercial mission in China.


He was involved in industrial, mining, and commercial enterprises between China and Belgium. Splingaerd notably worked for the construction of the Belgian railway project in China. Trusted by the Chinese government, Splingaerd became an Imperial Customs officer in the Ganzu province.


Gifted with the skills in diplomacy, Splingaerd likewise proved to be an effective political mediator in settling conflicts among the locals and foreigners.  He once worked for the successful release of Christian women sold to slavery. Moreover, with his exceptional display of courage, he was commissioned brigadier general by the Chinese Imperial Government during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 which he helped quell.

Once described as “the Belgian Marco Polo,” Splingaerd returned to Belgium in July 1906 where he received a hero’s welcome and a celebrity status for his well-deserved reputation as “Belgian mandarin.” He was truly an accomplished ambassador missionary between the two cultures.

On September 26, 1906 while on his way back to China from a successful trip to Belgium, he reportedly died of diabetic coma in the company of his children and friends who were traveling with him.

Thus founded in 1862 with the invaluable services that lay people like Paul Splingaerd can actually extend to the work of the mission, the CICM can, henceforth, be further explored as precisely recognizing and forging with the laity’s potential for effective…

Collaboration In Carrying out the Mission.