Three memoirs and autobiographies – history unaltered by retelling
Constance Douthwaite’s Life in China 1887-1896
by Sheila McClure
Letters from Chefoo by Sheila McClure, tells the story of Sheila’s great grandmother, Constance Douthwaite (née Groves) who, aged 20, left Bristol for Chefoo in north China as one of ‘The Hundred’ missionaries recruited by James Hudson Taylor in 1886.
Constance’s letters form the main part of the book with Sheila’s well-researched explanatory passages providing context.
In her early letters, Constance describes in detail the exciting, intriguing and alien place that China was over 130 years ago.
Two years into her stay, she painfully reveals the obstacle of an engagement she had agreed to before leaving Bristol and her decision that she must travel home to break it off.
Returning to Chefoo she marries the man with whom she had fallen in love – Dr Arthur Douthwaite.
Arthur was the senior doctor and surgeon for the China Inland Mission, as well as head of Chefoo Mission with overall responsibility for the CIM missionaries and the running of the hospital and boys’ and girls’ boarding schools of Chefoo settlement. As a medical missionary’s wife, Constance had many responsibilities alongside becoming a mother and managing her household.
Photographs within the book show her as a serene young woman and in her letters she strives to paint a positive picture (it took two months or more for a letter to reach home, so there was no point in sending worrying details).
But still through her words we get a sense of the physical privations of life in Chefoo, the poor nutrition, the isolation, especially during bitter winter weather, the lack of integration between the Chinese and foreigners, the dangers of childbirth and of epidemics, in particular to babies and children, and always the constant longing for news from home.
Added to this, from 1894 to 1895 were the dangers and challenges of the First Sino-Japanese War.
While Letters from Chefoo describes life in China, it also touches often on the lives of Constance’s Brethren family in Bristol, showing how tough life was all over the world in the 19th century.
Constance lived in a time before radio communications (the first ship to shore radio system developed by Guglielmo Marconi (note below) was used on the Titanic in 1911), before aviation (the first scheduled passenger airline flight on the St. Petersburg to Tampa Airboat Line was in 1914), and before antibiotics (the first antibiotic was discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928).
Note: Marconi conducted his ship-to-shore radio transmission trials from Luttrell’s Tower, Calshot beach, as depicted in New Forest artist, Gervase Gregory’s book A Lifetime in Postcards and Maldwin Drummond’s book The Strange History of Seagulls.
Letters from Manchuria
the story of Marion Young, missionary in Japanese-occupied China
by Neil T. Sinclair
This Chinese missionary story takes place over the period of the Second Sino-Japanese War.
Letters from Manchuria was compiled by Neil T. Sinclair and his wife Helen, whose mother, Marion Young, was a missionary in China with the Irish Presbyterian mission from 1935-1941.
Marion was posted to the isolated, inner Mongolian town of Faku, over 300 miles north of Chefoo, and here the Japanese were already in full occupation when Marion arrived.
Just like Constance, Marion wrote weekly letters home to her family.
Sometimes she would enclose a photograph or a hand-drawn map, and always she showed an acute eye for detail along with a good dose of Irish wit, especially when describing adventures she had with fellow missionary Mamie Johnston (note below).
Marion describes the ‘spits and smells’ of daily life, children in happy play, her work and language study, and the shadier sides of social reality at that time – ‘Christmas morning … wakened to feet running by my window’ – the freezing cold morning when the cook’s daughter-in-law threw herself down the well.
Japanese rule became more and more oppressive during Marion’s time in Manchuria; all letters outward and all those arriving from home were read and censored, even to the point of one censor putting a note on Marion’s brother’s letter to say his handwriting was very untidy. Marion could only make veiled reference to the regular imprisonment and torture of many of the leading Chinese Christians and often she used code words; relating back to the Belfast troubles she had experienced as a child, she called Japanese spies ‘the Black and Tans’. Sometimes, possibly when the letter would be travelling home with a fellow missionary, she was clearer in her description – ‘They treat folk a bit more kindly before freeing them, to give the marks of beating or torture a chance to clear up … isn’t it a bright thought?’
Foreigners were safe, but constantly watched and asked for papers, such was the suspicion about spies within the church community. Tension rose from 1939 onwards until it seemed much of the mission work – especially the education work – would have to be given up. Marion went on leave in January 1941, just as most missionaries were either instructed or encouraged to depart. Because of the Second World War, it took Marion ten months to get home, via the United States. She left her fiancé, Rymer Cayton, behind in China, not knowing for a year and a half whether he had survived internment.
Note: Mamie Johnston wrote the small volume, I Remember It Well, about her time in China. She went to China in 1923 and stayed on until 1951. In the foreword Rev Dr Austin Fulton writes, ‘We used to say to each other: “Where Mamie is, there things happen.” The pages of this memoir strikingly illustrate this. I hope it will be widely read.’
Strangers in Chaotung
by Winifred Tovey with letters and sections by Frank Tovey
The Second Sino-Japanese War officially began in July 1937 with full-scale invasion of China, and ended in September 1945 after Japan surrendered to China and the Allied forces.
During that time, in the mountains of north Yunnan the American Red Cross built a small hospital at Chaotung (now called ‘Zhaotong’), a walled city 6,300 feet above sea level.
At the end of American presence in that part of Yunnan, the hospital was handed over to the Methodist Missionary Society (MMS) – a logical move as the MMS had sent missionaries to Chaotung since 1886 when Samuel Pollard arrived there from Devon. Pollard was a missionary for the Bible Christians, a splinter group from the Methodist Church. His story is remarkable and can be found in the book Beyond the Clouds by Elliott Kendall.
Strangers in Chaotung takes up the story from 1947 when Frank Tovey, a young houseman in Bedford County Hospital, offered his services to the Methodist Missionary Society (MMS).
When Frank qualified as a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons (FRCS) the MMS immediately posted him to China with instruction to set sail in two weeks.
But he had just become engaged to Winifred Hill and knowing that the MMS rule was marriage only after a minimum of two years of service in China, they rushed to get a special license and were married six days before departing from Glasgow on the TSS Empire Brent.
Five and a half weeks later they arrived in Hong Kong, to travel onwards by train to Hankow. Having come from war-torn Britain they seemed un-phased by the disturbances and constant troop movements in China, writing home, ‘the Communist fighting in Central China has not got near Hankow so we anticipate an uneventful journey.’
After a period of language study and work in the Methodist Hankow General and Union hospitals, Frank and Winnie travelled to Kunming by Chinese Airways and onward to Chaotung in an old station wagon driven by Ken Parsons (note below), a fellow missionary who with his twin brother had been born in Chaotung in 1916.
As with all walled cities, the gates into Chaotung were closed at sundown against bandits and foreigners. The hospital compound was outside the city and gated too.
When Frank and Winnie arrived on foot after dark because the station wagon had broken down, they had to bang on the gate to rouse the occupants from their beds, and then in the light of a single hurricane lamp scuttle past the vicious guard dogs that were let loose in the compound after dark.
Over the following seven months, Frank and Winnie worked with the small hospital staff to treat all who came, Winnie doing the accounts and learning how to assist with x-rays and give anaesthetics.
Provisions were scarce and because of galloping inflation the silver dollars, sent hidden in boxes under a lorry, to pay hospital staff had to be immediately converted into material goods to hold any value at all.
Ever present were the bandits and by April 1949 when a baby daughter was born to Winnie and Frank, the days and nights were punctuated by rifle fire from brigands and rebels besieging the city wall.
News came that Nanking had fallen to the Communists. The missionaries in the locality decided (against advice from MMS) to evacuate all women and children home.
They commissioned an old Dakota owned by the Lutheran Mission to carry them over the mountains to Kunming. There was no seating on the plane, no air pressure adjustment and no heating, and the passengers had to sit on the floor of the hold, while the plane lumbered its way between the high mountain peaks.
Frank and Ken stayed on, leaving Chaotung at the end of August, just four days before the Yunnan Revolution was reported.
To follow were three decades of Communist China, a huge country closed to the rest of the world. In 1981, after the death of Mao and fall of the ‘Gang of Four’, Frank was invited to China with Winnie for a lecture tour.
They returned to the Hankow Methodist Hospital, but did not reach Chaotung because of landslides. However they found that the Chaotung District People’s Hospital had been built on the site of the original Chaotung Mission Hospital and was catering for 280,000 outpatients and 13,000 inpatients a year.
Note: Ken Parsons’ twin brother, Keith, has written a book, Our Providential Way, about the lives of their parents, Annie and Harry Parsons, who were missionaries from 1903 to 1926 at Stone Gateway (Shih Men Kan), a settlement built by the early Bible Christian missionaries one day’s mule ride from Chaotung. This book will soon be published by Little Knoll Press.