Book Review: A Unique Look at Imperialism in China

Western imperialism came to Asia in various forms, mercantile, missionary and military. As that era recedes into history it is becoming easier both to the see the interlinkages and conflicts between these three strands and assess more dispassionately the evils and benefits that came with them.

Mark O’Neill has added a small but important piece of this history with a self-explanatory biography: Frederick: The Life of My Missionary Grandfather in Manchuria. A Chinese-speaking journalist now based in Hong Kong but long resident in Beijing and Shanghai as correspondent for Reuters and the South China Morning Post (and more recently as an occasional contributor to Asia Sentinel) the author has spent many years researching his subject from his Belfast, Northern Ireland origins, to his near half-century in a rather obscure part of China.

Yet this is more than just a biography as it weaves together the history not only of the turbulent times through which Frederick O’Neill lived in China between 1897 and 1942 – when he was expelled by the Japanese – but the legacy the of what he and other missionaries created in Manchuria. And it shows how these survived the Mao era to today become a source of pride in Faku, the small town 100 kilometers northwest of Shenyang where the elder O’Neill was based for most of his time in China.

O’Neill was propelled to Manchuria by two forces. First was his Christian faith and sense of duty as a son of a middle class family in Belfast to spread both Christianity and education to China. Second was the funds that the pious people of Belfast, then a prosperous shipbuilding and manufacturing centre when British power was it its pre-1914 height, raised for missionary work.

That he went to Manchuria was explained primarily by the fact the Presbyterian Church of Ireland was a latecomer to missionary work in a China where the various Christian denominations divided up their areas of activity. (His church was the largest in what is now Northern Ireland but only third in Ireland overall).

Manchuria then was frontier territory in a state of rapid change as Han Chinese, once excluded by the Manchu rulers, flooded in to settle an under-populated territory. So although it was seen as a hardship post with weather to match, its immigrant populations provided more opportunities for Christianity than the Han heartlands. Sandwiched between Russia and Japan, it was also becoming of increasing strategic importance.

O’Neill had been at Faku only a couple of years when the Boxer rebellion broke out and he had to flee for his life to Russia. Others were less lucky as thousands of Chinese Christians, including several hundred in Manchuria and some missionaries, were killed before western arms suppressed the rebellion with more heavy loss of life. O’Neill returned, determined to continue his work but more than ever aware that Christianity in China had to detach itself from foreign power and rely on the “negation of force”. Meanwhile he had to cope with successive occupations by the Russians then the victorious Japanese during the Russo-Japanese war during which he, as a neutral foreign, was given a key role in managing town affairs and negotiating with the opposing armies to protect civilian livelihoods.

He stayed and built a church and several schools, including one for girls – a first – and sought to train locals to take over evangelism from the foreigners. A lady missionary doctor also arrived from Ireland and built and ran a hospital for women in Faku until she died of diphtheria in 1917. Other Presbyterian missionaries built a medical school in Shenyang and they proved a key force in combating the 1911 outbreak of plague which killed 46,000 people in Manchuria including a recently arrived missionary doctor, Arthur Jackson, whose selfless work among the afflicted earned him a remarkable tribute from the Viceroy of Manchuria, Xi Liang.

The year 1917 saw O’Neill in France for two years tending to the needs of some of the 95,000 Chinese laborers recruited by the British to help the war effort in northern France and Belgium, digging trenches, mending roads and otherwise making up for the shortage of non-military manpower just behind the front lines.

The years between the wars showed the contradictions inherent in western Christian efforts in China. On the one hand in Faku and elsewhere, educational and medical work was widely appreciated and with the training of Chinese pastors and evangelists, mostly funded from Belfast, the number of Christians increased. At the national level however, anger against western imperial actions and the humiliations of the treaty port extra-territorial caused periodic outbursts of anti-Christian as well as anti-foreign sentiment.

Nonetheless for O’Neill the late Qing government and its successor, the warlord Zhang Zuolin were tolerant compared with the Japanese who declared the new puppet state of Manchukuo in 1932. They saw the missionaries as a problem, meanwhile law and order deteriorated making travel difficult. O’Neill secretly gave evidence of Japanese brutality to the Lytton Commission appointed by the League of Nations to investigate the situation. Subsequently Faku was also the scene of fighting between government and rebel forces. Japanese anti-Christian sentiment was strengthened by the presence of large numbers of Christian Koreans. Many Chinese Christians were arrested and other fled Manchuria. Christian schools were closed or bought by the government.

Following Pearl Harbor, foreign missionaries were detained but while most were subsequently moved to Japan, where they were fortunate to survive the Nagasaki bombing, O’Neill and his wife were part of a prisoner swap at Lourenco Marques in the Portuguese Mozambique, and returned to Belfast where he died at 82 ten years later, never returning to China.

The mission itself had a brief revival before the Communist takeover, the expulsion of the foreigners and the subsequent transformation during the Cultural Revolution of the church into a gym and ping pong hall which was how the author found it, with windows bricked up, when he visited in 1986. Not only did other missionary era buildings, including O’Neill’s house survive, but the memory of the man among the local community. His old cook was also traced. And gradually thereafter began the revival of Christianity in this corner of China so that now the church is restored and fully patronized as Shenyang and the surrounding area now has 130,000 Christians, a number continuing to expand.

The Faku church also takes pride in a plaque commemorating the Christians martyred during the Boxer rebellion – a sign that some aspects of China’s history are no longer seen in black and white terms. But some history is still off limits. A Chinese version of the book will have to omit a reference to the 2005 gift of a ceremonial sword to O’Neill by General Nogi for his role when Faku was the Japanese army headquarters during the war with Russia.

This book is a small slice of history but one which is both moving and tells the reader much about aspects of China’s history over the past hundred and more years than more general histories. Here are selfless and honorable men and women living through the worst of circumstances in a cause to which they were devoted but was resented by many of those they desired to serve. Full of photographs and contemporary quotes from letters and documents it deserves a much wider readership than its title is likely to get for it.