Sine magazine

Sine Issue : September 2006

Dugald Christie, a Scottish Christian in Changing China
by Ian Wotherspoon

Christian missionaries from around the world played an important, if controversial, part in the development of China in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Ian Wotherspoon remembers one Scottish missionary, Dugald Christie, whose cultural awareness and humanitarian involvement were extraordinary.

It's a long way from Glen Coe to Edinburgh, Scotland's capital city; i's even further from Edinburgh to Shenyang (Mukden), the capital of what is now Liaoning province in China. Born below the heights of Buchaille Etive Mor, Dugald Christie came to Edinburgh to study medicine and in 1883, as a medical missionary of the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland, went to Shenyang where he spent most of his life in the remote, often hostile, environment of northeastern China. The cold climate there, he said, reminded him so much of home.[1]

Christie was one of many Scottish Christians who, as China opened up in the 1880s, worked around the country in locations as diverse as Hong Kong on the Guangdong coast to Harbin by the Russian frontier. Representing the main institutions of Scottish Protestant ecclesiastical life, their religious views largely mirrored the thoughts, hopes and prejudices of their time. Many of their physical achievements were ephemeral, being swept away in the cataclysm of the 1949 revolution and the turbulent years that followed. However, much more tangible, what they did leave behind was an enthralling record of their perceptions of China and the Chinese people at a time of rapid change. Their views, more often than not, reflect a particularly Scottish perspective founded on the thinking of 19th and 20th century Scottish life which, almost always, was underpinned by the values of the democratic intellect.

Protestant missionaries in general, and Scottish Christians in particular, probably lend themselves to a high degree of stereotyping that tends to diminish their achievements and, indeed, their humanity. Of course, like many expatriates, there were some who never really engaged with China or the Chinese but they seem to have been a small minority. However, despite the difficulties they faced living in a rapidly changing society, which was itself redefining its future, their views of Chinese society are almost always fresh, challenging, never complacent and driven by a strong commitment to China's people.

What did they think about the political and economic changes taking place in China in those years ? What was their reaction to foreign intervention in China ? What did they really think about China and the Chinese people ? How did they reflect their views to friends and supporters in Scotland ? Dugald Christie's remarkable career provides some of the answers to these questions.

For missionaries like Christie, the dislocation resulting from the impending demise of the Qing dynasty posed a number of problems. Hostility to foreigners was an ever-present reality, often exacerbated because of fear of missionary intentions or for short-term political motives. On several occasions, he had to beat less than a dignified retreat pursued by aggressive bandits and disaffected soldiers. Finding accommodation in which to live and work was not easy and, even when this was achieved, it was frequently impermanent.

In a springless cart, travel along deeply rutted roads across the dreary Manchurian plain was uncomfortable and slow. Wayside inns were basic, affording few luxuries other than a brick bed. There were, however, some compensations. Christie remembers travelling in springtime as “a delight to the soul” with fresh green life bursting out after the long winter and the countryside carpeted in flowers. In the summer, passage by river boat was a leisurely experience, with the passenger taking his place along with the beans and other cargo at the bottom of the craft !

Whether in the urban environment of Shenyang or travelling in the surrounding countryside, Christie worked hard to understand Manchurian society. The contrast between the prosperous merchants, whose shops boasted brilliantly coloured peacock and other signs, and the harsh life of the poor, who eked out a subsistence living, was always before him. The impact of natural disasters, such as flooding, was devastating on those with no resources. Health care was minimal and disease, such as malaria, ever present. Indeed, long in poor health, Christie’s first wife, Margaret, died in 1888.

The Manchuria with which Christie was becoming increasingly engaged was once famously described as “the cockpit of Asia”, a vast area of enormous strategic importance and economic potential that was rapidly becoming the focus of international rivalry.[2] Throughout his time there Christie had to deal with the competing pressures of Chinese, Japanese and Russian interests, not to mention the more mundane, if no less relevant, demands of local dignitaries and officials. In the wake of internal dissent and the hostilities between China and Japan in 1895, and Japan and Russia in 1904, he trod a delicate path as lawlessness, starvation and plague swept inexorably across Manchuria.

His first-hand experience of the problems of foreign intervention in China led him to argue that the international community's views on China were slewed. “The Western world has regarded China as far behind in all civilization,” he wrote, “largely because of her slowness to develop those lethal weapons a modern army and navy. . . . It is a question, however, whether her ideal of civilization is not of a higher type than that which acts on the principle that might is right. In China it has long been recognised that mind is superior to matter, intelligence to physical strength, the appeal to reason better than decision by force of arms”.

More clearly than many, Christie also recognised the Chinese people had legitimate grievances about what they saw as “aggression” by foreign powers, whether it was the British in Weihai (Weihaiwei), the French in Yunnan and Guangxi, or the Germans in Shandong. They resented the extraterritorial rights at ports, the foreign control of the Maritime Customs, the construction of railways by foreign consortia, and the frequent mention in the overseas press of the “partition” of China. Missionaries were not excluded from his critique. He believed the presence of so many foreign missionaries throughout the country was an irritant, that the protection of Christianity by treaty exasperated officials, and that there was too much meddling by Christians in the country's internal affairs. Christie welcomed the emergence of the Chinese Republic as a positive development that would not only provide much-needed stability but empower those who supported it to seek a specifically Chinese solution to Chinese problems and not slavishly imitate Western ideas and models. The future, he believed, then looked much more positive than it had when he arrived in China nearly 30 years before.[3]

The suspicion and hostility that Christie first met in Shenyang in 1883 strengthened his resolve to establish modern medical facilities to treat the poverty and misery he encountered. Although it was, in his own words, “uphill work”, his growing involvement with local people provided him with unprecedented insights into Chinese society. His fast-developing linguistic skills accelerated this engagement. Right from the start, and through often difficult and dangerous times, his primary focus was the welfare of those who came within the orbit of his fledgling medical facilities, which quickly began to attract both the rich and powerful as well as the poor and downtrodden. In part, this may have been due to the efficacy of Western medicine, but it was certainly also because of Christi's sensitive understanding of what he called “the strict etiquette of this ancient civilization” as well as his open, non-judgemental attitude.

”There is a general widespread impression that the Chinese are in all things the opposite of other men,” he wrote, “that they never feel or act as other peoples would. Externally there is some truth in this . . . . But when we come to the elemental passions at the foundation of our common human nature . . . we can grip their hands as brothers for we find them strong, virile, and reliable in those deeper feelings which are the mainspring of action.” He decisively rejected the notion that the Chinese were somehow “different”. “Their family affection, their staunch friendship, their unselfishness to those they love, their homely joys, their love of children, their kindliness to friends and neighbours, their warm-hearted gratitude, their fortitude in trouble, their patience in enduring, will compare with those of any nation”.[4]

Christie's insights into Chinese society were derived from his study and understanding of Chinese culture and religious beliefs as well as his knowledge of traditional Chinese medicine. He was familiar with the main themes of Buddhist, Confucian and Daoist thought as well as the dynamics of a society in which the patriarchal family system played an important role. He had a good understanding of traditional Chinese medicine, elements of which he sought to complement Western medical practice where appropriate. His empathy with the traditional Chinese virtues of fortitude, hospitality and gratitude and his skill as a medical practitioner won him many friends and contacts, including local magistrates and officials as well as senior civilian and military personnel. They were to be valuable allies.

Christie was not slow to enlist the financial and political support of his Chinese friends in Manchuria, first for his fledgling hospital and then for the Medical College at Shenyang, which opened with 50 students in 1912. Whilst most of the teaching staff were from abroad, Christie was determined that the College should not be considered as “foreign” and that it would progressively come under the management of Chinese personnel, as indeed it did thirty years later. Significantly, Christie pioneered the introduction of the Chinese language in teaching, though summaries in English had to be produced of the latest medical research. His high hopes for the College and his students were not unfounded. In 1935 one of Britain's premier medical schools, the University of Edinburgh, recognised the Shenyang course as qualifying for admission to postgraduate medical research there. Christie's unshakeable belief that “the Chinese are specially adapted to make good physicians and surgeons” had been vindicated.[5]

Christie's views on the development of medical practice and education in China were set out in a paper he presented to the China Centenary Missionary Conference in Shanghai in 1907.[6] Whilst he envisaged the provision of medical facilities and services evolving within a Christian missionary framework, his vision of China-wide medical care was both bold and comprehensive. Although recognising that funding, and providing sufficient personnel, might be problematic, Christie demanded nothing less than a medical centre in every large town. Outreach from these centres would extend to rural areas through the establishment of dispensaries and regular visits by nursing and medical staff. In particular, he identified the need for drug addicts, lepers and the mentally ill to be provided with additional services to facilitate their treatment. All these measures would be complemented by a comprehensive public health education programme aimed at the future good health of the nation.

Christie's long years in Shenyang, and unremitting toil, began to take their toll, and in 1923 he retired to Edinburgh in poor health. Apart from a brief return visit in 1925, the remainder of his life was devoted to finding support for the Medical College he had founded and trying to interpret Chinese life and society to the enquiring Scottish mind. He maintained close contacts with Chinese visitors and students in Scotland and in 1929 helped found and was appointed Honorary President of the Sino-Scottish Society in Edinburgh.[7] Internationally recognised and honoured, he was particularly gratified to be appointed a Fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in 1930 in recognition of his work and travels in Manchuria.

Christie's vision of China’s future was to be clouded, first by the Japanese invasion, and then shattered by the war and revolution that followed. And the China that emerged was to be very different from the one he had known. Nevertheless, his extraordinary contributions to Chinese medicine and society were not to be completely eradicated, as his Medical College was to form the nucleus of what is now the renowned China Medical University in Shenyang.[8] The fragrant memory of Christie's gentle life thus lives on, not only as a reminder of an early, important connection between Scotland and China, but also of his humanitarian achievements, which touched the lives of so many.

Dr Wotherspoon is a history tutor in Edinburgh University's Office of Lifelong Learning. His current interests include the overseas influence of Scottish education.

[1] “Obituary, Dugald Christie”, Edinburgh Medical Journal (Vol. 49, 1937), p.197.
[2] P.T.Etherton & H.H.Tiltman, Manchuria - The Cockpit of Asia (New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1932), p. 298.
[3] D. Christie, Thirty Years in Moukden, 1883-1913 (London: Constable, 1914), pp 52, 289-90.
[4] Ibid., p. 60.
[5] Ibid., p. 276.
[6] Centenary Conference Committee, Records: China Centenary Missionary Conference (Shanghai: Methodist Publishing House, 1907), pp 247-68.
[7] The Scotsman, 18 February 1930.
[8] Scottish Churches China Group, A Picture History 1883-2003 - From Mukden Medical College to No. 2 Clinical College of China Medical University (Edinburgh: Scottish Churches China Group, 2004).