Waking the Sleeping Giant

  • By John Holliday
  • 11 Nov, 2016

In only 180 years China has gone from being a closed society to become the largest trading nation in the world. In 1836 trade was limited to contact with only 11 approved merchants in Canton (Guangzhou). Foreigners were banned from any other part of China and the penalty for any Chinese teaching a foreigner how to speak the language was a death sentence. Citizens of the Celestial Empire had no knowledge about the rest of the world and only a tiny handful of Chinese people had ever set eyes on a foreigner.

    What initiated this great change and who were the people who made those first visits into China? Many were driven by greed and the money making opportunities of the opium trade, but in the forefront of the pioneers who opened the doors to China were the Christian missionaries. They had prepared for the day when they could step ashore in China by living among the Chinese diaspora in South East Asia, beyond the reach of the Qing dynasty. They had learned the language and culture of the Chinese and had discovered that they had more to offer than just a religious philosophy. Coming from the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, the missionaries realised they had much to teach in the way of education, health care and social reform, assisted by the introduction of technology like modern printing methods.

    In the book Mission to China: How an Englishman Brought the West to the Orient , the life story is told of Walter Henry Medhurst, one of the very first missionaries to live in Shanghai after the First Opium War. His early recruitment by the London Missionary Society as a printer, destined for the mission in Malacca, Malaysia, sees him fall in love and marry his wife in India, forming a partnership which would go on to set up missions in Penang, Batavia (Jakarta) and Shanghai. His 20 years of preparation for the moment when he could move to Shanghai proved to be instrumental in achieving great success in the way he influenced the development of that city, during a period of great turmoil.

    By the time his career as a missionary ended, Medhurst could lay claim to very few conversions to Christianity, although his translation of the Bible was to be used by Chinese Protestants for the next 70 years. This is indicative of the groundwork he set in place which has resulted in the situation where on any given Sunday, there are now more worshippers in China than in the whole of Europe. His achievements of a secular nature are almost more significant. He was one of the first Councillors of the Shanghai Municipal Council which has gone on to become one of the leading cities of the world, the Shanghai Mission hospital is now the Renji Hospital, the largest in Shanghai and his work introducing modern printing methods revolutionised the world of media and communications.

    Medhurst’s descendants went on to influence the development of China towards it’s position today. Medhurst’s son became the British Consul to Shanghai and his grandchildren also achieved success in the consular service and commerce, one becoming a director of the HSBC bank. China has been through tremendous upheavals since those days, but it is indisputable the influence that those like Medhurst had.

Shanghai today
By John Holliday 11 Nov, 2016

In only 180 years China has gone from being a closed society to become the largest trading nation in the world. In 1836 trade was limited to contact with only 11 approved merchants in Canton (Guangzhou). Foreigners were banned from any other part of China and the penalty for any Chinese teaching a foreigner how to speak the language was a death sentence. Citizens of the Celestial Empire had no knowledge about the rest of the world and only a tiny handful of Chinese people had ever set eyes on a foreigner.

    What initiated this great change and who were the people who made those first visits into China? Many were driven by greed and the money making opportunities of the opium trade, but in the forefront of the pioneers who opened the doors to China were the Christian missionaries. They had prepared for the day when they could step ashore in China by living among the Chinese diaspora in South East Asia, beyond the reach of the Qing dynasty. They had learned the language and culture of the Chinese and had discovered that they had more to offer than just a religious philosophy. Coming from the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, the missionaries realised they had much to teach in the way of education, health care and social reform, assisted by the introduction of technology like modern printing methods.

    In the book Mission to China: How an Englishman Brought the West to the Orient , the life story is told of Walter Henry Medhurst, one of the very first missionaries to live in Shanghai after the First Opium War. His early recruitment by the London Missionary Society as a printer, destined for the mission in Malacca, Malaysia, sees him fall in love and marry his wife in India, forming a partnership which would go on to set up missions in Penang, Batavia (Jakarta) and Shanghai. His 20 years of preparation for the moment when he could move to Shanghai proved to be instrumental in achieving great success in the way he influenced the development of that city, during a period of great turmoil.

    By the time his career as a missionary ended, Medhurst could lay claim to very few conversions to Christianity, although his translation of the Bible was to be used by Chinese Protestants for the next 70 years. This is indicative of the groundwork he set in place which has resulted in the situation where on any given Sunday, there are now more worshippers in China than in the whole of Europe. His achievements of a secular nature are almost more significant. He was one of the first Councillors of the Shanghai Municipal Council which has gone on to become one of the leading cities of the world, the Shanghai Mission hospital is now the Renji Hospital, the largest in Shanghai and his work introducing modern printing methods revolutionised the world of media and communications.

    Medhurst’s descendants went on to influence the development of China towards it’s position today. Medhurst’s son became the British Consul to Shanghai and his grandchildren also achieved success in the consular service and commerce, one becoming a director of the HSBC bank. China has been through tremendous upheavals since those days, but it is indisputable the influence that those like Medhurst had.

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