Quakers in China
Quaker merchants from Britain, Ireland and North America traded extensively in China during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Hence when the opium trade was being imposed by Britain in the 1830s, Friends were well informed, and protested strongly: this was known in China, and Quaker merchants were permitted to continue trading when all other foreigners were expelled.
By the 1870s, Quakers were caught up in the evangelical movement, and in 1886 the Friends Foreign Missionary Association (FFMA) sent Irish Friends Robert and Mary Jane Davidson to China, followed by several others. They set up a mission in Chongqing, in Sichuan, deep in the western interior, and later opened a second centre, in Sichuan’s capital, Chengdu.
Although they made few converts (when Sichuan Yearly Meeting was founded in 1904, there were only 56 Chinese Quakers), their work in the community had considerable impact. Chongqing Friends School thrived, and the International Friends Institute, opened in 1909, soon became a place where people could meet freely in a peaceful setting. In 1910, working with other missions, and Chinese Friends, they co-founded the West China Union University, in Chengdu (now the West China Institute of Medical Sciences, and one of the 6 key medical centres in China).
Ohio Yearly Meeting began a completely separate mission in 1887 when they sent nurse Esther Butler to Nanking, in eastern China, on the Yangste River, inland from Shanghai. Other women soon joined her, and they opened an orphanage and a school for women, followed by a hospital for women and children in 1894. A new facility was opened in nearby Luh Hoh, and the pioneer women missionaries were joined by missionaries of both sexes, some from Ohio and others from New England and New York Yearly meetings. Chinese men and women played an increasing part in the work, and by 1907 the Friends Church had a Chinese pastor, Pastor Gao. As in Sichuan, Friends in Nanking and Luh Hoh worked extensively with other missions .
Both the Sichuan and Nanking Quaker missions had soon seen that ‘conversion’ was unusual, but that their community work was effective and helpful. It also demonstrated Quaker values in a tangible way, especially when done in equal partnership with their partnership with Chinese people.
There were a number of other Quaker initiatives. William Wardle Cadbury, from Pennsylvania, served as a Quaker medical missionary in Canton from 1909 to 1941. He was Superintendent of Canton Hospital, and also served terms as vice-president of the Chinese Medical Association and chairman of the Chinese Red Cross. Lucy Burtt ran a Friends centre in a house in Beijing for 20 years from 1930. There was a small Friends Centre in Shanghai, and a group of Quakers in Hong Kong.
By the 1930s major changes were afoot in China. Communism was on the rise, and Japan was a growing threat. War broke out in 1937 and the Chinese coast was soon occupied by Japan, while the Chinese Communists controlled the north. The ‘Free China’ that was left, including Sichuan, was landlocked and soon in desperate need of relief.
The Friends Centre in occupied Shanghai provided help to refugees and street children, and ran feeding programmes, from 1938. Relief for ‘Free China’ became a great concern for Friends elsewhere, and seven American organisations, including the AFSC, combined to form United China Relief, to fund such work, once the necessary permissions could be granted. In 1941 the Free China government in Chongqing finally agreed that the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) could send a team to provide medical assistance to the Chinese Red Cross in “Free China”. They based themselves in Kunming, close to the Burmese border, and a key transport hub. From Kunming the FAU's China Convoy distributed supplies over much of China for the next 5 years.
In 1946 the China Convoy team was reconfigured as the Friends Service Unit (FSU). under the aegis of the AFSC. Locally they were known as the Gong Yi Diu Hu Dui, which roughly translates as the “Public/Justice Friendship Plead/Save Protect Group” – although they were also locally nicknamed the “Public Silence Group” – reflecting their practice of Meeting for Worship. Activity continued up until 1951 including a major relief project during the 1946-7 famine, and work to relieve sufferings on both sides of the Chinese Civil War.
Eventually the presence of foreigners was untenable against the backdrop of growing tensions between the new Communist Government and the West. In 1951 the FSU and any remaining missionaries, of all persuasions, were expelled.
AFSC returned in the 1970s, with a programme of visits and exchanges, for mutual understanding, which still continues. They have a small office in Sichuan. QPS (now QPSW) has helped fund volunteer teachers.
Chinese Christians on the mainland today are non-denominational. There is a small and active Friends Meeting in Hong Kong: amongst other things, they founded Oxfam Hong Kong, and supported many Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s.