Saturday, August 09, 2008

Gunboats and God - the British gift to China

From The Evening Standard, London, by Dominic Sandbrook, 06.08.08

Britain's athletes at the Beijing Olympics are following in the footsteps of a bizarre assortment of British visitors to China, from intense Protestant missionaries to one of the greatest imperial heroes of the Victorian age. But they can at least take inspiration from the Chinese life of the Briton who inspired the film Chariots of Fire.

The story of Anglo-Chinese relations has rarely been a happy one. In 1685 the first Chinese visitor to London, Michael Shen Fu-Tsung, made such an impression that James II hung his portrait in his bedroom. But Britain did not return the favour until 1793, when Earl Macartney led an embassy to Beijing on a 64-gun man-of-war. Not only did Macartney refuse to kowtow to the emperor, he mocked his jade gift as a "worthless rock" - the first snub in a long history of disagreements.

The most notable British visitors to China during the Victorian era came armed to the teeth. While the British Empire was at its peak, Chinese fortunes were at a low ebb, and British entrepreneurs spotted their opportunity. When the Chinese tried to ban the lucrative opium trade in 1839 British gunboats seized Hong Kong and exacted a humiliating peace.

Worse was to follow. In 1860, after a second Opium War, British forces burned to the ground the magnificent Summer Palace outside Beijing - an appalling act of vandalism still mourned in China. In London, however, the troops were celebrated as heroes, and their commander, "Chinese" Gordon, became one of the great popular icons of the age before meeting a messy end in Khartoum in 1885.

But not all visitors to China were so bloodthirsty. In 1807 a young Scottish preacher, Robert Morrison, arrived in Macau. His goal was to convert "the 350 million souls in China who have not the means of knowing Jesus Christ", and he produced the first Chinese translation of the Bible. Hoping to blend in, he wore a pigtail, grew his nails long and taught himself to use chopsticks, but converting the Chinese proved rather trickier.

In later years thousand of missionaries followed his example, most famously Eric Liddell, the driven Scottish Christian who won the 400-metres gold in the Paris Olympics of 1924 and was immortalised in Chariots of Fire.

Liddell had been born to missionary parents in China and he returned there after the Olympics. Even after the outbreak of the Second World War he refused to leave, and in 1943 the Japanese interned him in a prison camp. He died two years later and today is buried at the Mausoleum of Martyrs in Shijiazhuang - a great honour for a Westerner. His is a magnificent example of charity and courage - and a reminder that some things matter more than winning gold.

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