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George Rowntree

The Reminiscences of George Rowntree
1855 -1940

written during the winter of 1935-36



In 1913 my brother Fred won an architectural competition against a Canadian, an American and another architect. They represented different groups of Christian Missions, who were united in order to provide a West China Union University, where their best students would be able to complete their education instead of a few only being sent to America or England.

My brother went to survey the site of his buildings; I went for the chance of seeing more of the world.

The journey out, including 36 hours at Moscow, the luxury of the South Siberian Railway carriages, our arrival at Pekin to time, 14 days after leaving England, can only be named. At Pekin I sat next a Chinese barrister for a meal; he had recently returned from a visit to Germany and England to study European laws on Criminology. He found the German laws much better for his purpose, as they were codified clearly, whereas the English laws were "like a good many other things in England, happy-go-lucky." But he added, "Of course, you don't believe in your form of government, do you ?". I confess that I was taken aback by these words, and asked him to explain. "Why," he said, "you govern by talking." There was a good deal of truth in it.

At Hankow we called on Bishop Root, amongst many others. He told us what wealready knew, that there were a number of brigands on the river ready to help themselves, and strongly advised us to buy revolvers to protect ourselves. On the other hand, we were told that there had only been one casualty with the British, and that was when a missionary produced a gun when some armed robbers came on to the boat. The brigands, seeing the gun, fired and killed the missionary's little boy. All the brigands wanted was cash, like a robber in our country money. Needless to say, we were not interfered with at all, except on one occasion, when we were travelling in a "sampan" no bigger than a pleasure boat, coming down the river, and to save time were paying our men extra to push on during the night. Suddenly a lamp appeared ; we drew to the side of the river; the men were armed police guarding the waters and on the look-out to prevent goods liable to duty being taken down. After searching the little boat and receiving a small present from us, we were allowed to pass with this caution: "Stay here till daylight; robbers down the river." , Our boatmen stayed about 15 minutes, then very quietly dipped their oars into the water. In another ten minutes we were going ahead at full pace, we sleeping under an awning.

Returning to Hankov, we made our way first by steam, then, from Ichang, by houseboat.

Let me tell the story of Good Friday 1913 in a house boat going through the Gorges up the Yangtse. Business amongst the boats was brisk, each boat wanting to get up the Rapids before sunset. We got close to the shore, so close that the rope was thrown, but those on shore failed to catch it, and our boat fell back; a second attempt had the same result; we realised something was wrong. The man at the helm was sitting on his haunches by the tiller, repeating, "Rudder broke, rudder broke," , For 20 minutes we were swung round a boiling whirlpool; we took our coats off ready for a swim, our boatmen pulling their hardest against the Current. At last a red safety boat dashed out from the shore; Fred and myself crept on hands and knees off our houseboat into the safety boat. Our interpreter was missing; on looking back, we saw that he had gone back to his bunk for his umbrella, and now stood crying like a child. However, another boat went off, and poor Den came ashore so nervous that he fell off the landing plank and found himself up to his chin in the water. "Me never come to Sz-chwan again," was all he could say. He quickly recovered himself and demurred to my paying the boatman. "Me pay-me pay," so I let him, and he handed the boatman who saved his life the handsome sum, in copper of about three halfpence.

From Wanshien we had several days in sedan chairs, sleeping in such quarters as were available. The Inns were anathema, which we avoided for the better accommodation offered us by the Buddhist Priests. The priests were very willing to give us shelter in their grounds, where we put up our beds, cooked our food and left gratefully, On one occasion we found some half dozen coffins occupying the same shed. When we knew that the best present a man can give to his mother-in-law, on his marriage is a coffin, we realised that , we were not in bad company.

During the three weeks at Chengtu we had the opportunity of attending a special meeting,


Friend" .1 repeat it in full :

Meetings in Chengtu.

" This city, with a population of about half a million, is the capital of Sz-chwan, a province equal in area to France. Chengtu is some 2,000 miles from the sea, and no such vehicle as a cart or carriage has ever been within the city. Sedan chairs and one-wheeled barrows are the order of the day for both men and women. The neighbourhood supplies nearly all the needs of the city, the province being rich in natural resources. Amongst the industries, silk manufacture stands out as one: of the most prosperous. The city is in touch with the outside world by the shallow waters of a tributary of the great Yangtse. A telegraph wire also communicates with Shanghai.

A few days ago a message came to the Foreign Office at Chengtu stating that at the suggestion of a member of the Cabinet, and with the full approval of Parliament, the cities in China be asked that prayers be offered for Divine guidance and blessing to rest on the Republic and upon the new President. The same request was sent to foreign countries. In response, the five-striped national flag was hoisted outside one of the principal halls in the city, the Chinese having organised a meeting, the first of united Christians ever undertaken by and on the initiative of the Chinese.

The meeting consisted of about 300 Chinese men and 50 Chinese girls, who, had been asked to come and sing. A representative from the Foreign Office attended officially to express the sympathy of the Government with the object of the meeting. At the conclusion of his remarks the whole meeting rose in acknowledgement. Several hymns of a national character were sung, including a Chinese rendering of "God save the People," sung to the tune of the English national anthem. The platform was decorated with azaleas and other flowers; two large silk national flags hung on the wall at the back of the platform. The Chairman explained the object of the meeting, emphasising that nothing spectacular was wanted, but simply the earnest prayers of all present. At his request R. J. Davidson, of the Friends' Mission, offered prayer at the opening, and D.Kilburn, of the Canadian Mission, pronounced the benediction; no foreigner was on the platform, nor did any other foreigner take any vocal part in the meeting.

?, the province, the city and each family in it :
"We are thankful that the despotic rule has gone for ever, but new difficulties present themselves. In the old days the responsibility was with the rulers, now it is with the people. We have recognised dependence upon a higher Power, therefore we come together to seek that help. The thought of our responsibility for our country is new to many of us. The conditions today are serious. It is not for fear of any aggression from outside; it is the troubles and dissensions amongst ourselves. In order to get good fruit we must have a good tree. The responsibility of leadership rests with the elected representatives of the people; we all want a good President; see to it, then, that we elect good men as our representatives, and, what is most important of all, that we do our part as honest, upright citizens. If electors accept a bribe, and put person or party before country, how little better are we than when we were under the old rule ? But our hopes are great ; we believe in a Divine Power ruling over all. It is in His name we meet today to ask for strength and power. Whatever may be ahead, we look to Him who is our Leader .

"We love our country more dearly as we realise God's goodness and love. When we feel the darkness and the cloud over our country, we think of the Light of the World. Let us use the Light to dispel the darkness : as we use salt to preserve things, let us be t-he salt to keep good that which is good. The number of Christian men who share the control of the destiny of our country is large. In the old days we were as nothing. Now the Republic has come, we have liberty for the individual, liberty to worship as we will without hindrance. As the Government has granted us this freedom and liberty, we will do our duty as true and loyal citizens. We must show in our lives the love and devotion to our country that! we talk about. As light is borrowed from the sun, so may we reflect the Light of the World. If our example is no higher, no more unselfish than other people's, what better are we ? If we know what is right, we must do it. Obey the laws, love the people, publish the glad tidings. We do not seek place or power for ourselves, we long to get rid of the false and evil. Let us first see that we remove whatever there is of evil within us, and fill our lives with the love and care of others. Let others share the spirit that we have learnt something of. Let us now pray for our country, for all in authority, that they may manage the affairs righteously and truly. Let each one present worship God in silent prayer. ,

"After an impressive pause, prayers were offered by young men in various parts of the room, one concluding with the words: ‘It is not for self-aggrandisement we ask, not for the help of the arms of countries from away, nor for any aggression towards any other people, but with a longing for one great peaceful world that we come." ,

(The above is written from notes taken during the meeting and translated to me.-G.R.).

Chengtu, West China, Sunday, April 27, 1913."


Fred left me at Shanghai ; he had to meet the University Committee at Toronto, so went via Japan. Curious as it seems to us, the best photographs of the sacred royal city near Pekin were obtained by the Japanese who, no doubt, by bribery, had obtained permission to go inside the Palace.

My six weeks voyage on board a P. & O. liner was a very restful time. The first call, where I went ashore, was Hong Kong. The bay at night time, well lighted, reminded me of Scarborough South Bay and Castle Cliff. It was interesting to find that the lift I went up in to call on Everley Taylor's son was designed by the same man who made our South Cliff lift. The Hong Kong University is an imposing building, where students from all over China come, even from as far as Sz-chuan, more than 1,000 miles away. I met a young man who spoke English well. He showed me round and brought me down to the shore, where I was to hire a small boat to go out to the liner. To my dismay, when we were getting near the shore, with true Chinese courtesy he apologised for not helping me to get a boat. "You see, I cannot speak the language of the Cantonese," and so, bowing himself away, he left me in the dark to find my small boat.

If you want to realise what size you really are, measure your shadow at Singapore at midday, and your panama hat will about cover it, you are so near the equator. When Fred and I arrived in the North of China in February the sea was frozen.

As we steam along, the British flag outnumbers all the merchant ships, until we get to the Mediterranean Sea. Arrived at Suez with 24 hours before leaving Port Said, we had the choice of stopping on the boat and crawling through the Red Sea, or of going off on our own . The crawl would be slow; so thought an Irishman, two Americans, and myself; and we decided to "do" Egypt. Scandalous, you say; reserve your judgment; so, jumping off the vessel and jumping into a train for Cairo, we sped along, had six hours in bed at Shepherd's Hotel, and at six o'clock in the morning were all four seated in a motor on our way to visit the Sphinx and the Pyramids. The immense height of the latter Call best be judged if you have a village between yourselves and the Pyramids towering up far away. The Arabs were too obliging in their attention to us as we got out of the car, pulling my leg and self nearly off the camel; at last we got clear and were able to bring home photographs of our visit to the Pyramids without the intrusion of a modern motor car.

Our motorist wished to shew us everything I declined to be dragged round, and dropped into the great museum in Cairo. Whether it was my previous ignorance or what, I cannot say, but the mummified sacred animals, as well as persons, were extraordinary. There was Pharaoh's daughter with beautiful fair complexion and flaxen hair, who must be at least 3,000 years old. It was with difficulty that my companions tore me away from the museum, the American remarking, "We want to see something alive ; we have no use for these dead bodies." When I came away, I was amused to find that the only souvenir I had brought was a match box in metal and inlaid with gold and silver. The train journey to Port Said would have been dull if we had not been told that the lakes and palm trees covering large areas which we were looking at were not real at all; that it was "only a mirage."

"Only!" I said. "May I alter the word to a wonderful mirage ?"

We arrived at Port Said took off our hats to Egypt, and understood rather better how the Eastern, with its ages-old civilisation, looks at the globe trotter, saying, "When you have all gone, we shall be here--look at the Sphinx.",

So we came away, glad to have seen what we had. There is only one "memory" still to tell. Waking up one morning, I found myself on deck early; in front of me the cliffs and green hills of the home country. I had a lump in my throat.

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