Disrupting 5,000 Years of Greatness

It is easy to take for granted, the fact that modern and traditional medicine are both within access to practically all people residing in modern China. During the 1800s, healthcare and sanitation were dismal and life expectancy in China was only about 30 years. In America, where modern medicine was developing quickly, life expectancy was about 40 years. Things would change for China with the arrival of American missionaries. In 1834, an American eye doctor/missionary sailed to China and stationed himself in Guangzhou. He was Yale Medical School graduate Dr Peter Parker.

Disturbed by the appalling state of healthcare in China where surgery was non-existent (apart from popular legends that date back 1,000 years), Dr Parker decided to raise funds for a hospital. He first got a Chinese painter and taught him to paint realistic oil paintings of Chinese patients who were suffering from ghastly tumours and deformities. He then showed these pictures in America and canvassed for funds to save the Chinese people from the sorry state of healthcare in their country. In 1835, he founded the Canton Hospital, China’s first modern hospital. In the 30 years that he had lived in China, Dr Parker performed more than 50,000 operations and trained dozens of surgeons and nurses.

Dr Parker was also a missionary who was not as successful with converts as he was with surgery. However, not in his wildest dreams could he foresee that one of his few converts would be Hong Xiu Quan – the legendary heavenly king of the Taiping Revolution. It would be easy to blame Dr Parker for that bloody revolution, but that would be another story.

The Canton hospital was shut in 1840 because of the Opium War. Dr Parker returned to the US, got married and returned to China in 1842 to reopen the hospital. He wore many hats apart from that of a surgeon. Besides running the Canton Hospital, he was also involved with diplomacy and trade negotiations between China and the US. He returned to the US when his health was failing him, dying there in 1888.

Gertrude Howe as a young missionary. Courtesy of the General Commission on Archives and History, United Methodist Church.
Gertrude Howe

Dr Parker’s immense contributions to the foundation of modern medicine in China inspired many other Americans. Gertrude Howe was a Methodist missionary unlike most others. When she first arrived in Jiujiang (Jiangxi Province) China in 1872, she chose to live among the Chinese and not with other missionaries. Immersed in Chinese society, she was especially outraged by the practice of dumping female babies into ditches.

Howe made it her mission to rescue these female babies, one of whom turned out to be Kang Aide 康爱德 alias 康成, English name, Ida Kahn who was destined to be abandoned or betrothed. Howe later founded the Rulison Girls’ High School to educate abandoned Chinese girls but gradually, even Chinese parents from enlightened, well-to-do families sent their daughters there. One of those rich girls was Shi Meiyu 石美玉, the daughter of a wealthy merchant who converted to Christianity and didn’t want to bind his daughter’s feet. Being ostracised by Chinese society, Mr Shi saw that his daughter would be better off living with American missionaries.

In 1890, Howe brought 5 of her top Chinese students to enroll in her alma mater, the University of Michigan. Kang and Shi were among them. They adopted the English names of Ida Kahn and Mary Stone while they were in America.

Ida Kahn Picture.jpg
Kang Aide, alias Kang Cheng, Ida Kahn

Both girls graduated with medical degrees in 1896 and returned to China. As the first and only Chinese female medical doctors, they had scores of inquisitive patients queuing to see them every day. The efficacy of Western medicine spoke volumes to the uninitiated Chinese public. Ironically, with a very different outlook and unbound feet to boot, the two lady doctors were not very well-liked by the “conservatives”.

Dr Kahn returned to America and travelled to London for postgraduate training and studies in English literature. Imagine that this incredibly talented woman could have been dumped in a ditch by her parents!


Dr Mary Stone (Shi Meiyu) also received the Rockefeller Foundation scholarship to do postgraduate work at Johns Hopkins University. Mary had a younger sister, named Phoebe Stone who also graduated with a medical degree from Michigan and touched many lives in China. Then, with their adoptive mother Gertrude Howe, they set up the Elizabeth Skelton Danforth Hospital in Jiujiang. The bulk of the donations didn’t come from China but from one Dr Danforth in Chicago.

These pioneers would have a profound influence on Chinese society. Xenophobic folks ranging from Confucian scholars to cults and secret society members like the Yihetuan or Boxers’ Brigade, despised the new trends that foreigners introduced. Even the palace was getting worried as more and more wealthy Chinese families sent their children overseas to be educated in democratic societies. Young people were getting more Westernised and women were not getting their feet bound.

Conservatives and the powers that be saw this as a disruption to 5,000 years of greatness. The entire expat and Christian community in China came under attack during the Boxer Rebellion (with tacit approval if not strong support from the government) which lasted from 1899 to 1901. Besieged by Boxers and the Qing Army who dismantled railway lines and telegraph poles in protest against Western “enslavement”, European and Americans under threat in China sent out desperate pleas for help, triggering a rescue mission by the 8-Nation Alliance.

Thousands of Westerners, Chinese Christians and merchants dealing with Western goods were slaughtered in that bloody uprising. Dr Stone’s father Mr Shi, was among the victims. The death toll was never ascertained. Some sources estimated that 100,000 Chinese people were killed, with 30,000 killed by the European military Alliance and 70,000 Chinese Christians and merchants killed by the Boxers and Qing Army. In fact, the Alliance did not plan on killing so many Boxers. It’s just that when Boxers went into a trance, they believed they were immune to Western bullets.

The doctors had to go into hiding during the Boxers’ Rebellion. Dr Kahn even fled to Japan. When the dust from the Boxer Rebellion settled, the facts would fly in the face of the stubborn conservatives and supremacists. The Chinese did not have some mystical ritual that could render them immune to Western bullets. Western medicine saved more lives than the existing healthcare system in China. Graduates from Western universities were clearly more capable and knowledgeable than those who studied for Chinese imperial examinations. It was not till 1905 that the imperial examinations which tested candidates on Confucian philosophy in governing and administration were finally abolished. Only then did schools in China begin to teach Math, Science and English. In contrast, Japan reacted quite differently to Westerners “hijacking” their culture – by launching the Meji Restoration in which they forced the Shogans to give up their power and “restored” rule by a ceremonial emperor while creating a new political system with a constitution and parliament.

Unbelievably, xenophobia and supremacy in China has survived till this day. The narrative promulgated by mainstream Chinese society today is that evil and predatory Westerners humiliated the Chinese and did no good for Chinese society. Americans are still painted as the enemy bent on destroying China as in 亡我之心不死.

To be fair, Western movements and enterprises in China were neither completely good nor purely bad. Very often, they were exploitative. However, there are very valid reasons for modern dissidents to seek help from Westerners as Mary Stone and Ida Kahn did. The positive aspects of “limited colonisation” have been swept under the carpet and most Chinese people today are not aware of them. I cannot imagine what would have become of us and our cousins in China if not for the Western disruption to 5,000 years of Chinese greatness.