One Sunderland woman’s remarkable role in China

Marion Young and her colleague Wang Ssu Wen with the man carrying their luggage.
Marion Young and her colleague Wang Ssu Wen with the man carrying their luggage.
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A Sunderland woman’s remarkable journeys - to establish Christianity in China - have been documented in a new book.

Letters from Manchuria is written by Neil Sinclair, with the help of his wife Helen.

Helen and Neil Sinclair.

Helen and Neil Sinclair.

It uses letters which were written by Helen’s mother, Marion Young, to give a vivid picture of life as a missionary in Japanese occupied Manchuria in the late 1930s.

It gives a vivid picture of life in the market town of Faku as well as the villages in Inner Mongolia which Marion visited as part of her mission work.

The people, houses, customs and food of the area are all described.

So is the transport she used – train, bus, ferry, bullock cart and bicycle.

It uses letters which were written by Helen’s mother, Marion Young, to give a vivid picture of life as a missionary in Japanese occupied Manchuria in the late 1930s

Neil Sinclair

Sometimes she walked on rough field paths and roads for up to 15 or 20 miles with her Chinese colleagues to reach the outlying villages.

Even the journey by bus from the nearest railway station to Faku, the town where she was based, could be problematic when the unsurfaced roads became impassable after heavy rain.

But the whole story started back in 1847 in the original St George’s Presbyterian Church building in Villiers Street.

That’s where the Synod of the Presbyterian Church of England decided to start a mission to China.

William Burns was immediately ordained as a missionary and travelled to South East China.

His work on establishing a Christian Church began.

Twenty years later, he founded another mission in Manchuria and it was staffed by Irish and Scottish Presbyterian missionaries, including Helen’s parents.

Neil and Helen have visited both South East and North East China.

They found Christian churches which have survived periods of persecution and are now growing with at least 60 million followers.

And to continue the Sunderland links, a major centre of Christianity is Swatow where one of the distinguished missionaries was Margaret Dryburgh from Sunderland.

She is commemorated in a memorial in Stockton Road United Reformed Church, the successor to St George’s Church, which Neil and Helen are members of.

Letters from Manchuria also recounts visits to the city of Harbin with which Sunderland has had a friendship agreement since 2009.

At the time of Marion’s visits in 1937 and 1938, Harbin still had much Russian influence.

It was the main colonial power in North East China until it was supplanted by Japan.

The accounts of the social side of the annual meetings challenge stereotypical views of Presbyterian missionaries.

The charades, in which the missionaries acted out surprising roles, and rough games of hockey show that they were capable of enjoying themselves away from their demanding work and from the oppressive nature of Japanese rule in what had become the puppet state of Manchukuo.

The extent of Japanese control is given in letters which were carried by missionaries returning home, in order to avoid the censors.

In particular they record an instruction that all schools had to have a photograph of the Manchukuon puppet Emperor, Pu Yi (the last Emperor of China), and that the headmaster or mistress had to commit suicide if anything happened to the photograph.

The Right Hon Douglas Alexander, the former Secretary of State for International Development, whose grandparents were missionaries in Manchuria, writes in the Foreword that the letters of Marion Young “have shone a light on an extraordinary life of service undertaken in a far away land at a time of trial and tribulation.”

The author’s royalties from the book will support the Orphans Programme of Amity, a Chinese Christian organisation, through the Friends of the Church in China.

Letters from Manchuria by Neil T. Sinclair is published by Little Knoll Press, and price at £25.

Neil and Helen Sinclair will be signing copies of the book at Waterstones in the Bridges between 12pm and 1pm on Saturday, January 21.