Wuna Reilly and James Reilly, New South Wales Regional Meeting
The history of Quakers’ engagement in China begins, appropriately, with opposition to war. During the Second Opium War in China (1856-1860), Adam Davidson was a 24-year-old Methodist from Ireland, and a Corporal in the 12th Brigade of Britain’s Royal Artillery. Deeply disturbed by the notorious sacking of the Imperial Summer Palace in 1860, as he took sentry duty on the walls of Beijing, the ruins of the Palace still smoking in the distance, he began to wonder how he could reconcile such actions with his Christianity. This led him to pacifism, and after his return to Ireland his pacifism drew him to join the Society of Friends in 1865.
Although Davidson never returned to China, in 1886 he sent his son Robert to serve as the first Quaker missionary to China, telling him: “Go to China and as you meet the Chinese tell them you come with the Bible and not with a gun as I mistakenly did.”
Over the next few decades, a number of British and US Quakers followed Davidson’s example. They went primarily to Sichuan province in western China – laying the foundation for the first Yearly Meeting in China – Sichuan Yearly Meeting, established in 1904.
Quaker missionaries soon took up prominent roles promoting higher education in China. Robert Simkin, supported by the American Friends Board of Foreign Missions, became the principal of Union Middle School in Chengdu in 1912, and then Acting Vice-President of West China Union University in 1919. William Cadbury, supported by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and the Cadbury Fund, eventually became Superintendent of Canton (Guangzhou) Hospital, Vice-President of the Chinese Medical Association, and then Chairman of the Canton International Red Cross.
The legacy of Quaker missionaries endures in the institutions they helped establish. Chongqing Boys’ School, founded by Quakers, in 1991 reverted to its original name – Friends High School. West China Union University, co-founded by Quaker missionaries in 1910 in Chengdu, endures as the West China University of Medical Sciences.
As China descended into war following Japan’s invasion of central China in 1937, Quaker missionaries established relief programs. In 1938, Quakers established the Friends Centre in Shanghai with support from the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). The missionary legacy and relief programs laid the foundation for the most ambitious of all Quaker service programs in China – the Friends’ Ambulance Unit (FAU).
From the Nameless to the Nameless: Friends Ambulance Unit
The Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) was originally established during World War I to provide a channel of service for Conscientious Objectors (COs), mainly Quakers. It was resurrected in 1939 to again provide opportunities for COs to offer service in relief of suffering brought on by war. One of FAU’s most important programs was the China Convoy.
As Japanese armies seized control of most of China, by 1940 the only available land route into “Free China”, the part controlled by the Nationalist Party under Chiang Kai-shek, was via Burma and the new Burma Road. With the support of the British Fund for the Relief of Distress in China, the FAU began transporting medical supplies from Rangoon and, after the fall of Burma, from Kunming.
Despite daunting conditions, by 1942, the FAU had established a functioning transport system. Without access to petrol, FAU trucks had been converted to run on charcoal-fuelled gas, rapeseed oil, tung oil, and even alcohol. Medical and mobile surgical teams formed to work alongside the Chinese Red Cross.
Although China’s wartime resistance to Japan included both the Nationalists and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), most Christian relief organisations refused to engage with the CCP. One of the few Western organisations prepared to work with the CCP, the FAU sent a team to serve in the Communist base area of Yan’an, facilitated by future Premier Zhou Enlai.
One estimate suggests that up to 90 per cent of the medical supplies reaching China for civilian use during the war were brought in by the FAU. After the war’s end, the FAU shifted its focus to rural rehabilitation in Henan province. By the time FAU’s China Convoy was formally disbanded in 1950, it had included 170 individuals from five countries over nine years.
When Friends Service Council and the AFSC jointly accepted the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of Quakers worldwide, they were honored for their service “from the nameless to the nameless”—an ideal embodied by the FAU in China.
After the Communist Revolution in 1949, most Westerners soon left the country, including Quaker missionaries. However, Friends continued to play an active role in Hong Kong, which remained under British rule. From the late 1940s, Hong Kong Quakers founded “rooftop schools” for children of migrants from mainland China, and later also provided relief services for refugees from Vietnam. In 1979 Hong Kong Friends Meeting founded Oxfam Hong Kong to gather relief for Cambodia. Now independent of Quakers, Oxfam Hong Kong has grown into one of the largest Oxfams in the world.
Recognising China: AFSC’s Cold War Engagement
Following the Communist Party’s 1949 victory over the Nationalists, the United States government refused to recognise the new Communist government—instead insisting to recognise only the Nationalist government on Taiwan as the government of China.
Drawing from its history of involvement in China, AFSC urged US recognition of China and lobbied for China’s inclusion in the United Nations. At the height of the McCarthy “Red Scare” in the 1950s, AFSC published a book titled “A New China Policy,” and sponsored a series of conferences in the US calling for diplomatic recognition of China. These efforts led to the founding of the National Committee on US-China Relations, which later organised the famous Ping Pong Diplomacy delegation.
AFSC also held influential conferences with UN diplomats in Geneva and New York to discuss the PRC assumption of the China seat at the UN. After its success in 1971, AFSC led two high-level delegations to China and published a series of books aimed at broadening dialogue and facilitating exchanges between the US and China, laying the foundation for the renewal of diplomatic relations in 1979.
Renewed Engagement: AFSC Returns to China
From the 1970s, AFSC’s work in Asia shifted toward the aftermath of US-led wars in Southeast Asia, democratisation in South Korea, and protesting US military bases maintained throughout the region. It was not until 2001, when we were hired as the Quaker International Affairs Representatives (QIARs) in East Asia, that AFSC established its first office in China since 1949.