Project Canterbury

Charles Perry Scott
First Bishop in North China

By the Right Reverend Bishop Montgomery, D.D.

[London] Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 1928.

Chapter III. The Great Famine

Now I have to tell of a very fine bit of work. Scott in his four years in China had not gained a great mastery of the language when he was called to distribute relief among sufferers in one of the most terrible famines in history. He published an account of it for private circulation in 1885, and a long letter on the same subject appeared in the Mission Field for November, 1879.

Distress began in Shantung in 1876. In the autumn of 1877 news came of far worse trouble in the western parts of Shansi. In due time Shensi, still further west, was affected. The Chinese Government were deeply concerned, and put forth every effort to supply food; moreover, individual Chinese gave freely. Some districts gave £50,000. Individual merchants contributed sums of £6,000 each. Foreigners also were actively assisting: a London committee sent £1,600 to be allocated by missionaries. Roman Catholic authorities in Europe sent £35,000, their own Chinese Christians in large numbers being in great peril. Probably more than £100,000 came from foreign sources, and missionaries such as the Rev. Timothy Richard and Mr. David Hill, did yeoman service on the spot. The famine had extended over the greater part of four provinces, each as large European kingdom, with populations from fifteen to twenty-five millions in each. There had been no rain for three years; the forests had been destroyed and the ground desiccated; rivers had been silted up, checking irrigation; the roads had been neglected; (opium) poppy had been replacing wheat, as being more lucrative. It was estimated that from nine to thirteen millions of the people had perished. Food was piled on the wharves far away, but it was impossible to reach the starving people. The roads, such as they were--mere tracks indeed--provided an awful spectacle: the dead lay around, wolves and dogs fed on the bodies of horses and cattle and human beings; industry had ceased, everywhere there was the silence of stupified misery. Robbers were at work. The people became so desperate in their hunger that they ate anything whatever, and it is best to draw a veil over the worst occurrences.

In the summer of 1878, Charles Scott was asked to go and distribute £1,000 given to S.P.G. by an anonymous donor, this sum being increased to £4,000 by the Famine Relief Committee in Shanghai. It meant going into regions he had never visited, whereas there were many missionaries in the famine area. Of course he consented. Writing to his mother, he says lie would take all care, though pestilence would be stalking through the land, and he promised to keep himself adequately fed. Mrs. Nevius, however, was so alarmed that she deliberately refrained from writing to Scott's mother till her son was returning, for fear of frightening relatives at home. In May, 1879, on their return, she says: "I never approved of the undertaking. I was greatly hurt by the coolness with which some of his friends, both in China and England, urged his going on a work which might have cost him his life or his health, or might have proved an entire failure on account of his inexperience."

It had been made clear, however, to his friends that here was a level-headed, capable man, who was fit to tackle any problem needing prudence and self-control. They were right. He and a young colleague, Mr. Capel, a servant "Ma," and a Chinese from Ningpo, started on a journey which in the end led them i ,000 miles from Chefoo, through the most harrowing scenes on roads almost impassable, travelling in great discomfort and carrying at first £1,000 in silver on the backs of ponies. I have before me a score or two of his letters written during this trip, and what strikes one is the quiet way he meets all difficulties. He writes as a doctor at the front might have written among the wounded and dying, and as one inured to the work. The only malady from which he suffered was a succession of boils, a form of misery endured by him at other times.

Scott put himself at once, wherever he went, into the hands of the local Mandarin, and it was necessary for all distributors to determine whether they should give relief in grain or in money; also whether it should be wholesale or retail: that is, whether through the heads of a village, or from house to house. In some districts one method was adopted, in some another, money was given either in copper or cash notes, or in silver. Scott was compelled to distribute silver by the advice of the local authorities, and the method was so extraordinary that I must give it at some length.

In Fen-hsi-hsien in Shansi, where there was great distress, silver was given in packets to the representatives of each family. These packets had to be ready before they reached a village, information about the families having been procured beforehand, and of course the amounts varied indefinitely. I now quote:--

"The most laborious work was the preparation of these little parcels. There is no silver currency, the metal being usually cast into rough blocks weighing fifty ounces (or tacls), and worth about £12 each. Before these can be manipulated, they have to be subjected to the forge and the blacksmith's hammer. Two of this craft we had into our yard day after day, and their business was to flatten out and break up the blocks--' shoes,' they are called -into pieces of about 2 oz. each. Mr. Capel, Ma, and I, were each furnished with small scales on a steel yard. A Chinese stood by with an enormous pair of shears which could only be used by the whole weight of the operator's body being brought to bear in a sitting posture on the upper arm of the instrument: this man's duty was to clip the cold silver, when the results of the blacksmith's labour turned out, as of course they often did, to be above the required weight. The servant was told off to watch the blacksmith, and see that not too much silver was lost in the process of heating and beating: in fact we had to weigh each 'shoe' before cutting and after, and if in any case the difference exceeded a fixed maximum, the workmen were not paid for their labour over that particular piece. Then we all set to work for two or three days at a time, heating, hammering, clipping, weighing, and making up the little packets, on each of which the amount contained was written by a Chinese pen."

It was one of Scott's troubles that the Mandarin would insist on giving them big dinners. It seemed indecent to sit down to these at such a time. Sweetmeats provided on such occasions they bought and sent to the children. They were also careful at all distributions of relief among the representatives of families, or before the whole village, to give the fee to the officials who accompanied them in the most public manner, in order that the people might be assured that nothing was required from them.

As to numbers relieved: Scott, in Ping-yang-fu, relieved 1,572 families in thirty-two villages, each family being separately visited. In Fen-hsi-hsien 3,490 families in five large districts; and if it is asked why they had recourse to the cumbrous method of silver distribution, the answer is that the authorities assured them that the people in these villages would be unable to get to places where notes or other money could be exchanged. Of course there were others at work on a far larger scale. They were residents in the districts employing seventy or eighty distributors. Messrs. Richard and Hill must have saved 40,000 lives.

In some districts seven-tenths of the population had died; a house could be purchased for the price of a meal. In one district of 120,000 before the famine, only 30,000 were left. In Honan Province, Scott says: "We are told here that the famine has carried off more rich men than poor; the meaning being that the poor very soon gave up the struggle, sold their lands, houses and furniture to the rich and fled to places where they could live. The rich gradually accumulated great property, but exhausted their supply of grain, and finally, when it was too late, and when they had no means of raising money wherewith to fly, they found death stared them in the face."

"The destruction of property is enormous. Good houses sold for eightpence. I was shown a very fine house sold for £7, which cost £7000."

It will be asked how the Chinese estimated this aid from foreigners, and whether evangelisation prospered.

Scott writes: "The immediate good results to missionary work are in proportion to the amount of labour which has been bestowed upon the district previous to the famine. For instance, in this Province of Shantung there has been a good deal of missionary work for several years, and the famine relief seems to have given a great impetus to the work. . . . For ourselves, we felt that the time of the distribution of money was not a favourable one for the preaching of the Gospel to a people for the first time. In the first place, we were surrounded by the avaricious and dishonest: such men cannot make the nucleus of a healthy Christian community. But there was another reason which weighed strongly with me at least. The one thing that a Chinese does not understand is disinterestedness--(Remember, this refers to the interior of China half a century ago). He can hardly believe in the existence of such a virtue. As soon, then, as the foreigner arrives with his hands full of silver ready to distribute to any who are in need, the first question he asks is 'Why does he do it? What does he want? What object has he in view that he should come 14,000 miles and give away thousands of pounds of money, for of course he accepts a quid pro quo?'

"Various replies are given. Some say that he wants to buy the hearts of the people; others that he will return in a prosperous year and demand his money with enormous interest. . .

"Under such circumstances it seems better that the distributors should withdraw as their work is completed. I believe the effect must ultimately be great. ... I am thankful we were permitted to engage in it. The experience has been invaluable. I should not now feel we were acting rashly in travelling, however far, into the interior. But it did not seem to us that there was any special call to go immediately to Shansi."

Scott mentions that one mission station was opened in consequence of famine relief, Hochien, 120 miles from Peking, and by Brereton.

Summing up, Scott writes to S.P.G. explaining the heavy cost of the expedition. They were absent nine months all but three days, starting for an unknown destination, and having to be prepared with sufficient food when in very critical conditions. Travelling was very slow, roads being blocked, and prices were very high. In one case it cost £6 to despatch some letters to Chefoo.

The places from which they chiefly worked were Pu-chow, Ping-yang-fu, Fen-hsi-hsien in Shansi; and Scott also visited six principal cities in Shensi, the further western Province.

Arriving home (Chefoo), in May, 1879, he writes thankfully for letters "received in such queer places and dens of the earth, cheering my darkened and be-China-ed soul, and bringing tears to eyes which had grown too hard to cry. The weather kept wonderfully cool for our home journey, but I felt the burden of it and had a sensation that an extra special Providence kept us from breaking down on the road, where there were no necessaries for an invalid. I steadily felt more uncomfortable, but preached and celebrated Holy Communion on Sunday, at Chefoo, feeling I was somehow wrong. The next day I had fever. We were a little nervous, for 'fever' has come to have a grave meaning for us of late in North China." It proved to be neither typhus nor typhoid, as was first feared. Those who read this record will give a sigh of relief, thanking God for a gallant venture splendidly carried through, and a return just in time.

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