Great missionaries to Gulangyu in the 19th century

Updated: 2015-06-09
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After its defeat in the Opium Wars (1840 to ‘42), China was forced to open and establish five treaty ports to the outside world. Xiamen was one such port. Missionaries were subsequently allowed to come to Xiamen and live on Gulangyu, which was then an international settlement. Aside from doing their missionary work, these missionaries also brought with them advanced knowledge and technological capabilities of their Western, capitalist nations. Some of them set up schools, hospitals, and carried out charitable activities in Xiamen. In this article, we will introduce three outstanding examples of Western missionaries, whose contributions to the people of Xiamen are still remembered even after more than 100 years.


John Abraham Otte – Introduced modern medicine in Xiamen


Dr. John Abraham Otte (1861-1910)


While studying in the Netherlands in 1886, 24-year-old Dr. Otte met a little girl who changed his life forever. She gave Otte two Dutch half-pennies and told him to build a hospital in China with the money. Encouraged and motivated, the Dutch-American doctor came to Fujian two years later with his bride. He spent the rest of his life designing and building three hospitals in Fujian, including Gulangyu’s historic Hope Hospital. He also helped train and mentor Xiamen’s first cohort of Western medicine doctors and nurses.


Young and well-educated...A photo of Dr. John Abraham Otte before he came to Xiamen


Hope Hospital was the first standard modern hospital in Xiamen. But Otte’s work to get the hospital built was met with resistance from other foreign settlers. Many feared living at close proximity with the diseased patients the hospital would treat; others feared the rise in property costs it would inevitably cause. But Otte overcame their protests, and completed Hope Hospital in 1896. A women’s hospital, subsequently renamed Wilhelmina Hospital, was later constructed alongside it.


Old photo...A view of Hope Hospital from Yanzaiwei Hill on Gulangyu


In 2010, a memorial service for the 100th anniversary of Dr. John Abraham Otte's death was held in front Hope Hospital.


These hospitals eventually served both the native and foreign populations. Most of Otte’s patients were from Xiamen and nearby cities, but people also came from as far away as Manila and Rangoon to seek his help. Otte’s patients included beggars, the poor, peasants, businessmen, government officials and scholars. He performed over 7,500 operations during his 12-year stay at the hospital.


Dr. John Abraham Otte and his Chinese students


Though he was busy every day with medical and missionary work, Dr. Otte managed to find time to design Gulangyu's most conspicuous landmark, the red-domed “Eight Diagrams Building” (Bagualou).


Bagualou -- the red-domed “Eight Diagrams Building”, built in 1907


On 14th April 1910, at age 49, Otte died of plague, which he had contracted from a Muslim patient in the Amoy mosque. His colleagues sent notice to his wife, who was in the United States with their children, who were attending school there; and Otte was buried in Chinese soil. Two pastors conducted the service in both English and Chinese, and the local residents established a memorial next to his hospitals with inscriptions in English, Chinese, Dutch, and Latin. Chinese people and foreigners gathered for the funeral, a testimony to his desire to work among both peoples.


He left his homeland to devote his efforts to the people of Xiamen. Among the Xiamen people, he labored with whole-hearted devotion for 20 years, preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, healing the sick, building three hospitals, and training the first group of local Western medicine doctors and nurses. The faithful use of his learning and skills in unwearied service made him a man of far-reaching influence.


Frances Phelps - She married Dr. John A. Otte in 1887. Shortly thereafter, she traveled to the Amoy Mission in China with him and worked there until 1900. She died in Holland, Michigan, in 1956.


The young couple with two of their children and the Chinese nanny


Patrick Manson - Father of tropical medicine



Sir Patrick Manson (1844 - 1922)


When Patrick Manson arrived in Xiamen in 1871, the island known as the “white man's grave”—a place where malaria, typhoid fever and dengue fever were endemic. One in 450 people in Xiamen had leprosy at the time.

Manson set up a smallpox vaccination program on Gulangyu, trained local medical assistants, and researched endemic disease. His only research tool was a magnifying glass.

As his reputation grew, Manson started to attract an increasing number of Chinese clients. By 1875, he had 1,980 patients. Elephantiasis was prevalent in Xiamen at the time. There were thousands of hapless Chinese dragging their deformed limbs around the streets, sometimes in danger of suffocating due to complications of the disease. In 1877, Manson surgically removed a ton of elephantiasis tissue from the lower limbs and scrotum areas of his patients, and lost only two patients.

After four years in Xiamen, Manson made an extended trip to Britain, and got married on December 21, 1875. With his young wife and a compound microscope, the 31-year-old then returned to Xiamen to undertake some of his most important research.


Patrick Manson with his family in Xiamen


 Manson embarked on a series of experiments in an attempt to identify the cause of elephantiasis, which he suspected was associated with microfilaria, a tiny embryonic parasitic worm commonly found in the blood of his patients. He used his gardener, Hin Lo, who was infected with microfilaria but not with elephantiasis, as a guinea pig. He allowed mosquitoes to feed on the faithful servant's blood overnight, and then Manson examined the engorged insects under a microscope.


Sir Patrick Manson, experimenting with Filaria sanguinis hominis in Xiamen.


Manson had discovered that the female mosquito acts as a nurse to the embryonic parasites. He began to form a hypothesis about the insect's role in the spread of disease. His discovery—that the mosquito was the intermediary host of the filarial parasite—was a major breakthrough in 1877, and it eventually led to an understanding of how human-to-human transmission occured. More fundamentally, Manson established that human diseases could come from animals—an understanding that helps form the bedrock of modern public health science today.

Manson helped found the College of Medicine at Hong Kong, and the London School of Tropical Medicine. After writing his bestselling work, “Manual of Tropical Diseases,” Manson retired in 1912 to fish in Ireland. But he returned to medicine at the beginning of World War I; and in spite of debilitating gout, he pursued research and study in medicine until his death in 1922.


David Abeel - Father of the Amoy Mission


David Abeel (1804 - 1846)


The first missionary to enter and initiate missionary efforts in Xiamen was Dr. David Abeel from the United States. During his two-year stay in Xiamen from 1842 to 1844, he pioneered the Amoy Mission (Xiamen Mission), which led the construction of China's first Protestant church and became the most successful missionary organization in the country.

Though Abeel was physically weak and prone to illness, he felt great passion for China and poured all his energy into his missionary work. Abeel arrived in Xiamen on February 24, 1842 - even before the Treaty of Nanking was signed on August 29, 1842. Abeel knew that competence in the local language is one of the most essential skills for missionary work, so while waiting for China to open its doors to the outside world, he prepared himself by learning Hokkien.

When he finally arrived in Xiamen, Abeel rented a small house on Gulangyu near the water’s edge, and then founded Xiamen’s first mission. Though he had only limited knowledge of Hokkien, he set to work immediately. He spent his time traveling to preach, distribute religious literature, and provide religious counsel. Throngs of curious onlookers crowded his little worship room from dawn to dusk. Half a year after his arrival, the number of Sunday parishioners averaged nearly 50. By January 1844, the ministry had expanded to Xiamen. About a year later, a hospital was set up in a nearby building.

In Xiamen, Abeel met with Chinese official and scholar Xu Jiyu, whom Abeel provided with information on conditions in the West. Abeel translated for Xu and gave him many maps and other materials. Xu later used that information to compile an influential work called “An Outline of Global Geography”, which challenged the premises of China’s traditional view of the world.


Abeel provided Xu Jiyu with information on conditions in the West.


There were only five treaty ports where missionaries were allowed to work, and so the Xiamen Mission grew into a major site for missionary activities. But Abeel’s poor health forced him to return to America, where he died in Albany, New York, in 1846. Although he did not successfully convert any of the Xiamen population to Christianity, the work he did led to the establishment of churches, hospitals and schools in Gulangyu and Xiamen, and helped make it possible for women to enter the missionary field.



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Comments Area ( Total Comments: 2 )
WOXteam002 commented on 15 Jun 2015
@cwhite WOX has updated the article. Sorry for the misleading information and thank you for your comments.
cwhite commented on 15 Jun 2015
A bit strange that he was born in 1861 and designed Union Church, which was built in 1863. He must have been a child genius...or...someone didn't do their research very well.