book of letters

 The book Letters from China was compiled by me in 2000. The letters are those sent home from Manchuria (north China) by my Dad during the five years he was a missionary there, 1936 - 41, well before I was born.

We made 50 copies for family and friends, and soon a further 50 were required. The book took on a life of its own, lent and borrowed through the worldwide network of people connected to and descended from those missionaries in China of the early 20th century.

Dad had planned to spend his life in Manchuria, but his first five years turned out to be his only five years.

My grandmother kept all her son's letters. After she died, for many years they were considered lost. A few years before Dad died, the letters turned up in a shoe-box, fine fluttery paper, all in the right order.

Dad and I read them together. As his memory was jogged, he would add more information, which I made note of, and later used in the book as footnotes.

Typing out the material, sorting it into chapters, adding photos from Dad's collection, arranging printing and distribution, took me two years. Mum and Dad bore a lot of the cost.

The book came to the attention of a Northern Ireland film producer, who used it as a template for a series of documentary programmes about religion in the places Dad's travels had taken him. The programmes were shown on BBC TV in 2006. See: and look for A Pilgrim's Progress.

The film crew visited Manchuria, but I was not able to accompany them. I decided to go anyway. A friend and I travelled to China on the Trans-Siberian Railway.


From Moscow to Beijing took two weeks - an incredible experience. This was a journey Dad never made himself, but it was the route of all the letters he sent, and all the letters from home that he received.

Four days watching Siberian birch trees go by, were followed by a spell at the freezing Lake Baikal, then back on the train again... for Mongolia, and our home in a ger on the high Mongolian Steppe

our ger home

From Beijing we travelled north into the former Manchuria, now Dongbei Province.

We based ourselves in Shenyang, formerly Mukden, Manchuria's capital and now the capital of Dongbei. We visited places where the film crew had been, and more - places where Dad had lived and worked. We found a very old man who remembered Dad by his Chinese name, Kao Ke Li. In fact, Dad had been his teacher, and this man in his turn had become minister in charge of a very large church in Shenyang.

On my return to Shenyang the following year, he had died.

During Dad's time and after, China's Christians were under threat from the Japanese who were in control of Manchuria. Later they suffered terribly during Mao Tse Tung's Cultural Revolution, many being imprisoned and tortured, many being put to death. A Chinese friend who visited us in Ireland when I was a child, and whom I have always remembered with affection, later died, along with his wife, in a Chinese prison.

In China, I received an unbelievably warm welcome. I had to remind myself constantly that these likeable, generous people were survivors, and the children of survivors, of terrible traumatic times.

In 2010, I went to Dongbei again, this time alone. I travelled further north-east than before, right up by the border with North Korea, to Meihekou City, a village in Dad's time. He had been in charge of twenty-two churches in the area. I hoped to find traces, and I found a lot. No Westerner goes to these parts. It was even suggested that the last westerner actually seen there might have been Dad, seventy years before.

In both 2009 and 2010, I spent time in the mind-boggling metropolis that is Beijing. Dad's first six months were spent in the Beijing Language School, from which he emerged fluent. My own Mandarin is basic, but enough for simple conversations with a willing interlocutor. 

To be continued....