Chinese metropolis with a fascinating Leeds link

Binzhou, China.
Binzhou, China.
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A Leeds missionary who travelled to china in the 19th century is now the subject of a major historical archive in the country he called home. Interview by Neil Hudson.

When a Leeds Baptist preacher set out to become a missionary at the end of the 19th Century, he could barely have imagined what impact his decision would have more than 100 years on.

Ernest Greening came from a family of preachers. Indeed, his father, John Greening (1816-1873) was well-known as a firebrand Baptist minister in Hunslet.

When Ernest set out, however, as a relatively young man, his mind must have been full of the unknown.

Today he is the subject of a major historical archive being produced by the city he ended up calling home: Peichin, now called Binzhou, in the Shandong province, China.

The city is one of the jewels in China’s crown, a sprawling metropolis full of modern wonder, a mesmerising mix of old and new: ancient temples and statues complementing the neon-lit sparkle of modernity, of vast engineering projects such as the Sun Wu Lake resort, the Binzhou Olympic Gymnasium, not to mention the countless skyscrapers which now dominate the city skyline and the impressive suspension bridges which rise from the forests hugging the banks of the mighty Yellow River, the sixth longest water course in the world.

Last week, four journalists from Binzhou travelled all the way to Leeds to meet Ernest’s descendants, who still live in the city. Celly Rowe is the proud granddaughter of Ernest.

Now 68, the retired psychotherapist travelled to Binzhou several years ago with husband Michael, 68. She has a jar of sand taken from the Yellow River as a memento.

She said: “My grandfather went to China in 1897 when he was about 25 and shortly after arriving there, he had to be evacuated because of the Boxer Rebellion.”

The rebellion was a violent uprising with a strong anti-foreign and anti-Christian message - one of the many obstacles he had to overcome.

Celly continued: “He returned to China after the rising and stayed there for about 40 years. He didn’t return to Britain until he was 64. He started a family out there and raised his children out there. My mother spoke fluent Chinese.

“My grandfather started schools, a hospital, a college amongst other things. I think a lot of people saw him as starting a lot of modern things in the town, which is what it was back then. I think they feel appreciative of what he did, how he helped change things. Nowadays, it is a city with over three million people.”

Mother of three, Celly, who lives in Roundhay, added: “Although we know he always spoke of China to his family with great affection, it is likely that he did not have good enough health to make many public appearances.”

Ernest is interred in Saint Pancras Cemetery, St John’s Wood, London in a common grave but judging by the strength of the Chinese delegation, his impact on their city merits a much more elevated status.

Zi Zhenping, director of the People’s Livelihood department at the Binzhou Daily, said: “We feel there’s a real connection between Binzhou and Leeds, which has its roots more than 100 years ago and was founded by Ernest Greening. He did many great things in our city, including building a church, schools, a hospital.

“We have looked at pictures of Leeds for a long time, because when Celly visited us some years ago, she brought with her books and pictures. It is good to see the city in person.

“The history of our city is very important to us and so the story of Mr Greening and where he came from is part of that. We will be using our visit to gather information and take that back so we can better explain the link between the two cities and we are also grateful for the pictures Celly has provided. This is not something we could have done 100 years ago but it is something we can do today.”

Feng Zhaohui, Chief Editor, said: “We would like to make more connections with Leeds, we’re proud of the history and glad to be able to visit your city.”

Ernest and Mary had three daughters, all born in China: Janet, Connie and Celly’s mother Eleanor Margaret (1905-1999). They were educated at home and then sent to boarding school in Chefoo.

Janet (1900-1997) was born in China at the time of Boxer Rebellion. She returned to China for a while in the 1920s as a nurse working with her father in Binzhou. She later returned to England to continue working as a nurse. She did not marry.

Constance Mary-Connie (1902-1986) was born in China and after training in England, she returned to China as a missionary in 1931 and married Thomas Allen, also a missionary, in China in 1934. They had three children Elizabeth, Philip and Margaret.

Eleanor Margaret became a teacher and married Kenneth Robertson in 1930, the son of a missionary in Zambia, Southern Africa. He became a doctor and the family, including five children, Jenny, John, who died in 2005, Paul, Amanda and Celly.

The life and times of a missionary from Leeds

Ernest GreeNing (1871–1938) was the eldest of four and his father was a firebrand Baptist preacher at Hunslet Baptist Tabernacle, Low Road. He followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a missionary and travelled to Shandong Province in northern China in 1897.

He ended up in Peichin (now called Binzhou) in 1898/9. In exams, he scored 95 per cent for Mandarin and 94 per cent for colloquial Chinese.

Ernest remained in China for the majority of his life, marrying Mary MacFarlane in Shanghai in 1900 and starting a family. In July 1900 he was evacuated because of the Boxer Rebellion but returned in 1901 to begin a new mission.

During his time in Binzhou, Ernest was responsible for the building of a school for boys in 1902 (where he was later headmaster), a hospital in 1904, a training school, training in carpentry, shoe making, cotton spinning, weaving and dyeing, and a girls’ school. It is mentioned that he trained Mr T H Sun and Mr Wang Shou Li, both prominent Chinese Christians of the day.

In 1922 the Baptist church closed the mission station in Binzhou to enable the Chinese to take on the work themselves and Ernest was moved to Chouts’un (Zhoucun), although he returned many time to Binzhou.

His latter years in China were busy but anxious ones because there was fighting in that part of China between nationalists and communists and the British presence was unpopular.

He sent annual reports back to the Baptist Missionary Society in London explaining the work being done, always asking for more financial support.

Ernest and his wife reluctantly left China in 1936 when he was 65 and retired from mission work. The family had not been back to England for 12 years. He had to have treatment for his health at the Liverpool hospital of tropical diseases. He retired with his wife in London where he only lived two years before his death in 1938.

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