Eyewitnesses to conflict in China

Some of the BMS Shaanxi group who were present during the fighting at Xi’an, seen here during a conference in late 1925. Ruth Tait is the short-haired woman, second left, front row. Rev. James Watson is second right, third row, with a bow-tie.


The Church of Scotland Overseas Mission archive at the National Library of Scotland is a rich resource for missionary endeavour throughout the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Of course, in addition to the Church of Scotland, many Scots chose to serve with other British missionary societies, and the library’s collections include the personal papers of a number of such men and women. Archives like these are crucial to learning about the personal experiences of individual missionaries, as well as informing our understanding of the places in which they were stationed. This is particularly true where individuals found themselves caught up in dramatic events of historical significance.  

In this guest post, military history researcher Graham Thompson explores two manuscript collections that shed new light on the Chinese civil war of the 1920s through the eyes of two Scottish missionaries.

My own interest is in early 20th century China, especially military history, and in 2010 I came across the diaries and papers of Dr Ruth Tait of the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS) in the archive and manuscript collections at the National Library of Scotland. Tait served most of her career as a medical missionary in the city of Xi’an, Shaanxi province, but the diaries are primarily concerned with a long and destructive siege of the city from April-November 1926. Then in 2014, the Library acquired the papers of one of her colleagues, Rev. James Watson, also present during the siege. Together, the two collections provide a fascinating eyewitness perspective on this Chinese conflict.

The mission stations, schools and hospital in Xi’an, and other mission stations in the surrounding countryside, were one of two major centres of BMS activity in China, the other being in Shandong province. The Shaanxi work began in 1890, and the BMS workers were caught up in both the Boxer Rebellion of 1900-1901, and the 1911 Revolution. The 1926 siege was another challenging time for both the missionaries and the city’s population. In all 17 BMS adults and four children endured the siege of the city, with another 11 adults in surrounding towns and villages. A further 20 or so missionaries from other countries were also in Xi’an.

Above – a view of the walls and one of the gates of Xi’an in 1937. Despite many attempts, the besieging forces never breached the walls of the city. Below – the walls of Xi’an in 2010.

Xi’an was besieged by the forces of Liu Zhenhua, a supporter of Wu Pei Fu, a leading northern warlord in the provinces of Hubei and Henan, east of Shaanxi. The defenders were led by Generals Yang Hucheng and Li Yunlong, and vastly outnumbered. They were sympathetic to the cause of the Kuomintang, under Chiang Kai Shek. He launched the so-called ‘Northern Expedition’ in summer 1926, in an attempt to defeat the northern warlords and unify all China under one government. In this they were eventually successful. The siege was helpful to the Kuomintang operations, as it kept some 100,000 warlord troops tied up for many months.

In his letters and newspaper articles, Rev. Watson describes events during the siege in some detail. He includes accounts of fighting and shellfire, and of difficult conditions for the civilian population and assistance offered by the missionaries. He also discusses the personalities of the various Chinese generals and the behaviour of their soldiers, and missionary attempts to broker peace between the two sides. Finally, he tells of negotiations for the evacuation of missionaries, as well as family matters.

Extracts of two of Rev. Watson’s letters to his wife Evelyn, from 4 May and 9 May 1926, describing the effects of shellfire in the early days of the siege.

Early in the siege, Rev. Watson writes in one article, ‘it is extremely annoying, to say the least, to those who live on the east side of the city, to have shrapnel and bullets flying over their heads day and night, and shells falling all over the place daily’. In another, he says, ‘the screeching of these huge shrapnel shells is most terrifying to the poor people who have never heard such continuous firing before, and coming in the dark as they do, they feel themselves helpless’.

Meanwhile in her diary, Dr Tait records, in a very matter-of-fact way, how the siege impacts upon the hospital and community in Xi’an. She reports on shelling, attempts to breach the city walls, the many military and civilian casualties, food shortages, the deprivations of the local population, and her eventual evacuation.

Typical warlord soldiers of the time. There are sadly no photographs of the siege itself in the Watson or Tait collections.

After an initial flurry of fighting in April-June 1926, including intensive shelling and abortive attempts to get over the city walls, the besiegers settled down to a long blockade. This led to great suffering as food supplies ran perilously low in the autumn. Estimates of the dead vary from 15,000-50,000, with maybe two-thirds from starvation, out of a population of perhaps 150,000-200,000. The missionaries were involved in attempts to mediate between the two sides, and welfare efforts in the city. Meanwhile, some 2,000 casualties of the fighting were treated in the mission hospital by Dr Tait and her colleagues. Seven female BMS missionaries and the children were evacuated in October, but the final group of men, including Rev. Watson, remained until a relief force arrived at the end of November.

The papers of Dr Ruth Tait are Acc.9663, and the inventory is here: http://www.nls.uk/catalogues/online/cnmi/inventories/acc9663.pdf.

The papers of Rev. James Watson are Acc.13559, and the inventory is here:  http://www.nls.uk/catalogues/online/cnmi/inventories/acc13559.pdf.

The Baptist Missionary Society Archives are held at the Angus Library & Archive in Oxford: http://theangus.rpc.ox.ac.uk/. These contain biographical and other material relevant to BMS work in Shaanxi. More background on the work of the BMS in China can be found in Williamson, H.R., British Baptists in China, 1845-1952 (Carey Kingsgate Press: London, 1957, NLS shelfmark NF.1241.c.5), and Stanley, Brian, The history of the Baptist Missionary Society, 1792-1992, (T & T Clark: Edinburgh, 1992, NLS shelfmark H3.93.629).