At The Grave of Eric Liddell


Inspired by a development in a friend’s search for his own family history, I’m reposting this from a now defunct blog.  It describes a visit made almost 6 years ago to a civilian internment camp in northern China which once held the Olympic champion Eric Liddell. There is also a particular link to my own main research area: George Graham-Cumming, who was held alongside my father in St. Paul’s Hospital (Causeway Bay) in 1942 and early 1943 was a student friend of Liddell’s:


Eric Liddell was born in Tianjin – not far from Beijing – in 1902. His parents were Christian missionaries, and at the age of 6 Liddell was sent back to England to attend a school for the children of missionaries. In 1924 he won the 400 metres gold medal in the Paris Olympics.

He remained committed to Protestant Christianity all his life, and in 1925 he returned to China to work as a missionary and teacher.  Totally dedicated to helping the Chinese people in any way he could, he continued his efforts even after the Japanese invasion. In 1943 he was sent by the Japanese to Weihsien Internment camp in what is now the city of Weifang in Shandong Province. Liddell died of a brain tumour in 1945 not long before what would have been his liberation.

The story of his Olympic triumph was told in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire, one of the classics of British cinema. Like all films, this altered the story for dramatic effect: Liddell is shown being told by a journalist as he embarks for France that the heats for the 100 metres, for which he had been selected along with Harold Abrahams, the other subject of the film, were on a Sunday. In response, Liddell, resisting all efforts to make him change his mind, refuses to run (some Christians believe that the Old Testament prohibitions on Sabbath day activity apply to leisure activities on Sundays). His Olympic career is saved only by the generous offer of another British competitor to let him take his place in the 400 metres. In fact, Liddell knew about the athletics schedule months before the Games, and always planned to eschew the 100 and run in the 400 metres.

But the film was completely right about one thing: Liddell was, as portrayed unforgettably by Ian Charleson, a gracious and humane man. In fact, the focus on his early life means that the film doesn’t do justice to Liddell, the full depth of whose human qualities were only revealed after his return to China. Before being sent to Weifang Camp in 1943, Liddell had relieved his brother Rob, who had been providing medical treatment to the rural poor in Hebei Province, becoming sick himself and working to the point of exhaustion. Liddell’s presence, at a time when the British government had told all nationals to leave because of the Japanese threat, enabled Rob to go on furlough.

Many of Liddell’s fellow internees were not from Hebei (or from Tientsin, where Liddell had been instructed to reside after the mission was shut down by the Japanese), but from Yantai, formerly known as Chefoo, about four hours by today’s trains from Weifang, and the site of a large school for the children of  missionaries. The school is now part of a naval training academy, so it wasn’t possible to photograph it.

Yantai was one of the ports China was forced to open to Western trade by the Second Opium War (1856-1860). The missionaries had come as representatives of an expansive nineteenth century European imperialist civilization. Some writers have pointed out how strange their self-confidence was, given that the Convention of Peking, which authorized Christian evangelism in China, also legalized the opium trade and established the right of British ships to carry Chinese ‘coolies’ to the Americas as ‘indentured’ labourers – something not very many degrees above slave-trading: one British ship, appropriately named the John Calvin, saw the death of  half of its human ‘cargo’ en route; American ships routinely lost 40% (William Brown, Discover Gulangyu, 210). 

Although they were part of the imperialist ‘push’ into China, an incursion that did huge damage, most missionaries were unlike their fellow colonialists in that they were not interested in personal gain. Christians are commanded  to ‘teach all nations’ (Matthew, 28:19, a possibly spurious later addition, but crucial in providing some of the rationale for overseas missionary activity) and there’s no doubt that the majority of the missionaries believed that they were helping save their Chinese converts from the hell that the Bible promises to unbelievers – and, of course, they trusted they were securing their own eternal safety in heaven as well.

Many fine people responded to the call to take the ‘good news’ to other countries. The ‘small woman’ Gladys Aylward, for example, who also took on the risky task of working as an inspector enforcing the government’s anti-foot-binding legislation, and after the Japanese attack led 94 Chinese children across the mountains to safety. Or John McGee, George Ashmore and their fellow missionaries who, in December 1937, joined with other foreigners to establish the Nanjing Safety Zone in a brave attempt to save as many Chinese people as they could from the hideous massacre being carried out by Japanese troops. I particularly honour the courage and deep humanity of Minnie Vautrin, who sheltered thousands of women in a Nanjing girls’ college, and, exhausted by her efforts and depressed at her inability to save even more lives, committed suicide in 1940 while on leave in her home city of Indianapolis.

Eric Liddell deserves to stand with the finest of these men and women. He is still remembered with affection in China because, in the years he was there as a missionary, medical worker and teacher, he helped so many people in such an unselfish way.

And in Weihsien Liddell made selfless and unstinting efforts on behalf of his fellow internees.  He was put in charge of a boys’ dorm, and ‘Uncle Eric’, as they called him, organized sports and all kinds of other activities for his charges. When he wanted to mend broken hockey sticks, he made the glue at night, so that the smell of the fish bladders and scales he used as ingredients didn’t offend the other inmates. Reversing his Olympics stand, he refereed a children’s hockey match on a Sunday. There was a Russian prostitute interned in the Camp: some of the inmates of Weihsien shunned her, but Liddell was always kind to this woman and put up a bookshelf for her, leading her to comment that he was the only man who ever did anything for her without wanting something back (reported by David Michell in A Boy’s War, 116).
This is what fellow internee Norman Cliff has to say about him:

In Weihsien Camp Liddell gave his unqualified suppport to every worthy cause, religious and social. If there were a  call to preach, to coach, to help, to advise, he was there, however busy or tired he might be.

Courtyard of the Happy Way, 82.

Some people suspect that his selfless ministrations might have contributed to the brain tumour that took his life on a snowy evening in late February, 1945.

We moderns find it a cliché that ‘all idols have feet of clay’. One of Liddell’s biographers decided to try to find out if this was true of him. Surely careful investigation would reveal that, in such difficult circumstances, even he could be selfish and mean-spirited occasionally? Apparently he couldn’t. No such incidents were found. Liddell’s record was clean. He was as good as everybody said he was.

Having failed to get to his grave on my previous visit to Yantai (Chefoo), I was determined to make a second attempt from Qingdao, where we spent the May holiday visiting friends.

The taxi dropped me off at the gate of the Middle School that now occupies much of the site of what was once Weihsien Camp. I spotted this photo of Liddell hanging from one of a line of posts leading along the school drive, so knew I was at the right place:

I asked to be let in, showing the gatekeeper the brief Chinese account of the Liddell memorial that a friend had kindly written for me. He stared at it for a long time, apparently baffled. A young man came up to the gate, and the gatekeeper opened it to let him through, but he didn’t signal to me to follow. This wasn’t looking good. Not for the first time, I was in the paradoxical position of wondering if I might have to sneak in to a former place of confinement where people once must have endlessly reckoned up their chances of sneaking out. The gatekeeper consulted his colleague in the lodge and eventually emerged with a piece of paper with a few Chinese characters on it. He gestured that I should go further up the road and then make a left so as to enter the school grounds at a different gate. This seemed more hopeful.

I showed the paper to the next gatekeeper, who smiled and pointed out the way I needed to go. Five minutes later I spotted, through some railings, what I thought must be the Liddell monument. Impatiently, I found my way to the entrance and walked passed a large, rather grim looking building and found what I was looking for:

There’s a short account of his life:

And a quotation from the Book of Isaiah, made famous by Chariots of Fire, on the back:

The memorial does not mark the grave itself, as the exact site is unknown. However, the people who erected it were lucky enough to find the man who actually dug the grave, and, guided by him, they chose the closest spot they could.

The building opposite was, in the days of Weihsien Camp, a complex that included the hospital where Liddell died:

According to one source, the hospital was on the second floor:


I spent some time looking at the stone and the hospital building, sitting in the warm spring sunshine and day-dreaming about the lives of the internees here and in my parents’ Camp down in Hong Kong. As always when I visit places rich in a history that I relate to personally, the past seemed more powerful than the present.

Then  I walked round the Garden of Remembrance, which was established by the Weifang authorities in 2005. I soon found some of the (refurbished) buildings that had once housed the internees:


The Garden was a pleasant place to be walking on a fine May morning. As in all places where human beings have suffered greatly, peaceful surroundings seem more peaceful still:

Then I came across the monument to all the Weihsien internees. This also dates to 2005, the sixtieth anniversary of the Camp’s liberation by seven American paratroopers:


I returned to the courtyard where I’d started. One source describes Liddell’s funeral: his coffin was ‘followed, like the Pied Piper, by a hundred children’.

I would like to believe that the Pied Piper effect was still at work, but in reality what brought the children there was the suitability of the courtyard for roller-blading and skateboarding!  I did think that ‘Uncle Eric’ would have loved the way his memorial was put to use as an outdoor changing room.

I was walking around the courtyard looking for anything interesting I might have missed; the two girls were watching me surreptitiously, as I was watching them. I decided to try to get a shot of the interior of the main building. I wiped away a bit of the dirt with my fingers, pointed my camera and hoped for the best…

…which wasn’t very good. But the girls couldn’t resist coming over now.

They went to the next window, and peered through to see what I’d been photographing. They burst out laughing, saying something that ended in ‘WC’. We started talking. They were from a nearby school and had never had a foreign (non-Chinese) teacher. Their English was better than the typical 11 year old’s, which usually gets stuck after a couple of textbook phrases. I threw in some of the little Chinese I know, and we communicated well.

A boy came to join them. The three children skated around happily, occasionally coming across to talk to me. A tour guide also exchanged a few words, welcoming me to his city and giving me a bottle of water.

I asked for a skateboarding lesson, but I was not able to move away from the bench:

I would guess that I was the first foreigner these children had met, and, if they did have any pre-conceived ideas, then watching me take a photo of what they thought was a W.C. might have confirmed them. Yet they had welcomed me with friendliness and a profound and unforced courtesy.

Eric Liddell’s memorial, or so I imagined, had found the right guardian spirits.


Note: Anyone interested might want to compare my account and photos with those of former internee Ray Moore, who visited in 2002:


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