Thomas Cochrane and the Dragon Throne - By Ali Hull
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Thomas Cochrane and the Dragon Throne - By Ali Hull

Thomas Cochrane and the Dragon Throne - By Ali Hull

Thomas Cochrane was on the run, fleeing the Boxer rebels who were killing men, women and children across China. They were murderously hostile to anyone from the West, and missionaries and Christians were cut down without mercy. Cochrane, a missionary doctor, had sent his family on ahead of him, but had stayed in his Mongolian town to protect his people. Only when they persuaded him that his presence was more of a danger than a help, did he set out to follow his family. Having spent the night at an ancient burial ground, he wakes up the following morning…


At dawn the sun rose like a huge red disc; it was going to be another scorching June day. Tom gathered his things and saddled the horse. It was tempting to linger in this quiet place but he must press on. Suddenly a man emerged from behind a mound. Then another and another, until a score of them formed a circle around him. Grasping swords and spears, they looked like characters in a Chinese opera. He saw the flash of scarlet scarves and knew they were Boxers. Was this how it would end, butchered in a graveyard, thousands of miles from home?


Then one stepped between him and the others. He said hoarsely “I know this man. No one touches him except over my dead body.” He turned to Tom. “Go at once because I can’t protect you. Ride!”

Tom scrambled into the saddle and galloped away.1


Cochrane survived – as did his family – and got back safely to Scotland, where he was from. However, he was soon back in China, and eventually was able to found the first medical school there, in Peking. His story is told in Thomas Cochrane and the Dragon Throne, written by Andrew Adam. Adam is also a doctor, and is Cochrane’s step-grandson. He grew up fascinated by the old man, by that time retired and living back in the UK, who helped in his education.


“I knew and admired him when I was a boy, though at the time he seemed as old as Methuselah and he was something of an enigma. My mother wrote his first biography, but it had a fairly narrow appeal and was remaindered soon after publication. It was short on facts and as a doctor I was left wondering how on earth Cochrane survived professionally in a notoriously hostile environment, let alone dreamt a great dream to establish a Western medical school in imperial Peking under the Qing dynasty.”


Dr Adam initially wanted to tell Cochrane’s story because it rankled that the medical school, still thriving and now called the Peking Union Medical College, did not acknowledge that it was founded by a Western missionary – that didn’t fit in with the story the Chinese government wanted to tell, of interfering Western colonialists, who came simply to exploit. But Adam also discovered there was far, far more to Cochrane’s story…


“When I looked into it, I became intrigued by the wider story. I’m a retired pathologist, so I am fascinated by opium dens, eunuchs, concubines, body snatching, foot binding, poisoning and massacres. All of them feature in the book.”


So what did he have to draw on? “I inherited a suitcase full of Tom’s diaries, journals, letters and photos and reports of the Union Medical College. Through them I learned that he planned to write his own biography. He never got round to it, but he sketched out numerous chapter outlines and draft passages. He also wrote a number of magazine articles. The best were published in the Christian Herald and Signs of the Times when he was in his 80s. My main secondary sources were a slim ‘official’ biography written by Francesca French in the 1950s, my mother’s book The Doctor and the Dragonand a two-volume history of the London Missionary Society.”


Thankfully, to find out more information, Dr Adam didn’t have to travel to Beijing (formerly Peking) since, as he says, “The Communist Party destroyed all the college’s records in the 1950s when it expelled Westerners from the country. Happily, the School of Oriental and African Studies in Bloomsbury has the largest collection of missionary archives in the country and I found plentiful material. It was very exciting to unearth unpublished letters – written in Tom’s own hand to his home board in London, describing the atrocious conditions under which he had to work.”


What was so bad about the conditions? The buildings he had to use, he discovered when he arrived in Inner Mongolia, “were sheds built for pigs. The ceilings were made of grain stalks covered in rice paper, and above them a colony of rats with tails like noodles scampered about. When the rain got in, the paper became sodden and rats, stalks and droppings fell on anyone standing below.” Tom knew that bubonic plague, which is carried by rats, was endemic in Mongolia. He later wrote: ‘It came home to me that I was the only medical man in thousands of square miles of bandit-ridden territory and that it would be as much as my life was worth if I should happen to perform an unsuccessful operation.”


Those conditions also horrified Dr Adam, when he read Cochrane’s diary as part of his research. As he comments, “I was amazed that a missionary board, as late as 1897, would send a doctor fresh out of medical school, as wet behind the ears as the ink on his graduation certificate, into one of the most challenging situations imaginable. I was even more surprised to learn that Tom Cochrane’s case was by no means exceptional. Young missionary doctors (of whom about a quarter in China were women) were often single-handed; they had no previous experience of tropical and exotic diseases and they frequently lacked the necessary languages. They should have been working alongside older experienced practitioners and learning from them, but many – like Cochrane – were the only Western doctor in thousands of square miles. Astonishing!”


Cochrane was no stranger to difficulties, however. He had been a bright boy at school, but at the age of 13 had to leave education to help support his mother and siblings, after his father died suddenly. Tom worked during the day, in an office, and then in Greenock docks by night. And having set his heart on being a medical missionary, every spare moment was taken up with studying. He succeeded, under those very difficult conditions. Having that kind of grit and determination stood him in good stead when he went to both Mongolia and China.


Cochrane’s years in Mongolia were ended by the Boxer Rebellion in 1900; he returned a year later to the capital, Peking. Cochrane knew that what he could do was a drop in the ocean – what China needed was lots of doctors and medical staff, and they needed to be Chinese. So the country needed a college, but he had no contacts, no money, no clout, nothing.


The story of how he finally got his college, with support from the Empress-Dowager, and was also accepted at court, is told in detail in the book. Dr Adam puts Cochrane’s success down to the fact he prayed about everything, and whatever we think about that, clearly in his case, it worked. “He worked in obscurity in the city’s slums and the temptation to give up must have been huge. His constant prayer was, ‘Father, help me to touch the Dragon Throne!’ Then, when the time was right, things happened very quickly and in an orderly sequence which could be called ‘coincidences’. For me, these coincidences are the most exciting thing in the book, and particularly what happened when Cochrane’s path crossed those of two awesome figures. One was Li Lianying, the imperial chief eunuch and the right-hand man of Cixi, the dreaded Empress-Dowager. As her private executioner, he had blood on his hands. Cixi was the other figure and her hands were even more bloodstained. In the Boxer uprising of 1900 she threw in her lot with the rebels and was implicated in the slaughter of 30,000 Chinese Christians and hundreds of missionaries. Yet these two tainted individuals proved critical to Cochrane achieving what he wanted to achieve.”


Cochrane met the eunuch at night. Li Lianying was suffering from the effects of the botched surgery that had made him a eunuch, and he came to Tom’s house in secret, because “foreign devils”, as Westerners were known, were so hated. But Cochrane was able to help him, to treat him successfully, and they became friends. This friendship was key to everything else that Cochrane achieved.


For Dr Adam, writing the book has clearly been a labour of love. He found it a challenge at times, though, to get into Cochrane’s head in order to write the book, not least because our attitudes have changed a lot since Cochrane was keeping his diary. As he says, “Nineteenth-century Christianity as taught in the mission field had a robust, no-compromise exterior and it was tainted with colonialist attitudes towards ‘the natives’. I had to appreciate this to understand Tom Cochrane’s bursts of frustration and impatience – his day books are frank about his failings. He had little time for colleagues who did not see things his way or dragged their heels. But he was a man of great self-control, rarely raising his voice and firm but fair in his judgements. This proved to be of great value to him. When he had to confront a Chinese person, he did so in a way that did not cause that person to lose face. He learned the wisdom of the Chinese saying ‘If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will escape a hundred days of sorrow’. The insight which his diaries give into his prayer life helped, and I had the advantage in having known him when I was a youngster. He is part of our family folklore and I still hear his gruff Lowland voice when I read his letters.”