Dr Wu Lien Teh as a Travelogue Writer – A short review of three travel essays written by Wu in China in the 1930s

Dr Wu Lien Teh (1879–1960) is best known as a returned/re-emigrated overseas Chinese medical doctor who contributed considerably to the building of China’s modern public health and medical education systems. Among the numerous books and articles he published, the absolute majority of them deal with medical topics. However, he was also the author of a number of journal articles addressing non-medical topics. In this blog essay, I will examine a group of three essays he published in the 1930s in the Shanghai-based English journal The China Critic, recording his visits to Tang Jia Wan (Guangdong), Xiamen, and Xi’an. I would argue that Wu is not only a well-trained and -published medical doctor and scientist but also a good literary writer with a patriotic heart, a defining feature of many Chinese elites active in the late Qing and republican period.

Who is Wu Lien Teh? According to Wen Yuanning, Wu was born and grew up in Penang, Malaysia. After winning the much “coveted Queens’s scholarship of the Straits Settlements,” he studied Natural Science at Cambridge and then furthered his education in hospitals and other medical schools in the UK, Europe, and America. After a short stint at his home as a practising physician, he accepted the invitation of President Yuan Shih Kai of the Republic of China in 1907 to become the Chief Medical Officer. In 1910, he was appointed Director of the Manchurian Plague Service and successfully contained the plague that ravaged north-eastern China and claimed over 60,000 lives.

Wu was a frequent contributor to English journals and newspapers such as China’s Young Men, Journal of the North-China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, The China Quarterly, The China Critic, and The Chinese Recorder. China and the Modern World: Missionary, Sinology and Literary Periodicals, a Gale Primary Sources collection, contains 24 articles/chapters written by him. While most of these articles deal with medical topics, such as China’s medical history, progress, and disease prevention in China, Wu also authored quite a number of essays addressing non-medical topics. This short essay will be a focused discussion of three essays published in The China Critic, which record his experience and observations of visiting three different locations in China between 1930 and 1933.

Cover of The China Critic
The China Critic (Shanghai, China), Thursday, July 12, 1928, Vol. 1, Issue 7, China and the Modern World http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/8P8WA9#.W_Kd0BmDLIo.link

Essay 1: A Visit to Mr. Tang Shao-Yi’s Village

Wu, Lien-teh “A Visit to Mr. Tang Shao-Yi’s Village.” The China Critic, vol. III, no. 27, 1930, p. 634+.
China from Empire to Republic, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6Qvgy1.

This essay records Wu’s visit to Tang Ka Wan, the home village of Mr. Tang Shao-yi who lived there after retirement. Tang was one of the first batch of Chinese students sent by China’s Qing Dynasty to the United States for study (Columbia University) and “returned to his native land, with well-defined ideas of the outside world and the principles underlying modern progress, and thoroughly equipped for the rather eventful official experience in store for him.” Later he became the first prime minister of the Republic of China but retired soon after in 1912.

“Peking Has Peril for Tang-Shao-Yi.” New York Herald [European Edition], 21 May 1909, p. [1]. International Herald Tribune Historical Archive 1887-2013, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/74L2P8
On the way to Tang Ka Wan (唐家湾), Wu first had a stopover at Macao. What he saw in the Portuguese colony was a bleak scene: dilapidated buildings, narrow and smelly streets, prevalent opium smokers, and overcrowded gambling houses and brothels. All these are symptomatic of pre-1911 China, forming a stark contrast to what Wu would witness in Tang Ka Wan, a village located in the Chungshan (中山) District of Guangdong.

Bazaar temple square of Macao in the early 1900s.
Kolesnikov-Jessop, Sonia. “Visiting Macao’s past in Images.” International Herald Tribune [European Edition], 10 July 2009, p. 12. International Herald Tribune Historical Archive 1887-2013, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/74Kvw4.
After a short stay in Macao, Wu went on with his trip toward Tang Ka Wan. He was pleased with the availability of modern infrastructural facilities: vehicles of transportation (omnibuses and motor cars) and well-paved and wide roads. He also saw “clean villages with brick-walled and tile-roofed houses… intersected by well-cultivated fields of rice, and hills covered with pine trees.” More importantly, he discovered that “everyone, man and woman, boy and girl, seems to have some work to do.” There aren’t “any beggars waylaying the stranger as happens so often in other cities of China.” Such description reminds anyone familiar with the Chinese literary tradition of the utopian world (“peach blossom spring”) portrayed by Tao Yuan-ming (365? –427), a Chinese poet who lived during the Eastern Jin (317-420) and Liu Song (420-479) dynasties.

Later Wu was told that the village was run like a company and all interested villagers and people from other neighbouring areas could subscribe to shares issued to raise funds for undertaking various projects (e.g. road building) and opening businesses (e.g. the transportation company). The people here “have gone into all sorts of industries, such as petroleum mines, canning of fish and fruit, and even the growing of pine apples.” This enabled the district to export their produce and make “considerable profit out of it.”

Tang Ka Wan embodied the aspirations of a generation of enlightened Chinese scholar-officials (many of them educated abroad like Tang and Wu) active in the early twentieth century toward the “young China,” a China that had just bidden farewell to the last imperial dynasty and embarked on a new journey of remaking and rebuilding the country from a poor, underdeveloped agricultural nation into a wealthy, powerful, industrialised, and modern republic.

Essay 2: A Visit to Modern Amoy

Lien-Teh, Wu. “A Visit to Modern Amoy.” The China Critic, vol. 4, no. 5, 1931, p. 103+. China and the Modern World, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/74L5XX.

This essay is more or less a sequel to “A Visit to Tang Shao-yi’s Village.” Here Wu described the amazing changes that had happened to Amoy during a short period of three years.

In the years before 1920, Amoy was known as “one of the dirtiest cities in China, and withal a plague spot . . . for the three main infections of smallpox, plague and cholera.” As a contrast, the Island of Kulangsu (鼓浪屿), an international concession opened in 1903 which lies only 7 kilometres away from Amoy, was known for its clean and orderly environment and modern facilities.

Petit Journal. “Plague Rages at Amoy.” New York Herald [European Edition], 17 Apr. 1910, p. [1]. International Herald Tribune Historical Archive 1887-2013, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/74L8G5.
“Cholera at Amoy.” Portsmouth Evening News, 23 Oct. 1891, p. 2. British Library Newspapers, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/74L8Z5.

However, all this changed due to the combination of three factors: first, Chinese “leaders with initiative and integrity beside the necessary technical knowledge”; second, “courageous and far-seeing” investors (e.g. Huang Ijoe or Oei Tjoe /黄奕住, a returned overseas Chinese merchant from Java “who furnished the million dollars”); and third, Western-trained Chinese engineers.

“New Amoy Telephone System.” The Far-Eastern Review, vol. XVIII, no. 3, 1922, p. 147. Nineteenth Century Collections Online, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/74LDs9.

As a result, Amoy built its modern waterworks that supplied water “of the purest quality,” installed a complete telephone system and electric lights, paved new roads, and opened parks. All these laid the foundation for a “modern, picturesque and sanitary Amoy.” More importantly, all these initiatives were not losing money, but were a commercial success, providing an apt example of “Chinese initiative, scientific acumen, commercial success.”

Essay 3: A Visit to Si-an, China’s Most Ancient Capital

Lien-Teh, Wu. “A Visit to Si-an, China’s Most Ancient Capital.” The China Critic, vol. 6, no. 23, 1933, p. 568+. China and the Modern World, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6Qvis9

Both Amoy and Tang Ka Wan are located in southern China where people have a long tradition of emigration and entrepreneurship. What Wu saw there during his visits were all exciting and encouraging changes. In contrast, his visit to S-an (now spelt as Xi’an)—an ancient Chinese capital located in north-western China—in 1933, turned out to be a rather mixed experience.

In the essay, he first listed all those prominent ancient Chinese names associated with Xi’an and the surrounding areas: general Wu Tzu-hsu (伍子胥), diplomat Chang Chi’en (张骞), beauty Wang Chao-chun (王昭君), eminent Buddhist monks Fa Hsien (法显) and Hsuan Chuang (玄奘), and warlord Tsao (曹操). While he admired these historical figures and was attracted by the “imposing and artistic” buildings in Xi’an, he lamented that “modern Si’an has little to show of the glorious past.” His disappointment stemmed from the unpleasant sides of the city and surrounding areas he observed, such as water pollution in T’ung-kuan (潼关), poverty in the rural areas due to crops lacking sufficient manure and frequent droughts, and opium poppies grown widely and a large addicted population.

Drum Tower of Ming Dynasty in Xi’an, photographed by Wang Nan. Source: Chinese Architecture Series: Ancient Chinese Capitals (Singapore: Gale, 2018), p.96.

Wu and his fellow travellers’ worst experience happened during the night they spent in Lin-T’ung (临潼) beside the famous Hua-Ching hot springs (华清池) noted for the romance of “the great Ming-huang, Emperor of the T’angs” (唐明皇) and his concubine Yang Kuei-fei (杨贵妃). They “were bitterly attacked by unseen creepers.” Wu had to move out of the bedroom to the outer hall but only to find that “my intelligent torturers had already anticipated my purpose and clung to the folds of the blanket, so that they continued to exercise their biting parts until dawn.”

In short, Wu had a highly mixed feeling toward the ancient capital city of Xi’an: on the one hand, he was fascinated with its historical glory; on the other, he had to face the dismal reality—the city itself had lagged behind many other cities in China, especially those coastal ones in terms of economy, infrastructure, hygiene, and other forms of modern conveniences.

As Director of the National Quarantine Service, Dr Wu Lien Teh got the opportunity to visit many different places across China with a view to investigating the sanitary conditions and thinking of ways to improve them. In the three essays discussed above, he presented his observations and reflections on three places—Tang Ka Wan, Amoy, and Xi’an. As a patriotic Chinese scholar-official returned from overseas, he was excited about the positive changes that had happened to the two coastal ports while at the same time feeling very anxious and upset about the bleak conditions facing the inland areas of China as represented by Xi’an. Such observations and reflections might have further made up his mind to improve and rebuild China’s medical and health system, a mission he had stayed committed to since he came to China in 1907.

Blog post cover image citation: China’s young men. Vol. 10, [National Committee of the Young Men’s Christian Associations of China], 1906-1916. Nineteenth Century Collections Online, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6QwAd5

Photo of Liping Yang

About the Author

Yang Liping is a member of the Gale primary source publishing team. Based in Singapore, he focuses on acquiring and developing Asia-related products, including print, eBooks, and digital archives.