A doctor from China

THE CHINESE MEDICAL College in Hong Kong was founded in 1887 by the physician Sir James Cantlie (1851-1926), who was the inventor of what we now call ‘first aid’ and one of the founders of The London School of Tropical Medicine. One of his first students in Hong Kong was Sun Deming, better known as Sun Yat Sen (1866-1925). In 1878, Sun went to Honolulu to live with his elder brother. There, he was educated well in English at school. Aged 17, he returned to China. After desecrating a temple, he fled to Hong Kong, then under British rule, where he continued his education, joining the Chinese Medical College in 1887, having already studied a bit of western medicine elsewhere. In 1892, he graduated as a medical doctor. He became a friend of Sir James Cantlie.

In 1896, poor health forced Cantlie to return to London. That year, Sun came to England to visit Cantlie. Already out of favour with the Imperial Chinese government because of his revolutionary activities, private agents employed by the Chinese were sent to Liverpool where he landed to follow his movements. The reason for his conversion to political activism are summarised in an on-line article (www.newstatesman.com/international-content/2021/10/the-london-kidnapping-that-changed-china) as follows:

“The contrast between the colonial advancement he encountered abroad and the endemic poverty he knew from home convinced Sun that China needed revolutionary change. Rather than becoming a doctor, he helped engineer a rebellion in Canton (Guangzhou) in 1895. The failure of the uprising forced Sun to go on the run, which is why he ended up in Britain the following year.”

The first person that Sun visited after arriving in London was his old teacher Cantlie, who lived close to the Chinese embassy, which was, and still is, in Portland Place. On his way there, Sun was kidnapped and held captive in the embassy. He would have faced death had not he persuaded the embassy’s English housekeeper, a Mrs Howe, to smuggle a note to Dr Cantlie. An influential man, Cantlie managed to get Sun released, as was described in the above-mentioned article:

“In the end, it was an article about the kidnapping in the Globe that did the trick. On the following day, 23 October 1896, a large crowd formed outside the legation, noisily demanding Sun’s release. While diplomatic and legal wheels moved in the background, the ambassador and his staff realised they had to let their prisoner go. Sun emerged on to the street a national hero. While recovering at Cantlie’s house, he gave a long interview to the liberal-left Daily News, giving British readers their first insights into China’s embryonic revolutionary movement.”

Late last year, we were driving to Buntingford in Hertfordshire when we passed through the nearby village of Cottered. As the traffic was slow-moving, we managed to spot a memorial plaque attached to a house. We did not stop, but we saw enough of it to realise it had something to do with Sun Yat Sen. Very recently, we returned to Cottered to look at the plaque more carefully because we were intrigued that the Sun Yat Sen had a connection with a tiny Hertfordshire village. The plaque attached to a house called The Kennels reads as follows: “Sun Yat Sen “Father of Modern China” was a frequent visitor to this house while in exile from his home country.” Beneath Sun’s name there are three Chinese characters: “孫中山” which Google translates as ‘Sun Yat-sen’.

Curious to know more, we rang the doorbell of the house in Cottered and were greeted by a kindly gentleman, who explained that The Kennels was formerly owned by Sir James Cantlie. An article in an issue of the “The Comet”, a Hertfordshire newspaper, dated March 2017 (https://www.thecomet.net/news/sun-yat-sen-in-cottered-the-father-of-modern-china-5358282) revealed:

“His connection to the property, called The Kennels, comes from his life-long friendship with physician Sir James Cantlie, who owned the house, earlier taught him medicine in Hong Kong – and in 1896 saved him from imprisonment by agents of the Qing monarchy at the Chinese Legation in London.

Dr Sun visited the Cantlies in London and Cottered whenever he was in Britain … Sir James’ son Kenneth recalled one of the statesman’s visits to the village:

‘I must have been about five years old. It was sunset on a summer evening, and Dr Sun was walking up and down in the orchard. He was wearing a grey frock-coat and his homburg hat was tilted forward to keep the level sun out of his eyes. He had his hands behind his back and was pondering deeply. I was about to rush up to him in my usual impetuous way, when I stopped. ‘He is probably thinking great thoughts,’ I said to myself, and I went quietly away. I was not in the least afraid of Dr Sun, who was kindness itself – but my parents and my nurse may have put the idea into my head that here was a great man who must not be interrupted when he was thinking.”

Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth Cantlie (1899-1986) was about five years old in 1904, which was when Sun was living outside China.

The article continued:

“In 1912, after the success of the Xinhai Revolution – which established a Chinese republic, with Sun Yat-sen as its first provisional president – the doctor wrote with clear affection to the Cantlies. On paper headed ‘The President’s Office’, he wrote: “It makes me feel more grateful to you when from the present position I look back on my past of hardships and strenuous toil, and think of your kindnesses shown me all the while that I can never nor will forget.”

Both Sir James and his son Lt Col Kenneth are buried in the cemetery of Cottered’s parish church close to its southern door. According to “The Comet”:

“After Dr Cantlie died and was buried at St John’s Church in Cottered in 1926, the Chinese minister to Britain, Sao-Ke Alfred Sze, laid a memorial tablet at the church. Dr Cantlie’s grave in the churchyard is engraved with a Chinese translation of the gospel verse Matthew 5:7.

China Central Television visited the house in 2001, and again in 2011 as part of filming for a documentary series on the Xinhai Revolution.”

Sadly, I could find neither the tablet amongst the Cantlie family gravestones nor the engraving in Chinese, which is a translation of “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy”. Despite this, revisiting Cottered was well worthwhile, and it has for me sparked an increased interest in the birth of modern China. We hope to return to Cottered to see inside its church, which, judging by pictures posted online, looks fascinating.

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