Joseph Beech’s Story of Determination and Dedication Thomas F. Beech
I want to share a story with you…one that I’m very proud of. It’s the story of my grandfather, Joseph Beech, a Methodist missionary in China, and his unique and central role in the founding and development of West China Union University, in Chengdu, China, in 1910.
Let me begin with a couple of quotations.
First, one from 1939 by William Chanter, Professor of Ethics and Religion at Wesleyan University, where my grandfather went to college.
“What would you think of a man who was in at the breaking of the ground for a new China which a hundred years from now may dominate the world? That is a possibility,– a China-dominated world…you surely can’t deny that an awakened China–and China is now awake–is either a grim threat or a magnificent promise for the future history of mankind.” (1)
The second by Joseph Beech in a letter to Wesleyan in 1919.
“Consider (for) a moment the various lines of development for the great Celestial Republic. Scientific agriculture such as we know and the Chinese would welcome, will…increase productivity in farm labor fully one-third. This would demand improved farm implements and machinery for the one hundred million farm workers–what would that mean for the Harvester companies? The uplifting of this people into democratic national consciousness involves newspapers, railroads, and highways…think of what a draft it will be upon American production of locomotives, cars, type foundries, presses and “flivvers”–if one in a hundred Chinese families could put a “Lizzie” on the new roads that are going to be built, Mr. Ford would have to produce one every half minute.” (2)
Also, a couple of admissions before I begin. First, I need to acknowledge the research that my wife, Carol did on the history and chronology of the events I’ll share with you. As we have tried to learn more about my grandfather’s life, we have discovered that many of the people writing about the events in which he was involved, differ on the dates, places and interpretation of these events. So, we have had to piece together as best we can what we hope is a relatively accurate historical account. Carol did a wonderful job of sorting through a mountain of reference materials to come up with reliable dates and facts.
Second, I am not an expert on either Chinese history and culture or current events. I bow to others here who are far more knowledgeable than I.
This story is really about both my grandfather, Joseph and my grandmother, Nellie Miriam Decker Beech. She also was a missionary in China. That’s where they met. Miriam was born in Dixon, IL in 1874. She
knew that she wanted to be a missionary, even as a little girl. She started her college education at Northwestern University, but had to return home to care for family members who were ill. When conditions permitted, she enrolled in the Chicago Training School for Missionaries, graduated from there and received an appointment from the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society to China, arriving there in 1899. She was put in charge of the Middle School for Girls in Chonqqing. (3)
Joseph Beech was born in Newbold, England in 1867 and came to the US as a young boy, living first in Saratoga Springs, NY, and then in Oil City, PA. He attended the Missionary Training Institute in Brooklyn, NY, Centenary Collegiate Institute in Hackettstown, NJ, and Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT, graduating in 1899. He sailed for China that same year and arrived in Chongqing in early 1900, where he became principal of the Chongqing Boys School. (4) Joseph had gained a bit of notoriety in the eyes of the Board of Missions because he had missed the departure of his steamer from Hawaii while visiting his college friend, Frank Atherton, and had to wait there for a month for the next boat. (5) Whether this is what attracted Miriam to him is not known, but they met in 1902 and were married in November of 1904. Their honeymoon was the arduous trip from Chongqing to Chengdu. Here’s how Joseph described it. “The first days and nights … were spent in getting accounts in order and packing up my belongings, after which I started out on the 10 days on foot and in an open chair. For five days it rained–a mid-winter cold drizzling rain to which clothes and flesh offered no protection; for you could feel it in your bones. (We) would reach the cold barn-like inns at the end of the day, wet, hungry and cold. No time to think of surroundings, for 5 o’clock comes around and with it our journey was again begun.” (6) It’s a good thing he and Miriam loved one another.
Once in Chengdu, Miriam continued her work as a teacher in girl’s schools and Joseph began the long process that ultimately led to the beginning of West China Union University.
Some historical context is important as background for the rest of this story. The period from about 1850- 1949 was a time of tumultuous change in China. A series of what were called “unequal treaties” began in 1842 and continued throughout the 19th century. These treaties, signed between China and England, and also with Germany, France, Russia, Korea and Japan, opened Chinese ports and interior regions to foreigners, exempted foreigners from Chinese law, forced the Chinese to pay unreasonable reparations,
and limited tariffs on goods imported into China. As such they put China at a severe economic disadvantage, and opened Chinese culture to what many Chinese felt to be an invasion by western products and western
culture.(7) This was the time of the Opium Wars; military clashes with England, Russia, France and others; the Boxer Uprising in 1900; the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 after it had ruled China since the 1600’s; chaos and fighting among warlords for control of local and regional areas; nationalization efforts by Sun Zhongshan (Sun Yat-sen); the rivalry between Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung) and Jaing Jieshi (Chaing Kai- shek). During this period, floods and drought, alternating in various regions resulted in millions of deaths, widespread famine, poverty and social unrest. Japan invaded China twice during this period. inflicting massive damage and killing millions of people. (8)
Most Chinese looked upon the missionaries who followed into areas where western countries had gained an economic foothold, as little more than the social arm of western imperialism. They threatened traditional Chinese education, customs and social structure. And many missionaries regarded the Chinese with disdain, viewing them as uneducated and uncultured heathens.
This was the environment into which Miriam and Joseph Beech came with their mission of education and health care.
Shortly after their arrival in Chongqing in 1900, they were evacuated to Shanghai, and Miriam to Japan until the danger of the Boxer Uprising receded. The church they attended had been destroyed and the minister was beheaded while delivering his sermon. (9)
The University I’ll tell you more about was founded, as I said, in 1910 but due to violence in Chengdu, it had to shut down for two years, reopening in 1913. (10)
In the 1920’s, anti-western opposition became so severe that students and Chinese faculty were forced to leave the school and all Chinese workers had to join a general strike against foreigners, fearing for their lives. (11)
With this as a backdrop, let me take you back to 1904, when Joseph Beech arrived in Chengdu. Rather than tell this story chronologically, I’ll describe three aspects of my grandfather’s life that illustrate who he was and what he did.
First, he was a skillful diplomat and consensus-builder.
His initial assignment was to establish a Methodist University in Chengdu. Chengdu was selected because it was the cultural center of the Sichuan area in West China. In the early 1900‘s Chengdu’s population was about 500,000 in a region of more than 60 million people. The Baptists, Methodists, Friends Society in England and others also wanted to start their own universities there. So, in addition to gaining the trust of
the Chinese intellectuals, officials and prospective students, he had to convince competing missionary delegations in Chengdu that a single, unified university was the only way to go.
These are his words, describing events in 1904, “One day as I returned …to the Methodist Episcopal compound, Dr. Canright remarked: Mr. Endicott (from the Canadian Methodists) has been here. He said that they were getting out a whole boatload of new missionaries and that if the American Methodists wanted union, they were now ready for them…., but evidently (he) intended it for a banter or a joke. There had been proposals of…co-operation between the American and Canadian Methodists in earlier days that had come to naught. A few days later Dr. Kilborn (from the Canadians) visited…and I said to him: ‘So your Mission is ready to go into union now that you have these new missionaries coming, are you?‘…And there we stopped and talked for about an hour on the possibility of a union college. I have a sample of the dirt taken from the spot where we stood and had that first conversation of a union college in Chengdu. We adjourned to meet at the Canadian Mission compound a few days later. At the missionary prayer meeting just prior to this meeting Dr. Davidson of the English Friends said to me, ‘I hear you are having a meeting with the Canadians to talk about a union college. Will there be any objection if I come?’ He had the invitation as did Mr. Vale of the China Inland Mission.” (12)
Eventually, the representatives of the various missions in China agreed on a neutral union site for the university just outside the city gates, but even with this all of the “home office” boards turned down the proposal as impractical and too expensive. So, Joseph headed off to the US and Canada and another delegation went to England, with revised proposals.
He reported on these meetings as follows:
“Getting the American Methodists was easy. I said: ‘You have a college there now. You cannot staff it properly. Why not accept a lift from others who are willing to supply the lift? ‘Very well,’ came the reply. ‘Go ahead’, but remember we cannot be responsible for any financial obligations in connection with it.’ The Baptist Board was next tried, and here the question was asked by one member: ‘You know we stand for some things. Where do the things we stand for come in in a proposition like this?’ The answer was: ‘Not at all if you do not come in; very little if you come in in a weak way; in a large way if you will come in in a large way.’ They came in in a large way…Getting the Canadian Board was a far more difficult task, for they had fine prospects of establishing a Canadian Methodist College in West China…Invited to come to New York, they replied that they must attend their Annual Council. Only when we wired: ‘If you cannot come to New York, the Baptists and Methodists will go to Toronto,’ where they moved to take the lesser of two evils, and arrived.”(13)
It took several more meetings but eventually West China Union University opened in Chengdu in 1910 under the sponsorship of the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society, the Board of Foreign Missions of the Methodist Episcopal Church USA, the Friends Foreign Mission Association of Great Britain and Ireland, the General Board of Missions of the Methodist Church of Canada, and later the Board of Missions of the United Church of Canada.
Joseph was the primary fundraiser for the new University and his “diplomatic” skills proved to be invaluable. One of his Baptist missionary friends said to him, “…When you get to New York, please look up a
gentleman by the name of Dr. J. Ackerman Coles. It has been reported to me that he likes to give away baby organs (pipe organs). Please ask him to give us an organ. If the baby can be a large one that will be all the better.” Joseph said, “I carried out that request and the Baptist College got its organ. I showed Dr. Coles photographs of the only two permanent buildings then erected. One of them called the Pagoda Tower Building attracted his attention. He fell in love with it and insisted that he should have the privilege of paying for it. He was shown plans of a library. He ignored them and lavished affection on this Tower Building, saying: ‘I want to pay for that building.’ ‘But it is paid for,’ I replied. ‘It makes no difference,’ was his answer, ‘Get the donors off and let me get on.’ I protested that it was a Methodist building on a Methodist campus and that he was a Baptist. He answered, ‘I don’t care anything about the Methodist and
I don’t care anything about the Baptists. I want that building.’ Two months later he had it, the former Methodist donors agreeing.” (14)
By the mid 1930’s, the University consisted of six mission residential colleges, organized along the lines of Cambridge University, with professional colleges in arts, science, religion, agriculture, (15) medicine, pharmacology and the first dental college in China, together with their associated clinical hospitals. The University’s 21 buildings, dormitories and 48 residences were located on 154 acres. (16)
Joseph had guided the University’s registration with the Government of China and the University had been chartered by the University of the State of New York to grant degrees. An agreement with the National Board of Medical Examiners in America allowed medical and dental graduates to study and practice in the US. (Walmsley, p. 46) Women were admitted as students in 1924, making the University West China’s first coeducational university. (17)
Throughout his time at the University, Dr. Beech had to find ways to work with local, regional and national officials, many of whom were extremely mistrustful of one another, as well as foreigners and their intentions. In a letter written in 1926, he talked about how he approached this.
“I am rather interested in your statement regarding my ability to keep on good terms with the various officials who alternatively come into power in Chendtu. ( now Chengdu) To me this seems to be a very natural thing, and so far as I can ascertain, no other capacities than a desire for friendship, and a natural interest in the concerns of others, and a willingness to show that friendship and concern need to be called into play. Fortunately I had an opportunity to make friends with most of these men when they were friends with one another, and the fact that they may become enemies to each other has in no sense affected my relations with them. I naturally have my own preferences for I know that some of the men are more unselfish and progressive then others, but I don’t allow my preferences to become prejudices, and consequently that does not affect my standing with them.” (18)
This leads to the second quality I’d like to share with you, Joseph Beech’s deep respect for Chinese history and culture and his love for the Chinese people.
I have often wondered over the years if my grandfather was among the missionaries who regarded the Chinese with disdain, forgetting the centuries-old reverence for education that was imbedded in Chinese culture, thinking them to be ignorant, backward, and not to be trusted, or if he went to China to learn as well as to teach. I have no way of being certain about this, but from his own writings, I believe that his attitudes and feelings toward the Chinese evolved over the years. He was there, with a few furloughs, from 1900 until 1940.
In a report, written in November, 1905, he offered this opinion.
“Official China is now scheming as never before to satisfy this (hunger for) learning and is spending large sums of money to have it free from all traces of Christianity…They are establishing schools for western learning where all are compelled to worship Confucious as God. Everywhere there is a desire for western education and the Chinese themselves are beginning to dabble in it. They know a little and so fix up a place with all the appearances of a college and begin business. Such ventures are often reported but their failure from incompetence is quietly passed over. But this is one of the dangers–a man filled up with quacks and their stuff gets afraid of the whole profession and it may be so here. But especially do we want to prevent the delusion that it is western methods –a scientific heathen is no better than a superstitious one. If, with our education we can’t give these Chinese Him (God) who has been the author of our works, the giver of our light, then they will be still in darkness.” (19)
Compare this 1905 message with this excerpt from his address to Chinese officials and the University community on the occasion of WCUU’s 20th anniversary in 1930.
“I wish not only to welcome you and to express our pleasure that you are here, but to tell you that you have done us signal honor in joining with us in celebrating the founding of this University. (We celebrate) the friends we have won in this city and province recently, including recognition by the Provincial Bureau of Education…When we look at the millions who crave a University Education in this great empire of West China, our contribution appears most meager. This inspires the hope that at the end of another twenty years this University will have more worthily brought learning, vision, and rectitude in life to men and women, and that these may be seeds scattered among the nation that may produce after their kind, the promise of well-being and right living, which is the hope of every patriot…Education is for everybody…every child born into this world has an inalienable right to an education…It can know no bounds of family or clan, no borders of state or nation. Its frontiers are not the circle of our own race and it must, and will, make us blind to every color line…The education that we see arising broadens men, broadens their character, and broadens their charity.” (20)
In 1933, reporting to his own Board of Governors about developments at the University, Joe Beech said,
“… English excepted, the Department of Chinese has more students, more subjects, more teachers than any other Department in the University…Our hope that a Christian University might excel in its devotion and loyalty to China’s historic culture and that we might stand as a barrier against the ruthless, unthinking destruction of the ancient values in this chaotic time of transition is being realized in this program.” (21)
From its earliest days, the University involved traditional Chinese scholars as advisors and as part of the faculty, and in 1933, of the 120 faculty members, 71 were Chinese. Unlike most other missionary colleges, the dominant language at WCUU was Chinese. (22) By the early ’30’s Chinese administrators and faculty outnumbered foreigners. In 1931, Dr. Beech stepped aside as President and assumed the title of Chancellor, and Zhang Linggao (Lincoln Zhang) who Dr. Beech had mentored since childhood, became President of the University. When we were in China in 2010, we met Dr. Zhang’s grandson.
As you might imagine, the introduction of western medicine into China, aroused great opposition at first, especially use of cadavers for instruction and the practices of western surgery, but over the years the curriculum blended together Chinese and western medicine. This is an important example, but only one, of the many ways in which the University worked to encourage mutual learning and respect between Western and Chinese cultures.
The third and last aspect of Joseph Beech’s story that I’d like to share with you has to do with the extreme danger and stress that he and his family lived with.
The environment in which Joseph and Miriam lived, worked and raised their family was one of constant danger. I noted earlier that they were evacuated from Chongqing in 1900 and again in 1911. Five of their six children were born in China between 1905 and 1913.(23) My dad and his older sister, the two oldest, were brought back to the US when they were very young, where they lived with distant relatives and friends of their parents from their middle school years through college. In the 1920’s when, as I have mentioned, opposition to foreign education and missionaries reached a fever pitch, calling for strikes by students and Chinese workers on the campus, the end of religious instruction, and takeover of foreign schools by the government, the missionaries and their families were virtual prisoners on the University campus. Joseph routinely tried to play down the dangerous conditions under which they lived, using his characteristic humor and understatement. Writing to the Board of Foreign Missions in 1926, he described the following incident.
“One of the daily duties of the president of the University was to make a ‘nightly’ visit, avoiding spies while so doing, to a quiet spot out in the country and bring home a bucket of milk for the Methodist families. He was accompanied by his young son. (my uncle, Robert) On the first night’s escapade this youngster
remarked, ‘Well, Daddy, if I live through this I will have another subject for an essay.’ We did not fear being caught. We did fear lest the milk man be discovered, his cows taken from him, and he be otherwise punished.” (24)
The situation had become so dangerous, however, by 1927 that Miriam and Joseph brought their whole family back to the US. On the Yangtze River part of this journey, their boat was fired upon and the bullet narrowly missed their daughter, Elizabeth. (25) From that point on, Miriam stayed in the US with the children, but Joseph went back to Chengdu after a short stay.
During the time between 1910 and 1935, Joseph by his own account made 14 trips across the Pacific and visited Europe several times on fundraising missions.(26) While he was in China, he was consumed with his role as president, dealing with three missionary bureaucracies in the US, Canada, and England, sorting out faculty and curricular problems and wrestling with government officials in Chengdu, the Sichuan Province and the rival Nationalist and Communist governments. This was his life. This was his passion. He often said that Chengdu was his home and the University and China were his “families.”
I hadn’t realized until recently, the impact all of this had on his natural family. When I was a young boy, I’d sometimes ask my dad to tell me about China. His standard reply was, “It didn’t matter.” In recent years in talking with my cousins I’ve learned that they received similar replies from their parents to their questions about China. Joseph and Miriam were true pioneers and real heroes and they were deeply respected by their missionary colleagues throughout the world. Lewis Walmsley, who had been a professor at the University, in his book about the University’s history, written in 1954, said this about Joseph Beech, “Dr. Beech possessed a serenity of spirit, the result of a deep inner composure beyond the stirring of external circumstances. Along with this quality he had the patience and diplomacy so essential in dealing with both missionaries and the Chinese. He would never be hurried or confused. He exhibited a single-mindedness and an unwavering determination which enabled him to achieve what he believed was best for the University. His loyalty to its finest interests never wavered. It rose above national consideration or denominational bias. It is little wonder that even in the most trying times the University continued to produce splendid results and to operate with unusual stability.” (27)
In 1940, Joseph was recognized by the Chinese, both locally in Chengdu and nationally, for his service to China. In March,1940, as he was leaving for the US, he was awarded the Diploma of the First Class and the Medallion of the Flowery Jade, an honor given only to one other American, professor John Dewey, and given a personal tribute by Jiang Jieshi (Chaing Kai-shek). (28)
But his commitment to his calling as a missionary separated him from his family.
Joseph retired in 1940 and came back here to stay. Events in China during and after WWII must have made him and his family feel that all he had lived for and all they had sacrificed had come to naught. He lived until 1954, age 88, and it must have been very difficult for him to watch from afar in 1951 and after as the Peoples Republic took over the University, dismantling all of the departments except medicine, dentistry and pharmacology, removing all foreign administrators and eventually all missionary faculty members. They even removed all foreign names, markers and cornerstones from the University Buildings. (29) I’m pretty sure that this is what my dad meant by, “It didn’t matter.”
I was about 15 when my grandfather died and my memory of him is that he was very formal, quite reserved and somewhat melancholy. I’m guessing that this was due in part to his age and failing health, but it was quite a contrast to the witty, energetic, tenacious, brilliant person who came through in his many letters and speeches while he was building the University.
I think he would be very pleased, however, to know that the Medical and Dental Schools and the hospitals which he helped start in 1910 have survived, and in the last 30 years, have grown and thrived. They have become important international centers of medical education, treatment and research. Renamed, “West China Center of Medical Sciences,” this institution merged with Sichuan University in 2000. (30)
In the fall of 2010, members of the Beech family were invited to Chengdu to join in the celebration of the 100th anniversary of West China Union University, which was largely a tribute to my grandfather. A Chinese scholar at Sichuan University described him as a person of hope and courage, (31) and the University has now created a museum about his life and contributions to education in China.
So this is the story I wanted to share with you…a story of great accomplishment, great courage and leadership and, in no small amount, a story of pain and tragedy.
I wonder what parallels we might draw from Joseph Beech’s experience in China and our current efforts to understand and work with the China of today?
1. William Cantor, “The Wesleyan University Alumnus” May,1939, p. 8
2. Joseph Beech, “Wesleyan and the Yellow Hope” Wesleyan Alumnus, April,1919, p.6 3. Miriam Decker Diary
5. J. Beech, Tribute to Frank Atherton, “Wesleyan Alumnus” October, 1945
6. Joseph Beech, letter, (date?)
7. J.A.G. Robert, “A History of China,” 2006, P. 165
8. Roberts, pp. 160-253
9. Notes and picture from Miriam Decker Diary, dated 1900
10. Lewis Walmsley, “West China Union University,” United Bd. for Christian Ed. in
China, 1974, p. 59
- Walmsley, p. 48
- J. Beech, “University Beginnings, A Story of the West China Union University,”
Journal of the West China Border Research Society, 1934, vol. 6, pp. 102-103
- J. Beech, “University Beginnings,” p. 99
- J. Beech, “University Beginnings,” p. 93
- Walmsley, p.114
- J. Beech, “University Beginnings, “ pp. 91-92
- Walmsley, p. 84
- Joseph Beech, letter to Prof. William Rice, September 7, 1926
- J. Beech, “Wesleyan News,” November 5, 1905
- Joseph Beech, address on WCUU’s 20th Anniversary, April 29, 1930
- J. Beech, Report to WCUU Board of Governors, 1933, cited in Walmsley, pp. 62-63
- J. Beech, “University Beginnings,” p. 92
- Katherine Beech’s notebook, list of key dates
- J. Beech, Foreign Missions Report, 1926, p. 85
- J. Beech, “Wesleyan Alumnus,” February,1928
- J. Beech, Tribute to Frank Atherton, “Wesleyan Alumnus,” October,1945
- Walmsley, p. 60
- Translation of the Original Tribute, March 18, 1940. Letter from the US Embassy to
China, March 20,1940
- Walmsley, pp. 153-155
- Sichuan University Website, 2011
- Zhang Liping, “Memory of West China Union University,” 2006, p. 78