A while ago, I read a fascinating duology of graphic novels about the Boxer Rebellion that showed it from both the side of missionaries and from the side of the Boxers. They were entitled Boxers and Saints and moved me very deeply. I still think about them qutie a bit, and how the interplay of mission work, thoughtful Christianity, colonialism, imperialism, and more all got jumbled together in a mess that makes it difficult to discern any goodness at all. When I saw Thomas Cochrane and the Dragon Throne, I knew I wanted to read it to learn more about this fascinating, awful time.
The book is largely biographical, following the time Thomas Cochrane spent in China as a doctor and a missionary, which overlapped with the Boxer Rebellion and other key developments in Peking. It also features a large amount of fantastic background information for anyone who wants to learn about many different topics. For example, there’s a lot here about the medical practices in China in the early 20th century. There’s also no small amount of discussions of how colonialism from European powers combined with political maneuvering on the part of the Empress Dowager Cixi and others. And, of course, there are more historical details about the Boxer Rebellion. The book is not always for the faint of heart. Both medical information and historical information about the Boxer Rebellion is conveyed in an almost matter-of-fact style that includes graphic descriptions of things like foot binding, torture, and castration. These are all extremely important details, but, again, readers should be aware that they’re not glossed over.
Thomas Cochrane ended up in China at a young age with his wife, Grace, after being inspired by Dwight Moody to become a missionary. He wanted to go where he was needed most, and he truly had a passion for healing the sick, providing his service free of charge and, eventually, delivering a top of the line medical school to help train doctors in modern medicine in China. Throughout the section of his life outlined in this biography, he repeatedly felt like a failure as various ventures collapsed, but it is hard to see his work as not having a deeply positive impact on those with whom he lived. As he worked to both heal and convert people, the Boxer Rebellion broke out, and the Cochrane family was forced to flee. Adam reports this and other harrowing episodes with fascinating details that show the reality of the situation, both from Cochrane’s own writings and from his own firsthand knowledge as the son of Thomas Cochrane’s stepdaughter.
Eventually, Cochrane confronted a cholera epidemic in the Imperial City, managing to gain allies in court as he did so. This opened up new avenues and even allowed him to get help from the chief eunuch and the Empress Dowager. This, in turn, lead to his establishment of the Union Medical College in Peking, China. His vision was for this school to churn out doctors who also would be able to spread knowledge of Christ across the interior of China, but although the school became immensely prestigious, it ultimately became a major graduate school that departed from his vision. Cochrane’s legacy, like that of mission work in general, is complex. It would be hard to question whether his heart was in the right place, and fascinating details like how Cochrane adapted biblical stories to Chinese contexts show his avoidance of the major pitfalls of colonialism (see p. 47, for example, and how Cochrane added Chinese details to biblical stories). Adam has presented a portrait of a man who made a difference in many people’s lives, both temporal and eternal.
Andrew Adam has written a fascinating biography/historical piece that helps shed light on a terrible piece of history. I very highly recommend Thomas Cochrane and the Dragon Throne to any reader. It’s of interest to those who like history, want to learn about Christianity, are interested in China, in medicine, in politics, and more. It’s fantastic.
Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.
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