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Canadian doctor Norman Bethune is viewed as a national hero and martyr in China, whose eulogy by Mao Zedong used to be required reading for children.The Canadian Press

They left Canada in 1891 with dreams of bringing medicine and the Christian gospel to distant China and returned home decades later in the tumult of a Communist Revolution that smothered memories of what they had done.

Now, more than a century after a group of missionaries set out across the Pacific, China is working to revive memories of a group who helped introduce Western dentistry to the country and trained generations of Chinese doctors, including the personal physicians for Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek.

Largely forgotten by both countries until the past few years – and once suppressed by Chinese leaders not keen to acknowledge the work of foreign faith workers – the history of the West China Mission is now being revived at the same time as the two countries seek to re-establish a "golden" era in cross-Pacific relations.

It's history as a tool for modern rapprochement.

"This is a story about the foundation of Canada-China relations," said Karen Minden, who researched the mission for her book Bamboo Stone: The Evolution of a Chinese Medical Elite.

In southwestern China's Sichuan province, a small museum holds photos of the long-ago mission, some of which were recently exhibited in Toronto and are likely to be shown elsewhere in Canada later this year.

State networks Sichuan Radio and Television and China Central Television, meanwhile, are preparing to air a lengthy documentary this summer in China, less than a year after a pair of high-level visits between the two countries kicked off a new attempt by the Trudeau government to generate warmer relations with the world's second-largest economy.

For many Chinese, the most notable Canadian is Norman Bethune, the doctor to Communist forces who Chairman Mao himself eulogized. But the Canadian missionaries – whose time in China overlapped with Dr. Bethune, though they were larger in number and stayed much longer – were arguably more important, documentary director Gao Song said.

"Many people do not know much about this story, but with the way its cultural legacy and influence remain even today, it has actually touched more people than the Bethune story," he said. About 500 Canadian Methodist missionaries went to western China over the course of 60 years, some devoted to evangelism, others to medicine.

It is the latter whose work is now being remembered, a story with the drama to fill five 50-minute episodes, which Mr. Gao hopes to also bring to Canada if he can find a willing broadcaster.

The elements are there for a compelling tale, Dr. Minden said.

"Picture a bunch of young idealistic missionaries from Toronto and Vancouver and Winnipeg on the Empress of China, sailing out of Vancouver with the wind blowing in their faces. And they're so excited. They're heading out to China, and they are going to help to transform this downtrodden nation," she said.

They travelled up the Yangtze River and into decades of medical success punctuated by the perilousness of a fractious China, where the convulsions of the last imperial dynasty gave way to war, rebellion and, eventually, Communist rule.

The missionaries built hospitals and a university, institutions that have lasted. Today, the West China Hospital is one of China's largest, with 4,300 inpatient beds, while West China Medical Centre of Sichuan University is one of the country's top medical schools.

It's that contribution that has led people in China to dig into the history books, drawn to the past by the way it still resonates today.

"Canadian missionaries played very important roles in the establishment of the modern educational system and Western medical system, which still benefit the people in Sichuan today," said Zhang Yingming, who has assembled a detailed timeline of the mission. "People here should remember."

Along the way, those in the mission were bombed, killed by cholera and, on one occasion, captured for ransom by bandits. They also built summer homes in the mountains, learned Chinese and secured scholarships at foreign schools for Chinese doctors in training.

The missionaries were not, like Dr. Bethune, allied with the Communists, who some of the Canadians derided as atheists. After Mao's forces won control of China, the missionaries were forced out. Soviet doctors moved in and ripped out English teaching materials, replacing them with Russian books and Russian ideas.

But the legacy of the Canadian missionaries remained, and the doctors they educated "became the backbone of a modern medical system in China post-'49," Dr. Minden said. Decades later, "they were the heads of departments all over China."

Some of their children remain alive, too. Marion Walker, 84, was born in Chengdu as a third generation of the Canadians in China. Her grandfather, Omar Kilborn, was the first of the Canadian medical missionaries and founded the local medical school.

"He was convinced as a very young man that it was a wonderful thing to go to the other end of the world and do some good," she said. "But in the end, he decided that it was important to teach the Chinese to teach themselves. So he decided he was going to train doctors."

The work of the missionaries was not without controversy, even among themselves. Isabel Crook was born in the mission but rejected it. She became, she wrote, "sharply critical of the lifestyle most of the missionaries led, with their large houses, many servants and imported comforts which contrasted with the far lower standard of living of their Chinese fellow Christians."

Ms. Crook, an anthropologist who remains in China, turned into a supporter of the Communist cause, instead.

In China today, meanwhile, the story of the West China Mission is being revived with a caveat. The missionaries are not referred to as such. They are, instead, called "volunteers."

In an officially atheist country where authorities have stripped churches of crosses, neither Chinese officials nor local media are eager to emphasize the religious roots of the group they are working to celebrate. Two people who have worked to preserve the history declined interviews, with one saying questions about the missionaries were "too sensitive to be answered in China."

Mr. Gao, however, says telling the story has symbolic value.

"I think this documentary should be a good thing for the friendship between China and Canada," he said.

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