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Until his dying days, Chinese farmer Zhang Shukai carried a secret that he dared not tell a soul.

The period after the Communist revolution was a terrifying time for him. As the son of a rural landlord, he had already been persecuted by Maoist zealots. So he made a painful decision to burn all his photos of the shy Canadian missionary who had befriended his parents years before. If the authorities knew his family had once had a foreign friend, he could be accused of treason or espionage. To Maoists, the Christian missionaries were enemies of the people.

It wasn't until he was on his deathbed in 1981, five years after Chairman Mao Zedong had died, that the farmer called his oldest daughter to his side. He finally told her the remarkable story of one of China's great unknown heroes, a man who had spent days in their home, sharing their meals and being treated almost like family, while he struggled to decipher clues to China's distant past.

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"You must never forget that we still have a very special brother in Canada," the old man whispered. "If there is any chance at all, you must try to contact him and give him my greeting."

For the next 26 years, Mr. Zhang's children guarded this secret as fearfully as he had. And then, one day, a Chinese researcher ferreted out the truth and last spring invited the Zhangs to make their father's dying wish come true by meeting the Canadian's descendants. It was a poignant reunion and tears flowed freely - tears of joy and tears of sadness for China's violent past.

Yet even today, the Zhangs are afraid to speak openly of their father's Canadian connection. Oldest son Zhang Siping wrings his hands and points furtively to a nearby official he fears is monitoring the conversation. Blinking back tears, he refuses to reveal more than the most rudimentary details.

Clearly, the rehabilitation of James Mellon Menzies is not yet complete.

RARE MORAL BEACON

Like most of the missionaries who came from around the world seeking converts, Menzies is almost unknown to most Chinese people. But after decades of obscurity, he is finally being recognized by scholars, not because he tried to save China's soul, but because he tried to unravel and preserve its remarkable past.

No ordinary man of god, Menzies was a skilled, if amateur, archeologist - the first scientist to study the astonishing relics at the site of Yin, the last capital of the Shang dynasty, the Bronze Age civilization that thrived more than three millennia ago.

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He was one of the first to decipher the "oracle bones" - the 3,000-year-old turtle shells and sheep bones that contained China's first written language. He was a pioneer in learning how to determine the age of the bones. He built the world's largest private collection of oracle bones - more than 35,000 pieces.

And in the 1920s and 1930s, a time when China was ravaged by war and political upheaval and the world's museums were plundering its ancient treasures, he was a rare moral beacon amid the greed - a foreigner who fought the looting. Others, including at least one fellow Canadian missionary, exploited the chaos to make off with China's equivalent to ancient Greece's Elgin Marbles, but he refused to do the same.

Today, museums around the world are being asked to return stolen booty in their collections, but more than 85 per cent of his priceless collection never left the country. He resisted lucrative offers to serve as a middleman for the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, which was scooping up much of the loot from the shattered empire. He refused to profit from any of his discoveries.

And he did all this without formal training, while subsisting on the meagre salary of a missionary. Devoting his life savings to his archeological work, he remained a poor man throughout his 26 years in his adopted homeland.

"Shard by shard, he became the foremost non-Chinese expert on Bronze Age China," Linfu Dong says in Cross Culture and Faith, a groundbreaking biography of Menzies based on the author's doctoral thesis at York University in Toronto.

"By following the principles of 'no business deals' and keeping the artifacts in China, Menzies set an ethical and practical example for foreign scholars to participate in Chinese archeology. ... This was truly unusual for a collector at that time when foreign collectors missed no opportunity to export Chinese artifacts legally or illegally, paying no attention to Chinese sentiment and regulations."

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Menzies today is lauded in Chinese websites and newspapers. His admirers have published a Chinese-language biography of him. Conferences have been devoted to his archeological achievements. A museum is dedicated to his memory in Anyang, the site of one of China's most ancient capitals.

All of this has happened only in recent years. Before then, nobody dared to speak of him.

His son, renowned diplomat Arthur Menzies, served as Canada's ambassador to China from 1976 to 1980, but the fervour of the Cultural Revolution still lingered in the air and he knew he had to stay silent. "I never talked about my father or his work," he says from his Ottawa home. "I never mentioned that I was a missionary's son. Missionaries were still considered to be running dogs of the imperialists."

And so while Communist officials knew that Mr. Menzies was a diplomatic heavyweight who'd long helped to shape Canada's policy on China, few suspected the depths of his Chinese roots - that he'd been born here 60 years earlier.

As a toddler, he was given the auspicious Chinese name Tian Bei, or "Heavenly Treasure," by a family friend - the father of Zhang Shukai, who gave his own son a similar name, which, according to Chinese tradition, made the boys spiritual brothers.

TRAINED AS AN ENGINEER

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Young Arthur's impressive father had been born into a Presbyterian family in 1885 in Clinton, a small Southwestern Ontario town not far from Lake Huron. After graduating from the University of Toronto with a degree in civil engineering in 1907, James Menzies decided to become an overseas missionary - the first trained engineer to do so in Canada.

He studied for three years at Knox College, the Presbyterian seminary at U of T. A few months after graduating in 1910, he boarded a ship in Montreal for the long journey to join the church's mission in Henan province in the dusty plains of central China.

He arrived at one of the more tumultuous times in China's history. Just a few years earlier, Canadian missionaries had been forced to flee from the Boxer Rebellion, a violent reaction to the growing influence of outsiders on the country. Missions were pillaged and many Canadians were severely beaten by mobs, which called them "foreign devils."

The aftermath of the rebellion helped to trigger a modernization drive across much of China that culminated, a year after his arrival, in the revolution that overthrew the doddering Qing Dynasty and replaced it with the government of Sun Yat-sen - himself a Christian. By then, foreign missionaries were seen as experts and teachers who could help bring China up to date.

In his first few years in his new country, Menzies became fluent in Chinese and used his engineering skills to build homes and dig wells. By 1914, he was based about 500 kilometres south of Beijing in Zhangde, a city in Henan that is now known as Anyang.

One spring morning, he went for a ride on his old white horse along the Huan River where cotton farmers were plowing their fields and turning up ancient pottery shards. Already fascinated by archeology, he was studying the shards as several half-naked children collected willow-tea leaves nearby. One boy asked Menzies if he wanted to see "some dragon bones with characters on them." The missionary said he did and he was led to a hidden gulley where one slope was white with powdered bone particles.

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He had stumbled upon Yin, the ancient capital of the Shang Dynasty. When archeologists excavated the site, never before been visited by scholars, they discovered the remains of a vast Bronze Age city built by an astonishing civilization. There were silk weavings, bronze vessels, royal tombs and palaces, chariots and jade. Yin stretched across 24 square kilometres and had a population of 100,000 - one of the world's biggest at that time - and finding it made the Shang (as notorious for its animal and human sacrifices as it was for its complex written language and elaborate social structure) China's first documented dynasty.

As for the "dragon bones," when Menzies first visited Yin, few people understood their true importance even though they had been ground up and used in traditional medicine for centuries. It was only in 1899 that scholar Wang Yirong saw some in a Beijing drugstore and realized that the inscriptions on them suggested an ancient form of writing.

Wang kept the news of his discovery to a small circle of colleagues and, a year later, he committed suicide during the Boxer Rebellion. Not until 1910 did scholars realize that the bones had originated on the Huan River and, even then, only a handful of dealers and collectors visited the site before 1914, when the Canadian missionary stumbled upon it.

Menzies understood the crucial importance of the fragments - commonly called "oracle bones" because the Shang people believed that they could tell the future. The shells and bones were used by Shang court diviners to send questions to their deity and ancestors - questions about everything from wars and weddings to crops and hunting and even the treatment of toothaches. The inscriptions added up to a detailed record of life in China more than 1,500 years before the founding of Rome.

Over the next 22 years - interrupted only by a stint in France as an officer in the Chinese Labour Corps during the First World War - Menzies became an obsessive collector of oracle bones and other ancient artifacts. (Fellow missionaries called him "Old Bones.") He acquired his specimens from peasants and peddlers, found them in newly plowed fields, or gathered them in research trips to ancient sites. Dealers tried to fool him with fakes, but he learned how to detect their deceptions.

Unlike most collectors, he was interested in even the smallest fragments of bone, since they might contain a piece of an inscription, and he preserved a crust of earth with each artifact (to help in dating) and kept detailed records.

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"He was more interested in his Chinese archeological studies than he was in running theological camps where people would be taught simple things about Christianity," his son recalls. "He had a great curiosity about Chinese culture. He felt the missionaries were ignoring the great scholars and books of China."

Even as he built his vast collection, Menzies felt he was merely a custodian of China's national treasures. He insisted that his collection would remain in China for scientific study - in sharp contrast to fellow missionary and rival collector William C. White, an Anglican bishop who shipped thousands of priceless artifacts to the Royal Ontario Museum in the 1920s and 1930s.

Menzies was a shy man, a slow talker, and he was often plagued by migraine headaches. But through years of painstaking efforts, he amassed the world's biggest private collection of oracle bones, and by 1917 he had published a pioneering study of the inscriptions on them. Using his engineering training as a draftsman, he produced an astounding 2,369 drawings of the inscriptions from 1914 to 1917 for his first book and later added thousands of ink rubbings.

DIVINE INSPIRATION

He was motivated not just by a personal interest in archeology - he felt that he had received a divine call. He believed it was his mission to find evidence that God had been worshipped in ancient China, so the Chinese could see Christianity as indigenous, rather than a foreign theology.

In the oracle inscriptions, he identified the ideograph di - god - which led him to believe that the ancient Shang had a god called Shangdi, thus creating a religious tradition that continued for thousands of years. He maintained that the ancient Chinese had "as good a primitive idea of God as the Hebrews before Moses."

And then his research collided with the tumult of China's chaotic century.

By the mid-1920s, a mood of nationalism was sweeping across the country and foreigners were coming under attack again. The missionaries became the targets of anti-Christian campaigns, led by Communist agitators and student activists. In 1927, six were killed at Nanjing, southeast of Zhangde, and several missions were destroyed by local warlords. The Canadians decided to withdraw temporarily from Henan province.

The following year, Menzies returned to Zhangde to discover that the mission station had been occupied by soldiers who destroyed thousands of his books and artifacts. It was a disastrous blow, but he continued to devote himself to archeology and in 1932 was such an expert that he accepted an offer to teach the subject at Qilu University in nearby Shandong province.

Five years later, while on furlough in Toronto, he heard the devastating news that Japan had launched a full-scale invasion of northern China. Forced to postpone his return, he never stopped dreaming that he would return to his adopted homeland. But soon the Second World War broke out, followed by China's civil war and the Communist victory. He was never able to return.

Knowing that the invading Japanese armies had "anthropologists" who looted Chinese artifacts, Menzies got word to his colleagues at Qilu University to hide his collection. Oracle bones were concealed in attics and behind walls or buried on the campus. As a result, they survived and were retrieved in 1951, when a map showing their locations was handed over to university officials. More than 8,000 bones were recovered in good condition and eventually given to a Shandong museum.

Most of the treasures in his collection - including almost 23,000 oracle bones that had been safely stored in China earlier - ended up in Nanjing and Beijing, where they remain in museums today. A few were sent to Toronto in the confusion of the late 1930s, when his fellow missionaries feared they would be destroyed. Menzies kept these for the rest of his life, hoping some day to take them back. After his death, most were donated to the ROM and to the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.

HAUNTED BY HIS RIVAL

While waiting for the wars to end, Menzies embarked on a new career. At the age of 51, lacking formal academic qualifications in Chinese studies, he enrolled in a doctoral program at the University of Toronto, writing his thesis on China's Bronze Age culture. In 1943, he was recruited as a China specialist for the Office of War Information in the United States, where he helped with U.S. radio broadcasts to China.

But his final years were marked by academic indignities and deteriorating health. Bishop White, the rival who had shipped thousands of artifacts to the ROM, became director of U of T's school of Chinese studies. This made him a supervisor of the Menzies doctoral dissertation. According to revelations in Linfu Dong's biography, he rejected the thesis in 1941 - and then published two books of his own, based largely on the very dissertation he had rejected.

The book documents how Bishop White repeatedly took research and drawings from Menzies and used them in his lectures and books without giving credit. "He seemed to take an unholy delight in forcing me to tell him what he would then pass off as his own," Menzies wrote in a protest letter to the ROM's director.

Menzies also endured indignities from China's new rulers. In Qilu, shortly after the revolution, the Communists denounced him as a thief and a "cultural imperialist." He died of a heart attack in Toronto in 1957 largely unrecognized in either of his homelands. Even today, he is given no special mention in the ROM's vast exhibits of Chinese treasures.

Among a small circle of scholars, his achievements were understood. The father of Chinese archeology, Li Chi, paid tribute to Menzies in a history of the excavations at Anyang. And when a fossilized animal was found there - an extinct form of water buffalo whose magnificent antlers were sometimes used as oracle bones - the archeologists decided to name it Elaphurus Menziesanus.

But the regime was less accommodating. It celebrated Norman Bethune, the Communist war surgeon who died while helping Mao's soldiers in 1939 - he was the Canadian who fit the Chinese mould. Christian missionaries did not.

Only in the past decade has Menzies gained a larger following - coinciding, perhaps, with the granting of greater freedom to Christian churches. (Foreign missionaries are still banned.) In 2000, Shandong University held a James Menzies conference to discuss his work and one of its professors published a Chinese-language biography of him. After a Menzies museum opened at the former Canadian mission in Anyang in 2004, the Chinese media praised him for the first time and Anyang officials contacted his descendants, leading to celebratory banquets here and in Canada.

"He made an indisputable contribution to the evolution of oracle-bone research from its earliest stage, and was a prime mover in advancing the field," an Anyang newspaper declared in 2006. "His use of archeological research methods … was a truly great contribution. That his important contributions in these areas were almost forgotten is most unfortunate."

Drive down Red Star Road in Anyang today, and you will see how the old mission has been swallowed up by a haphazard jumble of modern buildings. Of the original seven structures from the 19th-century, only two are intact. Street vendors sell clothes from racks on the sidewalk in front.

Occupied by Red Army soldiers for two months after the Communist revolution, the 15-acre facility then was handed over to a local hospital, which still controls almost all of the site. (In 1992, less than an acre was given back to local Christians, who built a modern three-storey church on it.)

The brick house where Menzies lived is now a dingy Sunday school, with Christian songs on a blackboard and posters reading, "Jesus Loves You" and "God is Always With You," in Chinese. The second floor, filled with cots and mattresses, is a dormitory for adult students who attend the church's Bible studies classes. Hymns from the church, sung by a few dozen students, drift into the building.

The other brick building, where the missionaries worked, is now the Menzies museum, with exhibits showing how he kept his collection of oracle bones in China - and a brochure describing as "very unjust" the fact that his achievements were "long forgotten." On a wall outside the museum, an artist has painted colourful murals of Menzies, riding on horseback and discovering the oracle bones.

The church's 75-year-old pastor, Han Yuqin, knew almost nothing about Menzies until a few years ago - even though her own father was one of his students. "Nobody mentioned him very much, because he was officially considered an imperialist," she says.

UNCOVERED IN TV RESEARCH

Chinese journalist Liu Zhiwei, who lives in Anyang, was one of the first to see Menzies in a different light. He came across the Canadian's name in 1986 when writing a TV series on oracle bones. He went to the local Chinese Christian community to ask about him, but "none of the church people dared to tell me any stories about him," he says.

"He was considered an imperialist cultural invader. Even now, if you search for Menzies on the Chinese Internet, you'll see that he's still called an invader. Some people say he stole our oracle bones and sent them to Toronto, or he hid them in Shandong and allowed them to rot into ashes." (An article on one website alleges that only old age prevented him from smuggling out everything.)

Mr. Liu, pursuing his own research, realized that the allegations were wrong and wrote articles defending Menzies. China should restore him to his rightful place in its history, he says.

"The most unique thing about Menzies is that he didn't sell anything from his collection," Mr. Liu says. "He made important academic contributions - for example, how to recognize the difference between real oracle bones and fake ones. He never stole anything from China."

Suo Huibin, director of the Menzies museum (and a son of Mrs. Han, the pastor), says the Canadian should be considered a hero. "He wasn't a dealer or a cultural invader. He made a very significant contribution to scholarly research. As a missionary, he had a very limited income and he spent his own money to collect the oracle bones. If you calculated the value of his collection today, he'd be the richest man in the world."

A few kilometres away, a huge new museum has been built on the site of the ancient Shang dynasty capital, where the oracle bones were discovered. James Menzies rates a mention as an early collector of oracle bones, but nothing is said of his crucial scientific role. China is still reluctant to give credit to foreigners.

Zhang Siping, whose father safeguarded the existence of his Canadian "brother" for so long, now tends the fish at a small pond on the site of the new museum. He has given up the family secret, yet he still carries the old fears.

"Because of what we suffered in the Cultural Revolution, I still feel nervous and I don't want to talk about him," Mr. Zhang says.

"I was very hesitant to speak to the Menzies family when they came to China. I don't want to talk about this any more.

"I haven't thought about whether Menzies was good or bad for China. I just want to keep my family safe. There's an old Chinese expression: Don't add troubles to yourself."

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's correspondent in Beijing.

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