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Letters from Manchuria

The story of Marion Young Missionary in Japanese-occupied China

edited by

Neil T. Sinclair

ISBN: 978-0-9935078-1-6

In 1935 Marion Young arrived in China and for the next six years she wrote weekly letters home to her parents in Ireland. Her letters give a vivid picture of life in the market town of Faku and also of the villages in Inner Mongolia which Marion visited as part of her mission work.

The letters and photos were passed down to Marion’s daughter, Helen, and son-in-law, Neil, as the ‘family historians’. When they began to look through them they realised the insight they gave to being a missionary in Manchuria (named ‘Manchukuo’ by the Japanese) and to life there in the late 1930s.

     Retirement gave Helen and Neil the time to sort out the hundreds of letters, summarise the contents and make difficult decisions about which of the many interesting passages should be included in this book.

    Once this was done, Helen read out the selected passages while Neil typed into the computer. They then chose the 156 photographs that illustrate Marion’s story.


Helen and Neil Sinclair at work


A missionary’s pay was tiny, but Marion afforded a few gifts for her family. This embroidered peacock is part of the design on a silk jacket which she brought back from China.



Marion with her classmates circa 1917


A newspaper article announcing Marion’s departure for China

Marion Young was born in 1911, the eldest of eight children, and grew up in Galway during the turbulent times surrounding Irish independence.

     A childhood friend remembered, ‘even before she was ten, Marion was going to be a missionary. It was not a day-dream, but an intention; she had no need for day-dreams.’

     When in 1935 Marion was appointed to China by the Irish Presbyterian Church’s Women’s Association for Foreign Mission, she wrote to her parents, ‘Am I happy or am I happy? Whoopee! Whoopee!! Whoopee!!’ This was the start of a long correspondence. 

From China Marion recalled the ‘smell of fresh cut hay, the Mournes with gorse blazing gold, the smoke lying over Milford in a hollow on a summer evening seen from Allan’s lane’, and how it ‘cut out completely the spits and smells around me’.

     She wrote about two wee boys, Ping An, the cook’s son, and his friend, En Fu, in winter clothes – ‘the quickest way to scatter them is to look up – they flee like two little fat bundles with feet stuck on the bottom’.

    Later she started a letter home with the words, ‘Christmas morning – grey, dank – wakened by running feet outside my window’ – the start of her account about how she and a colleague rescued the cook’s daughter-in-law from the bottom of the well. 


Little Peace and Happy Grace at play


Marion and Wang Ssu Wen, evangelist, en route for Chin chia Tiu with baggage bearer



Marion and Ssu Wen sat on a k’ang

Ever present was the oppression of Japanese rule. In her letters Marion used ‘coded’ words, such as ‘Black and Tans’, to avoid the attention of the censors, but when able to send letters with fellow missionaries who were returning home, she wrote clearly about the torture of Chinese citizens, remarking, ‘They treat folk a bit more kindly before freeing them, to give the marks of beating or torture a chance to clear up – isn’t it a bright thought?’

    As Douglas Alexander writes in the foreword, ‘what emerges is the deep respect and indeed fascination with which Marion and so many of her colleagues regarded their Chinese students and the culture and civilisation of which they were part.’

      Marion was very much a part, and when a Taoist priest looked at her ‘several times in a puzzled way and then said, “She isn’t of our people then?”’ she felt ‘highly complimented’.

This beautiful hardback book will fascinate anyone interested in China and its history before the revolution, but it is equally absorbing for any reader who enjoys a great real-life story.
   The book is richly illustrated with photographs (156 of them) and detailed historically correct maps of the area where Marion was working.
     Marion’s writing is lyrical without ever being pretentious and her sense of humour shines through, as does her delight when she was able to use a little Irish blarney, sometimes to get out of extremely risky situations.
    Her story is full of suspense as well. The period of Japanese occupation was precarious for everyone and then with the start of the Second World War the dangers for Westerners living in China escalated tenfold.

‘Today we are celebrating Dr O’Neill’s 70th birthday, Chinese fashion. A 70th birthday is a very big day in a Chinese family, so we, two schools, hospital, evangelists and pastor, are to be his family and act the thing out. There are 23 of us altogether. Sons and daughter, granddaughters and number of great granddaughters. We are all wearing Chinese clothes. Joey and I are going as twins – his granddaughters, dressed in deep red gowns.’


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