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Taiwan’s ‘black-bearded barbarian’

The enduring legacy of missionary George Leslie Mackay

Taiwan’s ‘black-bearded barbarian’

George Leslie Mackay (center) in 1912 (Handout)

Up on a hill above the Tamsui River, past the renovated Fort San Domingo, stands Aletheia University, a quiet campus filled with leafy trees, an imposing neo-Gothic church with a 32-foot-tall pipe organ, and two pointed arches at its entrance. Walk through the arches, follow a winding stone path in a manicured garden, and cross a bridge over a koi pond, and you’ll reach a red brick schoolhouse, a blend of Western and Eastern styles of architecture. 

This is Oxford College, established in 1882 as the first modern institute of higher learning in northern Taiwan. Under its vaulted ceiling, Canadian missionary George Leslie Mackay (1844-1901) once taught Chinese converts the Bible and natural science, so they could lead churches and point nonbelievers to God by examining nature’s design.

Mixed among Aletheia’s newer buildings are other leftovers from the late 1800s and early 1900s: a women’s dormitory, a couples’ dormitory (now housing a hipster coffee shop), and Mackay’s white-painted house. Tourists snap photos in front of these historic buildings, and a painter sets up his easel in front of the former dorms.

Angela Lu Fulton

Mackay’s house (Angela Lu Fulton)

The beauty and tranquility of the campus was part of Mackay’s intent: In his autobiography, From Far Formosa, he notes that in his time, Chinese people and officials similarly walked the campus grounds admiring its beauty. “Is such a part of mission work? Yes; most emphatically, yes,” Mackay wrote. “Our God is a God of order. He loves beauty, and we should see his handiwork in trees, plants, and flowers; moreover, we should endeavor to follow the order which is displayed so visibly throughout the God-created, star-studded universe.”

Mackay’s influence in Taiwan stretches far beyond the schoolhouse: In his 30 years in northern Taiwan, he brought the gospel to both the aboriginals and Chinese, planted more than 60 churches, set up a much-needed hospital, and started the first women’s school. While most Americans may never have heard his name, the “black-bearded barbarian” is the most famous foreigner in Taiwan’s history. The district of Tamsui named its main road after Mackay and erected a large bust of him and his grizzled beard in a small park. Yet his real legacy lies in his spiritual influence on Taiwan: converting the first generation of believers, whose descendants make up the Taiwan church today.

MACKAY, THE FIRST MISSIONARY sent out by the Canada Presbyterian Church, landed in Taiwan in 1872, while the island was still under the control of the Qing dynasty. The English Presbyterian Mission had missionaries stationed in southern Taiwan, so Mackay decided to serve the unreached north and settled in the trade port of Tamsui. He quickly picked up the difficult language of vernacular Taiwanese and started an itinerant preaching ministry.

His early students were educated young men who had studied Chinese classics and were interested in the gospel that Mackay preached. Mackay brought his students with him on his trips to different towns, teaching them the Bible under the shade of banyan trees and collecting plants and seeds to study.

At each town, he’d find an open area—usually by a temple—and sing hymns, preach a sermon, extract teeth, pass out medicine, then repeat. Many of the locals had severe dental problems due to the popularity of chewing betel nut, an addictive fruit similar to chewing tobacco, so the teeth extractions brought relief from their pain. Over time, some would convert to Christianity, and Mackay would set up a church with one of his students as their pastor. The converts would throw away their household idols and ancestral tablets (which the Chinese worshipped) and oftentimes faced rejection from their families and the community. In this way, Mackay planted churches in towns along the Tamsui River.

For instance, in From Far Formosa, Mackay recalls traveling with his students to the town of Sintiam (also called Xindian), 18 miles inland from Tamsui. Sintiam residents, who had never seen a foreigner before, angrily cried out, “Barbarian! Foreign devil!” The crowds initially threatened to kill him, but their attitudes changed after he helped dress the head wound of a young boy. Mackay’s medical aid to the residents made them more open to the gospel message, and soon a congregation gathered to hear him preach. Converts built a small stone chapel, and Mackay left one of his Taiwanese students to pastor the church as he went on to other towns.

In 1884, the French attacked northern Taiwan in the prelude to the Sino-French War, and the Chinese people grew suspicious of foreigners like Mackay as well as his Chinese converts. A mob entered the Sintiam church, took the communion roll, and set out to destroy everyone named on the list: The crowd set houses on fire, beat Christians, and plundered their homes. Some escaped, while others were tortured. The mob grabbed one couple and forced them to choose between renouncing their faith or drowning in the Xindian river. They chose to drown.

“There they suffered, martyrs for the faith, to whom death was nothing compared with dishonoring their Lord,” Mackay wrote. Afterward, the Christian believers rebuilt the demolished church, and their faith and numbers grew.

IN HIS FIRST EIGHT YEARS OF MINISTRY, Mackay focused his outreach on the Chinese in Taiwan. He even married a local woman, Tiu Chhang Mia, who became a vital part of his work by ministering to women. After a furlough to Canada in 1880, he started trekking to aboriginal villages in northwest Taiwan to share the gospel. The natives there, called the Kavalan people, lived in the plains and had largely submitted to Chinese rule (meanwhile, other tribes living in the mountains at that time still engaged in headhunting).

Along with his dental and medical practice, Mackay used music to bring the gospel to the aboriginals, said professor Cheng Yang-en of Taiwan Theological College and Seminary. Mackay learned aboriginal folk songs and changed the words to create hymns. After teaching the hymns to one village, he’d take some of the villagers to sing those hymns in the next village he visited. Often he’d convert the village chief, and the entire village would convert as well. Unlike the Chinese, the aboriginals did not worship their ancestors or Buddhist gods, so they more easily accepted the gospel. Mackay established 38 churches among the Kavalan people.


George Leslie Mackay (Handout)

Yet today, only one or two of the churches remain. Cheng points out a few reasons for their demise: First, Mackay died at the age of 57 from throat cancer in 1901, and his successors didn’t keep up the work of visiting the indigenous churches and maintaining relationships with the people. Also, Chinese settlers took aboriginals’ land, forcing the tribes to relocate and leave their churches behind. Some assimilated with the Chinese people and adopted traditional folk religions.

In 1880, Mackay established the Mackay Clinic in Tamsui, the first Western hospital in northern Taiwan. Although Mackay never attended medical school, he partnered with Western doctors to treat local patients, many of whom suffered from malaria, a common ailment and cause of death on the island. The hospital closed after Mackay’s death but reopened in 1912 with the name Mackay Memorial Hospital. Today it is one of the top hospitals in Taiwan, with the sick and elderly crowding the waiting room from morning to night.

Oxford College, founded in 1882, replaced Mackay’s itinerant school under the banyan trees, and students learned about the Bible, astronomy, geography, botany, and natural sciences. It was the first school to use Western-style education in northern Taiwan, in contrast to Chinese private schools that taught students Chinese classics to prepare them for the civil service exam. After Japan colonized Taiwan in 1895, the government made Western education more widespread, yet missionaries had beaten them by a few decades.

Angela Lu Fulton

Oxford College (Angela Lu Fulton)

Mackay often collected seeds for his students to examine, and he let them dissect animals to see their complex and delicate design. He believed evidence theology was the best way to evangelize the unbeliever. “The reasoning from effect to cause, and particularly from design to designers, would deeply impress the native mind,” Mackay wrote.

After Mackay’s death, Oxford College moved to Taipei, which under Japanese rule had become a large developing city. In 1955, the seminary relocated again to Yangming Mountain under the leadership of missionary James Dickson, a close friend of Gen. Chiang Kai-shek, then the leader of the island.

Angela Lu Fulton

Statue of George Leslie Mackay (Angela Lu Fulton)

Today statues of both Dickson and Mackay stand on the verdant seminary campus. The bronze Mackay faces the school’s chapel, another fusion of East and West: a gabled sanctuary topped with traditional Chinese glazed tiles and a pagoda-style steeple. Back in Tamsui, on the original college grounds, the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan (which grew out of the Canadian and English Presbyterian missions) opened Aletheia University, a name meaning “Truth” in ancient Greek. However, the Taiwanese government required the university to follow national standards, so the school is Christian in name only: The percentage of Christian teachers and students there is no different from secular universities.

In contrast to traditional Chinese culture, Mackay championed women’s education and created the first girls’ school. At the time, Chinese women bound their feet, stayed indoors, and could not interact with men outside their family until they married. So when Mackay opened the girls’ school in 1883 (which catered to both adults and children), the students were mainly aboriginals, who were more open to new ideas. Mackay’s wife, Tiu, served as headmistress and surrogate mother for the girls.

Mackay was also a collector of aboriginal artifacts, Chinese idols, and seeds, all of which he brought back with him to Canada in 1892. His 700-piece collection of Taiwan artifacts is now in the Royal Ontario Museum. In Taiwan, independence activists have cast Mackay as a symbol of their cause—a part of Taiwan’s unique history and a foreigner who adopted the Taiwanese identity. TV documentaries, biographies, and children’s books have focused on the missionary, and the Taiwanese government even funded an opera about Mackay in 2008.

In class, though, Cheng teaches students that while Mackay is a heroic figure, he’s still just a human—it’s Mackay’s God who is worthy of worship. One of Mackay’s biggest flaws: He didn’t work well with other missionaries that the Canadian Presbyterian Mission sent. He would leave them behind in Tamsui as he visited villages, expecting them to pick up the difficult language on their own. Some couldn’t, and had to return to Canada. “He was always walking very fast in the front and people couldn’t keep up with him,” Cheng said. He pointed out this was why aspects of Mackay’s mission—such as the Kavalan churches—fell apart after he died.

TODAY, MORE THAN 140 YEARS since its founding, the tall, red-brick Sintiam Church stands on a hill above the same Xindian River where martyrs drowned. On an unseasonably warm Friday afternoon last November, the doors to the church stood open, welcoming the community inside. On the first floor, a church member taught about eight women from the neighborhood how to arrange flowers, artistically layering yellow orchids, pink roses, and palm fronds.

Angela Lu Fulton

Sintiam Church (Angela Lu Fulton)

One floor up, 30 elementary school students sat at desks working on their homework. As church secretary Tsai Shu-chen walked by, they cried in unison the greeting “Peace!” Next door, Yen Shu-hui, one of two teachers in the after-school program, busily cut fabric to create costumes for a Christmas play.

A local elementary school had referred the students to the church’s after-school program because they were struggling with behavioral problems likely caused by unstable home lives. Yen said that after a few months in the program, the kids’ behavior had greatly improved, and half were attending children’s Sunday school as well. The church also invites their families to parenting classes and events like the Christmas play.

These community outreaches, Tsai explained, are inspired by Mackay: In the same way Mackay evangelized by first addressing the needs of society, Sintiam Church wants to provide a safe space for underprivileged children and others in the neighborhood. “We saw that these kids have needs and we also had the resources to help them,” Tsai said. “We are opening the doors of the church to the community.”

While Tsai is a first-generation Christian, she said she knew of congregants who could trace their spiritual lineage back to Mackay: Some had grandparents or great-grandparents who first heard the gospel from Mackay or one of his students, and whose whole family still believes to this day.

Aletheia University chaplain Wang Jung-Cheng also described how Mackay had impacted his personal life. “He served the Taiwanese people,” Wang said. “If a foreigner can love Taiwan so much, then I, a Taiwanese, must also have a bigger heart to love Taiwan. … There are many Taiwanese who still don’t know God.”

Angela Lu Fulton

Angela Lu Fulton

Angela is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine based in Taiwan. Follow Angela on Twitter @angela818.