‘Foreign Wizards Play Magic Better’: a story of China

12 August 2015

Loughborough resident Eva Weng shares a story from her family’s history which compliments the recently featured story of Alfred Woodroffe.

“Foreign wizards play magic better.”  This is an old Chinese saying. I never got any chance to see wizards, foreign or domestic, playing magic. But my grandma did. One of the most interesting things in my childhood was to listen to her telling about the magic, how it was played, and how it changed the life of her whole family.

My grandma was born in a small town in very remote countryside in China. Even in the turbulent early 1900’s, it was still lucky enough to avoid continuous rebellions, revolutions and civil wars. There was no newspaper or radio. The local people believed China was the centre of the world, surrounded by barbarians, and that China was as quiet and unchanged as this town.

Her father was a typical traditional literati, that meant he was a poet, painter, calligrapher and musician.  He could recite thousands of classic poems and tens of classic philosophical books from his exact memory, but he never knew that the earth is round, table salt is Sodium Chloride, or how to calculate the area of a pentagon.  It was very likely his four sons would follow his way.

The expectation for my grandma was different. According to tradition, she would bind her feet as small as possible – the ideal size was three inches, a standard of beauty; she would stay indoors all her life, first in her father’s house, after that in her husband’s house, never going out. That was the typical life for a lady.

But this was changed by some strangers, men and women.  Nobody knew how and why they came to this backwater.  They tried to visit every family, although most families did not let them in. They spoke Chinese, but they did not look Chinese at all.  Even after 50 years, my grandma still remembered vividly how amazed she was when one of the ladies visited her family. “Wow!  Gold grows from her head!  Her eyes are sapphires! She must be a fairy lady!”

It seemed most of the other local people did not have such a romantic impression of these newcomers. They called them “foreign wizards and witches.”  Those with more hostility called them “foreign devils”.

These foreigners established a church, a school and a hospital, all of them quite small, but still empty because few people went there. Most people believed an old saying “if someone looks different, his thoughts must be different”.  As you know, Chinese tradition doesn’t honor difference so much. They like harmony.  Even now, if you go to China and somebody says you are different or extraordinary, you’d better not to take it as a compliment. It is very possible that he actually means you are odd.

Indeed, the thoughts of these foreigners were very different. They tried to persuade parents to unbind their daughters’ feet, and to send them to school. They told them mathematics and science were as important as literature and art. They told them medicines do much more good to the sick than the talisman from the temple do. They told them China was not in the centre of the world and there were many countries like China.  They were from one of them, England.

Few believed them, until a big flood in 1931. That was the deadliest flood in Chinese history, it affected more than a quarter of China and caused more than 3 million deaths.  The small town survived this disaster only to see another – a wide-spread outbreak of Cholera. The local people did not have any idea about the reason for Cholera and had no way to treat it. Their only method was to quarantine the sick, leaving them to die, but this could not stop the plague.

Then those “foreign wizards and witches” played their magic. They took all patients to their hospital and treated them. Local people were very surprised at first, but soon came to help.  One of them was my great-grandpa. His house was even partly used as a hospital. Some patients died, but most of them recovered, and the plague was eliminated finally.

After that, my grandma and her four brothers went to the English school and her father became one of the main donors to the school and hospital.  He never entered the church and he died a Confucianist, but he was quite happy to see his wife and five children become Christians.

After graduating from the small school, my grandma and her four brothers went to Shanghai and Nanjing for higher education. They were the first generation in this family who saw the world out of the town. They became a senior police officer, a bank manager, a teacher, an engineer and a diplomat.

When they left the small town, no girls there had their feet bound, all children went to school, the hospital had expanded and was training local people as nurses and physician’s assistants.

When my grandma once asked her father why he decided to send his children to that English school he said “maybe foreign wizards play magic better.”  Indeed, they not only played magic better. They played better magic.

Eva Weng


Read the story of Alfred Woodroffe who left Loughborough to become a Baptist Missionary in China in 1897.

Read an article on the Chinese custom of binding girls’ feet by the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco.

Girl with Bound Feet

Photograph of ‘Chinese Girl with Bound Feet’ taken in San Francisco. Image from the website of the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco – http://www.sfmuseum.org/chin/foot.html