After our washed out morning at Dunston Staiths,we crossed the River and went to visit St.Johns Cemetary. We came across some Chinese tombstones, not a usual find when we’re traipsing through graveyards. So I did a little research…..
Back we go to the late 1800’s and to the later part of the Qing dynasty, which, as I’m sure you all know, was presided over by the Empress Dowager Cixi, a formidable and capable lady who had a fascinating life, having started out as a lowly concubine, but ending up as head Missis to the Emperor. The Chinese had four modernized navies during this period, and the Beiyang Fleet dated back to 1871, when four ships from the southern provinces were shifted north to patrol the northern waters. Initially considered to be the weakest of the four navies, that all changed when one of the most trusted vassals of the Empress, a chap named Li Hongzhang, decided to allot the majority of naval funds to the Beiyang Fleet thereby making it the largest of China’s navies.
What has all this got to do with Newcastle I hear you ask, so I shall tell you. You may remember my visit to Cragside last year, which was built by the engineer William Armstrong. You can read about him on that post HERE for it was he who had built a shipyard at Elswick in Newcastle, on the River Tyne, and Li Hongzhang populated his new navy with ships from Germany and Britain. Two of these were built at the Elswick yard, steel protected cruisers, fast and with big guns, the Zhiyuan, and the Jingyuan.
A delegation was sent to Newcastle from the Beiyang Navy. Sadly, 5 of the sailors died of an unspecified illness, whilst waiting to sail the ships back to their base in China. Yuan Peifu, Gu Shizhong, Lian Jinyuan, Chen Shoufu and Chen Chengkui. They were buried in St Johns Cemetery in Elswick, and over the past 100 years or so their tombstones had deteriorated, collapsed, and sunk into the ground.
In 2016 a student from the Royal College of Art in London posted photos of the cracked tombstones online and quickly attracted the attention of the China Foundation for Cultural Heritage Conservation, a nonprofit organization. The president of the foundation, Li Xiaojie launched a global crowdfunding thingy and raised the money to pay for the tombstones to be restored.
Zhang Rong was the engineer sent by the Foundation to fix the tombs. He flew to Newcastle and met with the council to have a conflab on how to go about it. “We went through each item line by line, trying to find common ground and iron out any differences,” Zhang said. “It was worth the time because we learned so much during the process, especially about improving our standards.” In China, repairing tombstones is quite basic, glue the pieces back together, whereas in Britain, you also have to insert steel rods to make sure they keep standing and don’t fall over on top of people.
Together with Joseph Richmond & Son Memorials, Zhang and his team completed the restoration of the tombstones in December 2018. The graves were originally purchased by the Chinese Government for £5 each, (equivalent to £5000 nowadays). The Chinese didn’t have much foreign cash at the time, and this would have been a great sacrifice for them.
The rededication ceremony was in June 2019, with Chinese and Newcastlese dignitaries and the like all saying nice things about each other, which is kind of sweet.
“The five sailors can rest peacefully knowing that even after all these years, people back home still care about them. This is a project full of human warmth and love.” said Li Xiaojie.
When China take over the world we up here will be alright I think 😊