The Doctor Is In

When writing my last post I was made aware that much of my great grandparents’ life have circled around dealing with the consequences of one of the major historical events of the 19th and 20th Century.

During the 19th Century, China fought two big opium wars against the West – and lost both of them. My great grandparents experienced the aftermath of these wars first-hand, as they arrived in China in 1892. Many Chinese suffered from addiction to opium. Men and women left their families to smoke. Many could not work and some became prostitutes. Men even sold their wives and children as prostitutes or labourers.

When Robert and Dagny arrived in China, they knew that the last opium war had ended with a treaty some thirty years earlier. The Treaty of Tientisin had forced the Chinese to pay war reparations and to open even more ports for European trade. The Chinese had to allow opium trade and let traders travel within China – this also included missionaries who wanted to spread Gods word. Because of the treaty, China had great trouble stopping people from smoking opium. And when they put taxes on the substance, they also earned money off it – which of course made it harder to come down on the trade.

An opiumaddicted worker could well spend half, if not all of his salary on the drug and it was very hard to stop taking it, as the withdrawal symptoms were very hard – such as not being able to eat or sleep.

The British made a lot of money through the trade and did not worry about the Chinese getting addicted. They traded opium from India for tea, silk and porcelain that they could sell back home and make good profits off.

In 1892, when Robert and Dagny came to China, there was a widely spread famine. Missionaries in the countryside had to work very hard to help people best they could. Thousands of men, women and children died and many thousands made their way to the bigger towns and cities in the hope of finding something to eat. Missionaries then started shelters to bring in the starving people, feed them and at the same time spread the Gospel.

Saved through the Christian Herald’s relief campaign. Photo: The Swedish Mission’s photos at the National Archives in Sweden.

Robert’s opium asylum
In the same spirit, Robert saw the problem with the widely spread addiction to opium amongst villagers, not least in Shensi (Shaanxi), where he was to open a missionary station. Nobody had been there before him and the suspicion against him as a missionary was of course great. In the beginning Robert was hunted by the authorities who obstructed to everything he tried to undertake. The police even put up proclamations saying that any landlord who took him in, could loose both life and property. When he finally managed to rent a house, it was torn down and flattened to the ground.

Inspite of all this persecution, he kept his hopes up and finally managed to build a missionary station in Hoyang. It was here that he decided to start an opium asylum to help the local Chinese get rid of their addiction and at the same time convince them to believe in God, and put aside their other beliefs. Perhaps he was inspired by the success of the missionaries helping the Chinese through famine in exchange for converting to Christianity?

In 1914-1916, one of the editors of the Christian paper “Svenska Morgonbladet” (Swedish Morningpaper) – a man named J.M. Ollén – went on a trip around the world. He visited many missionary fields – for instance in India, Africa and China. In his book called “Swedish Missionary Accomplishments”, one chapter describes his meeting with my great grandfather Robert.

“Strongwilled, practical and energetic, he runs a rational opium asylum operation at a grand scale, since 17, 18 years. He has cured many hundreds of patients”, J.M. Ollén remembers from his arrival at the missionary station.

Ollén goes on to explain that smoking opium is not forbidden in Shensi, where Robert’s station was situated. In other parts of China, there is a ban on smoking the drug. In Shensi the growing of opium is forbidden, but in the nearby province of Gansu, the growing of it is still allowed. He describes the situation in Shensi as quite serious. People can’t afford pure opium, instead they smoke the opium ashes several times over, or drink it – dissolved into water or tea. This contributes to people getting poisoned by the drug faster. Because of so many addicted in the area, the crime rates are high and it’s not safe to travel the roads.

J.M. Ollén sees the need for the opium asylum that Robert has built. He writes: “The entire missionary station is an opium asylum. The majority of the bible people, the teachers and the congregation are former opium patients. They have spent two or three months here, being medicated and helped in different ways to get rid of the addiction and at the same time they are taught Christianity and invited to mass. Spiritual meetings are held around four times a day for the patients. Here, in the loneliness, separated from their ususal environment, living under the eyes of the missionaries, and subjected to their loving care and prayers, they have the opportunity to think about their life. Amongst these poor creatures, there are not so few, who during this time get to know the Saviour on a personal level.”

Robert’s chapel in Hoyang.

It seems Ollén is quite impressed by the work with the opium patients. He recognizes the trouble many missionaries have with keeping people under the influence of the mission and the missionaries long enough to make them hang on to Christianity even without the missionaries’ prescence. When missionaries preach in villages or talk to people on the road, the Chinese don’t seem to take note of God’s words once the missionaries have left. But here, at the opium asylum, the patients stay on for a month or much longer and this opens up a lot of possibilites, he writes.

The king and the doctor
Ollén goes on to describe how he visited Robert in his office one day:

“A tall Chinese man enters – he is called the “king” – with a joyous, intelligent expression in his otherwise not very attractive face. This man has obtained a high Chinese graduation and is the son of an eminent civil servant. He used to be an opium patient, now he is the right hand of Mr. Bergling. He is an evangelist, an assistant director of the opium asylum and indispensable through his proficiency and loyalty. He is but one of many. Time after time, Chinese enter the room to pay their respect. They beam of friendliness when they bow low and say their “peace”.

Today, Mr. Bergling has at least 40 patients waiting for treatment. They enter the room in a long line. The male opium patients first, then the female. Mr Bergling sits at his desk with his pills and his big green and red bottles. He looks sharply at the men, stirs his medicine and gives his orders with authority. Just like a real doctor.

Photo from J.M. Ollén’s book. It says: “Scary but thankful patients.”

The patients look worn. Their skin a pale yellowish hue, their eyes without shine, their gaze shy and their posture like worn-out, lazy and weak creatures. One of the men look particularly worn down and stares consistently at the floor. He came yesterday and had not been able to sleep last night because of such pain. Mr Bergling told us these were very difficult cases that were now treated. But he had his hopes up for all of them. In a couple of months time, they would be fine again, he said.

What dosis of of morphine they got! Glasses full of strong morphine solution! This was to keep them alive during the first period of time as they came off the opium.

“That woman is the worst case I have had, except for one male patient, during the 18 years I have worked with this”, Mr. Bergling said and pointed at a small, witchlike old lady. “Her addiction to opium is awful. I had to start giving her morphine dosis of 1 450 drops a day. In Sweden you usually give no more than 5 drops a day. But if this old lady, who has smoked opium her whole life, all day long, did not get such a strong portion of this poison, she would die.” “

Vitamins and prayers
Except for the morphine given, that was reduced in steps, day by day, the patients also got supplements such as iron and vitamines to help them with different deficits. Ollén, who was also trying to describe what good Christianity did in China was happy to talk to Robert, as Robert was convinced the best method to get rid of the opium addiction and stay away from it, was indeed faith.

Robert distributing medicine to a female patient.

“It’s sad, but fact is that many of those who do not become Christians, fall back into addiciton after a while. It can take a year, sometimes loger, but it happens quite often. The other day, a woman came up to me as I was travelling through the villages, and said: “I got such a lump in my throat when I saw you, as I have started smoking again.” Well, these poor things do not have much resistance. But those who see the light, they also get the strength to live a long, decent and pious life. And such a joy it is to visit with them!”

Somewhat surprising to me, Ollén also sees the women’s contribution to the success of the asylum. He finishes his account of his visit to Robert with a small reflection on Dagny’s part in the operation.

“I cannot finish this chapter without mentioning Mr. Bergling’s helpers. First and foremost his wife, a norweigan lady, who amongst other things works hard with the women in the asylum. Once I heard singing and then a lively, happy chatter in one of the chinese rooms in the station. It was Mrs. Bergling who sat there on the kang bed-stove, surrounded by her old ladies. Now, the women did not seem so lazy or slow any longer. Their pale faces showed life and it was not hard to see who made this happen: it was to be with their beloved teacher – the looks they gave her (Dagny) were proof enough of this. Mrs. Bergling has a large household to tend to. Sometimes with as many as 80 persons.”

An uncomfortable read
Though detailed and well written, reading Ollén’s description of the Chinese and the opium patients, makes me feel a bit uncomfortable. It’s the way he describes these persons – through both his male and his Christian gaze. Women look like witches, men are ugly and scary, they are all lazy and the missionaries are revered… It is a true testiment of its time, and I am sure it was not at all put into question at the beginning of the century. I can’t help but thinking it’s not very selfless or Christian to trade health for belief, but I am well aware this kind of trade is something that happens all over the world, even today.

At least I have not found any such condescending descriptions from Robert’s or Dagny’s pens, but I have yet to read all of the documents… we’ll see what turns up.

Robert (with hat) and Dagny (holding a book – the Bible?) in the middle of the photo.

4 thoughts on “The Doctor Is In

Add yours

  1. I also felt a bit uncomfortable reading the quoted excerpts for the same reasons you did.

    After some research I did for a story on the treatment of morphine addiction in the 19th century, I will say that the withdrawal symptoms were so horrendous that providing a course of treatment for addicts was not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach.

    Do you know what got people in China addicted to opium in the first place?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Opium started out as a medicinal herb- The Chinese had known about it for a long time. I found some information that it was known already around 600 AD. First it was just a medicinal herb like any other, but when tobacco was introduced in China some 1000 years later, this changed. Now, the Chinese could start smoking the herb and this made the effect that much stronger. Apparently it was mainly the upper class that smoked opium at first but as these people moved around the country, opium moved with them. The British was at the same time looking for something that would help them trade with China as they were very interested in tea, silk and other Chinese goods. Unfortunatley, the British did not have so much goods that the Chinese wanted, which made the trade balance problematic for the British. By the end of the 18th Century, the East India Company controlled areas in India, where opium was produced, and smuggled it to China on their ships. This was very lucrative, and inspite of China’s ban on opium, the smuggling continued. After the second opium war, around 15 million Chinese were addicted to the drug.
    When they derived morphine from the same flower, they thought they had a cure for the addiction, but instead people got addicted to morphine, and then they derived heroine from it as well – which was said to cure morphine addiction… but, well we all know about heroine.

    But it seems Robert was doing something good, when he offered morphine to get rid of the opium addiction, and continuously reduced the amount of morphine he gave the patients. That way he probably did get many of them off the hook, but of course some would fall back into addiction as well.

    This topic makes me think about the American opioid crisis. It seems history has a way of repeating itself… curing one problem with another, so to speak.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I have known about the asylum – it was always the topic when it came to Robert. Another topic was how he started a carpet factory and sold carpets to westeners to bring in money for the mission. He was a very active man, though he did not att spontaneously. Perhaps that is also a reason he kept at it for so many years – he didn’t give up.

      I’m happy you found it interesting!

      Liked by 1 person

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