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Century-old graves of Chinese sailors restored in UK

By Wang Mingjie in London | | Updated: 2019-06-16 08:42

The restoration works of tombs of five Chinese sailors who died in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the 1880s have completed with an official ceremony held on Friday to commemorate the long-forgotten seamen in a foreign land.

Located in St John's Cemetery in the Elswick district of the city, the graves contain the remains of Yuan Peifu, Gu Shizhong, Lian Jinyuan, Chen Shoufu and Chen Chengkui, members of the first two naval delegations that China sent to Europe.

Experts consider the tombs to be historical artifacts that mark the birth of the Beiyang, or Northern Fleet, the most powerful naval force assembled by China during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), which was bolstered by four battle cruisers that China bought from Britain between 1881 and 1887.

The story of the Chinese sailors' graves in Newcastle came into light when photos of cracked tombstones were posted online by a Chinese student at the Royal College of Art in London, catching the attention of the China Foundation for Cultural Heritage Conservation.

In December 2016, the foundation launched its first global crowdfunding campaign to raise the money to pay for the restoration work, which took more than two years to complete.

Speaking at the ceremony, Ma Hui, minister from China's embassy in London, said "This project is of great significance because it is a successful practice in which the Chinese government, enterprises, non-government organizations and individuals worked together, and China and the UK worked together to preserve Chinese cultural relics overseas.

"As we honor the memory of the five Beiyang Fleet sailors who have sacrificed their lives for their country, we are reminded of what happened to China more than 100 years ago and the tragic but heroic history of the Beiyang Fleet," Ma said. "We are also reminded of the deep friendship between Beiyang Fleet officers and sailors and the people of Newcastle, which was established when the Chinese sailors came for the cruisers."

Ann Clouston, deputy lieutenant of the Tyne and Wear, said:"Here in the North East, with our strong maritime and industrial heritage, the records of the first Chinese community go back at least 138 years to 1881. This is at a time when visiting Chinese sailors were treated like rock star."

"Today, the Chinese community in the North East is now around 20,000 strong," Clouston said, "we are very proud that we have a vibrant Chinese community in our region, providing a much-valued contribution to the local economy and to the social and cultural life of our community."

Qi Yongqiang, president of the Northern Britain Chinese Entrepreneurs Association which oversaw the restoration project, said the five Chinese sailors were of great value for the Chinese people, and a great symbol of the Chinese patriotism.

"I hope more people would know the history and understand China's way of development," he added.

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