CITY GUIDE >City Special
Tianjin's 'Flying Scotsman'
(China Daily)
Updated: 2009-08-06 14:15

At the end of the classic movie Chariots of Fire, Eric Liddell said he would return to China.

The 1981 Oscar-winning film captures the peak of Liddell's sports career, but as a biography it leaves out many interesting stories about the Scotsman.

The "Flying Scotsman" may have competed in the 1924 Paris Olympics as a British athlete, but China also claims him as one of our heroes because he was born in Tianjin (in 1902), died in Shandong (in 1945) and spent more than half of his life in China.

His unsung heroism can more easily be found in China. And Tianjin is the place where he left much of his legacy.

It was to Tianjin that he was returning to at the end of the movie.

Tianjin's 'Flying Scotsman'

At 38 Chongqing Dao in Tianjin, formerly Cambridge Road, sits a three-story brown-brick building. A plaque on the iron fence says this is the former residence of Liddell, which the municipal government designated for protection, in 2005.

To see what Liddell did for Tianjin, one needs only look across the intersection, toward Minyuan Stadium, which he built as a replica of Chelsea's football ground, where he used to compete. Minyuan was his favorite running venue, and this was where he trained Chinese boys in a number of different sports.

Liddell's parents were missionaries, in China. He left China, aged 5, and returned in 1925, having set a world record for the 400-m the year earlier.

Like his parents, he became a missionary and taught grades 1-12 at the Anglo-Chinese College. During this time, he competed sporadically but his focus was on education.

When Japan invaded China, Liddell helped refugees in a rural mission station in Hebei province. He sent his wife and daughters to safety in Canada, but he chose to stay in China where he felt he was needed. According to his daughter, Liddell used his skill as a runner to catch wild hares when food in the station ran short.

In 1943, the Japanese interned Liddell, with other Western expatriates, at a camp in Weifang, Shandong province. According to fellow internees who survived the ordeal and wrote about it, Liddell constantly helped his companions. He shamed those who smuggled in food into sharing it with others.

He taught Bible classes and science to the children, who called him "Uncle Eric". He arranged sporting contests and refereed them.

Norman Cliff, in his memoir The Courtyard of the Happy Way, recalls Liddell as "the finest Christian gentleman it has been my pleasure to meet. In all the time in the camp, I never heard him say a bad word about anybody".

Last year, the Chinese authorities revealed that Liddell could have left the camp. In a prisoner exchange between the British and the Japanese, Liddell, being a world-famous athlete, was put on the list by the British government. But he made what turned out to be the ultimate sacrifice and gave the chance of life to a pregnant woman.

Five months before the Japanese surrendered and the camp was liberated, Liddell died from a brain tumor. Malnutrition, overwork and a lack of medical treatment deprived him of any chance he might have had of being cured.

Eric Liddell once said: "I believe that God made me for a purpose, but He also made me fast. When I run, I feel His pleasure."

Now, the Tianjin municipal government is seeking filmmakers who can turn the latter part of Liddell's life into a film. "If you thought Chariots of Fire was inspiring, wait till you learn of what Li Airui did in China," said Gong Tieying, a publicity official for Tianjin.

Li Airui, by the way, is Eric Liddell's Chinese name.