Dr. Janet Hargreaves, University of Huddersfield The UKAHN Bulletin
Volume 7 (1) 2019

Book Cover, China GadaboutsThis beautifully written and very readable book is a gem, due to the carefully crafted narrative that sheds light on the complex subject of humanitarian endeavour and nursing. The meticulous research charts the work of the Quaker Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) in China and Burma during the last years of Japanese occupation from 1941 to the end of the Second World War and then in nationalist and communist territories of China during the Chinese civil war up to their withdrawal in 1951. The witness of the nurses: including those from the west volunteering to work with the FAU and their Chinese colleagues, is the focus and central narrative of the book. The FAU in China was tiny, a mere handful of people in a vast country of millions, and the nurses a smaller group still. However, their experience resonates with meaning and relevance to humanitarianism and nursing today.

A deeply pacifist organization, the determination of many FAU volunteers to prove their worth led to amazingly courageous and daring missions across vast areas, encountering terrible poverty and the devastation of war. The tensions felt between people for whom their faith and proselytising came first, and those who saw meeting practical human need as their primary goal, illustrates one of the many nuanced motivations for their involvement in the FAU.

The detailed exploration of the clinical and working arrangements for the nurses offers an unusual opportunity to understand the specific nursing contribution, but also honestly explores racial and cultural difficulties in nursing practice. The western nurses had to learn a degree of flexibility and humility when faced with long held health beliefs and a sophisticated Chinese medical system that challenged everything they knew. The Chinese nurses, for their part were eager for the opportunities offered to serve their country and to gain valuable work experience and contacts. They therefore worked hard as mediators and brokers of cultural and clinical understanding. ‘Good’ nursing could not always be the best from a western, or Chinese point of view. There were successes and failures, but through both, great understanding of transnational and transcultural nursing can be gained.

The FAU’s dogged pacifism assisted them to gain access where others would have failed, but politics, large and small, permeated all operations. The sources of funding they accepted, and the alliances they cultivated were calculated to help them make as much impact as possible on the desperate humanitarian crises they faced, whilst trying to maintain their neutrality. Changing political imperatives in America, Europe, China, Korea and Japan made this extremely difficult.

Of no less significance to understanding humanitarian work, are gender and racial politics. There is an acknowledgement that the FAU was a masculine, western operation, many members being conscientious objectors determined to prove their courage and daring in a non-military arena to family and others back home. The inclusion of women, predominately as nurses, but also doctors and administrators was controversial. Male volunteers were split in their feelings about the value, or otherwise, of women being team members. Male and female members were pitched together in life threatening situations far from home, so romance, desire, marriage and parenthood, were inevitable. The Chinese men and women who worked for and with the FAU had their own motivations. They too needed to negotiate their relationships, ranging from antipathy to life-long inter racial friendships and love, and to work with and around cultural differences.

Reading this book is highly recommended in its own right, but particularly at a time when humanitarian aid has been tarnished by militarisation, political wrangling and abuse scandals. The China Gadabouts [‘Go Anywhere, Do Anything’] illuminates its period of history, as well as our own times.