THE LIFE & TESTIMONY OF NORMAN HOWARD CLIFF, 1925-2007
by Estelle Cliffe Horne
There is a network of hundreds of aging people all over the world, who have a lifelong love affair with a beautiful little former Treaty Port on the coast of the Shandong Peninsula in China, formerly called Chefoo, now Yantai. Norman was born there in 1925 of missionary parents and grandparents. There was a British school there, founded by Hudson Taylor, the founder of the China Inland Mission, and uncle of our grandfather, in 1881, for the children of missionaries and others working in China.
Our parents, Howard and Mary Cliff, both pharmacists, went back with baby Norman into the poverty-stricken interior provinces of Henan and Shanxi, where they worked in the walled cities of Qing dynasty China, including a spell at the Kaifeng Hospital in Henan. In the 1927 crisis, to prevent a repeat of the Boxer massacres, they were evacuated from the interior and went on their first furlough, back home to England. There Norman was shown off to his Torquay grandparents, and a little sister, Amelia, was born.
They returned to China, where our father kept goats to supply milk for the children, because this was not part of the Chinese diet. After another trip to Chefoo for the birth of little Estelle, Norman reached the age of six, time for boarding school. They took the train to Tianjin, visiting the ancient Imperial Qing capital of Beijing nearby, and then a steamer to Chefoo. The wonderful, dedicated staff did all they could to absorb the bewildered newcomers into the Chefoo family, and indeed, in the ensuing years, became their surrogate parents.
Dad was transferred to Hangzhou, south of Shanghai, to be the Principal of the Bible Institute there. Chefoo scholars were able to visit their parents annually in the long Christmas holiday. The southern party were escorted by teachers on a coastal steamer. Amelia, whom we called Lelia, was returning to school for the first time with the Chefoo party, when the ship was hijacked by pirates, and steered towards their lair on one of Hong Kong’s many islands further south. A hundred British school children had disappeared! The news was headlines all over the world. After four days they were found by the RAF, and little Lelia was chosen to present a bouquet and a gift to the Chinese chef, who had kept them all fed throughout their ordeal.
Sometimes parents were able to come to Chefoo in the summer, but all these visits stopped when the Sino-Japanese War started. Chefoo was taken in 1938. Our parents went back to Britain for another furlough without their children, and then were sent back to their former regions in the interior. In 1940 they managed to come up to Chefoo separately to see us, once each, crossing the Japanese front line to do so.. Dad started itinerant Bible Schools in a circuit of towns, and unbeknown to us, invited his star student from Hangzhou, Fan Peiji, to come and assist him, and for three years they worked together. Because the roads were dug into ditches to foil the Japanese advance, their only means of transport was by bicycle.
The attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 instantly changed our status in the coastal regions, from untouchable neutrals to enemy aliens. In a few months all Allied Westerners, in Occupied China, including the whole Chefoo School were interned in various camps. We spent a year in small Chefoo camps, and then two years in a large camp of 1,500 in Weihsien, now Weifang. By this time Norman had finished school, but spent his spare time learning Chinese, New Testament Greek and Hebrew, shorthand and typing. He had a natural flair for languages, and used his school French to good advantage. In later life, he learnt a smattering of every language he came across, so that whoever he met, he could greet in their mother tongue.
The men worked hard in the camp, labouring where necessary for the general good, and Norman taught in the camp school for those not connected with Chefoo. One of his colleagues there, also involved in numerous tasks, including sports for the youth, was Eric Liddell of Chariots of Fire fame, winner of a Gold Medal in the 1924 Olympics. “Uncle Eric”, as all we children called him, died of a brain tumour a few months before the war ended. Norman helped to carry his coffin to our little graveyard, followed, like the Pied Piper, by a hundred children. Norman wrote: “It was during the trying years of internment that I felt the call to missionary and ministry work. On my 19th birthday, walking thoughtfully within the electrified wires surrounding the camp, I made a promise to God, that if he would release me from this harsh environment, I would give my life to him in full time service”.
At last, released by American paratroopers, taken to Hong Kong to wait for a berth “Home”, we travelled to our parents, whom we had not seen for six years. They, meantime, had been bombed out of their mission-station, flown to India over the “Hump” in an empty British transport plane, and sailed to Durban to wait for our release. In a strange country and culture, Norman went to Rhodes University, and took a B. Comm degree. He worked at City Hall for a while, and then went to Johannesburg, studying for a theological degree. He was ordained, and pastored five churches in turn in different parts of South Africa, and ultimately two in the then Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, in the middle of the civil war. Everywhere he ministered, he was involved with work among the Chinese communities.
His health suffered, and he moved to Britain. He used both his professions, working in ministry and accountancy in United Reformed Churches. He became a prolific writer, researching deeply the history of missions in China, especially that of his own family for four generations. He has written seven books, and two theses from the story of his boyhood piracy to A History of the Protestant Movement in Shandong Province, China, 1859 to 1951. His research earned him first, an M.Phil degree at the Open University, and then his Ph. D. at Buckingham University, where he was capped by Lady Thatcher.
After the death of Mao Zedong China slowly opened once again to foreigners, and in 1984, the opportunity arose for a Chefoo party to visit the land of our birth. Eighteen Chefusians, and two spouses did the new tourist route, with the special additions of Chefoo and Weihsien. In Nanjing, Norman requested a diversion to the newly opened, single, showpiece, theological seminary. There, Norman asked, “Does anybody here know Fan Peiji?”. (I had brought a photograph of the student group at Hangzhou BI). To our amazement the answer came, “Yes, he preached here last Sunday”, and then later, “His son is in the next room!”. That evening he and I escaped from our minders, making our way by taxi down the back streets of Nanjing. We found Fan Peiji and his wife, and although they spoke no English, and our Chinese was very rusty, we discovered that during our separation he had become Father’s right hand man. On twelve visits to China Norman found five of the students in my picture, establishing a network of our Chinese “family”, as well as visiting our childhood haunts, and marvelling at China’s vibrant, growing church in every corner of that great land.
My son John in Johannesburg has sent me this tribute: “Norman’s enthusiasm for God, China, his family and mission history was infectious. Norman threw his energies into writing, travelling to China, staying in touch with his global network, and encouraging everyone he knew to live for Christ. He told me once he would far prefer to be owed than to owe….and in so many ways we are all indebted to Norman for a life given to supporting others.”
He leaves two sons and six grandchildren, including the children of his daughter who predeceased him. And dear Joyce, without whose loving care and support, he would never have succeeded in all that he accomplished.