Oddly, nobody recalls gingkos’ origins

Published April 1, 2004

No one remembers when they were planted on the small plot of land at the southeast corner of the national church office: two gingko trees whose leaf extracts, ironically, are reported to stop memory loss.

General Secretary Jim Boyles, whose office faces one of the trees (the primate’s office overlooks the other), recalls only that they had been planted by “Bishop White” when he returned from China. Why the interest in these trees? When the national office moves to its new quarters on 80 Hayden St. later this month, the trees will be cut by the developer. Archdeacon Boyles mentioned the trees’ fate to a visiting delegation from China last year. The delegation promised to send two new saplings that can be planted in the new surroundings.

“Bishop White” was William Charles White, the first Anglican bishop of Honan , China and the first Canadian bishop to be consecrated for service in the mission field. He was also the man after whom the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) named its collection of rare and ancient Chinese art: the Bishop White Gallery of Chinese Temple Art.

Bishop White was “a dedicated gardener all his life,” according to Lewis C. Walmsley in his book, Mission and Museum, The Life of William C. White, published by the University of Toronto Press . The book, based mostly from accounts in Bishop White’s diaries, does not mention him bringing the saplings to Toronto , but he may have chosen to bring back gingko trees because of their deeper meaning in Chinese life. The gingko is normally planted in Buddhist temples and monastic gardens, where it is venerated as a holy tree.

Ordained a deacon in 1896, Bishop White arrived as a missionary in Kaifeng , China , in 1897. In 1909, he became the first bishop in the see of Honan, a position that he held until 1934. When he ended his term, he had lived through some of the most difficult and turbulent decades in Chinese history.

He arrived in China during one of its worst famines, at the height of an epidemic of cholera, leprosy and opium addiction. He immediately joined relief organizations and immersed himself in Chinese life, even discarding his Western garb for Chinese clothes, and letting his own hair grow to have a queue just like Chinese men.

Captivated by Chinese culture, archaeology and religion, he became an eager pupil of C.T. Currelly, curator of archaeology at the ROM, whom he met while visiting Toronto in 1924. Back in China , he began collecting for the ROM, sending pre-historic pottery, jade ornaments, Buddhist sculptures, and Chinese wall paintings, among others. After ending his term in Honan in 1934, he became director of the school of Chinese studies at the University of Toronto. He also became keeper of the Chinese collection at the ROM.

Bishop White is also remembered for fighting to put the church that he established in Chinese hands. During the General Synod of 1934, conservatives had strongly opposed the move to appoint a Chinese bishop, but Bishop White prevailed. In a letter, Bishop White wrote: “I feel as if a great load has been removed from my shoulders and I now leave China with an easy heart for God has set his seal on my work by this culminating act.”


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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