David Crockett (D. C.) Graham (1884–1961)

David Crockett (D. C.) Graham was a Baptist missionary and pioneer anthropologist in southwestern China. Over the course of almost four decades in Sichuan Province, Graham, through his publications and museum work, introduced to the English-speaking world the cultures of several little known peoples, and introduced modern archaeology in the region.

D. C. Graham was born in Green Forest (Carroll County) on March 21, 1884, to the farming family of William Edward Graham and Elizabeth (Atchley) Graham; he was one of nine children, five of whom died young. After his mother died, the family moved to the Walla Walla, Washington, area when Graham was about four.

He attended Whitman College in Walla Walla, where he was active in the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions. After Whitman, Graham enrolled at Rochester Theological Seminary in New York, from which he graduated in 1911, and was promptly dispatched to China by the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society with his wife of just one year, Alicia. After a year of language study in Shanghai, the Grahams traveled far up the Yangtze River to their home for the next twenty years: Yibin, Sichuan Province. The Grahams would have five daughters, as well as one son who died in infancy.

Yibin marked the end of the navigable portion of the Yangtze for larger ships. As such, it served as an important port of trade on the Upper Yangtze, but due to the political chaos in China at the time, it remained a very poor and underdeveloped city. The Grahams took up residence in the Baptist missionary compound, which had been established there about two decades earlier. In Yibin, Graham engaged in ordinary missionary work, such as leading English classes, offering Bible study, preaching on Sundays in the church, and doing itinerant preaching in the surrounding mountainous countryside. Through such activities, Graham became interested in Chinese culture (both elite and popular) and in the customs of the smaller non-Chinese ethnic groups that he encountered while preaching in the mountains south and west of Yibin. He began writing down his observations about these groups and about Chinese culture in Sichuan. He submitted the writings to various English-language periodicals in China, thus establishing a name for himself as a specialist on the region. In 1919, the Smithsonian Institution began to fund Graham’s summer expeditions into far southern and western Sichuan (near Tibet) to collect faunal specimens for its expanding Asia collection.

On sabbaticals to the United States during this period, Graham worked toward a PhD in religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School, awarded in 1927 for his dissertation, “Religions in Szechwan Province, China.” He also sought to improve his ethnographic and archaeological skills by taking anthropology classes at the University of Chicago and at Harvard University. In 1932, Graham took up a new appointment in China and became a professor of anthropology and the curator of the anthropological museum at West China Union University, the Christian college in Chengdu, Sichuan. From this position, Graham expanded his research into Chinese and non-Chinese cultures of the region. Among the highlights of this period of his career are supervision of the first scientific archeological excavation in that part of China (at the site now known internationally for its unique bronzes, Sanxingdui), expanding and organizing the museum collection such that it was widely hailed by contemporaries as the best museum in western China, and making substantial scholarly contributions to ethnographic studies of non-Chinese, most notably of the Miao (Hmong) and Qiang peoples.

Graham left China for good in 1948 and lived his remaining years in Denver, Colorado, until his death on September 16, 1961.

For additional information:
Cummings, Alex. “Life in the Menagerie: David Crockett Graham and Missionary-Scientists in West China, 1911–1948.” American Baptist Quarterly (Fall 2009): 206–227.

Kyong-McClain, Jeff, and Geng Jing. “David Crockett Graham in Chinese Intellectual History: Foreigner as Nation Builder.” In Explorers and Scientists in China’s Borderlands, 1880–1950, edited by Denise M. Glover, et al. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011.

McKhann, Charles, and Alan Waxman. “David Crockett Graham: American Missionary and Scientist in Sichuan, 1911–1948.” In Explorers and Scientists in China’s Borderlands, 1880–1950, edited by Denise M. Glover, et al. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011.

Walravens, Hartmut. David Crockett Graham (1884–1961) as Zoological Collector and Anthropologist in China. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2006.

Jeff Kyong-McClain
University of Arkansas at Little Rock


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