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Our Mission in China

How the contact between missionaries in the field and their domestic constituents was maintained is central to Reed’s argument, and he is ingenious in giving the appearance of specificity to his findings. Working from the known figures of China missionaries in various denominations and dividing that number according to the once-in-seven-years furlough system, he arrives at a figure of three hundred missionaries in any one year who both represent his “mind” and were stumping the United States to drum up support for their missions. If each of these missionaries spoke only twice a week “then there were more than 30,000 missionary addresses on China every year. The ramifications are incalculable.”

And so indeed they are incalculable, in the purest sense. Reed says that such missionary visitations “usually made an indelible impression on public opinion in provincial communities otherwise starved for information,” but in fact we have no possible means of knowing whether the impact was indelible or not. Certainly for some children, and a selection of young men and young women, a particular address at a particular moment delivered with especial force may have had an impact that lasted a lifetime. But surely many of the talks were flat or evasive. The audiences were sometimes small or distracted by other matters.

Certainly there were effective missionary pressure groups in China and in the United States, and Reed does not need such rather strained figures to prove it. Many of those who served in China were anxious to influence American foreign policy because they had faith in the Chinese republic, and in the ability of “New China” to pull itself together and develop into a democratic nation where Christian missionaries would be welcome. They thus stood opposed to many members of the American business community (“the business mind” in Reed’s parlance) who were skeptical about a Chinese republic’s achieving anything, and in any case were far more interested in Japan than in China as a prospect for burgeoning trade. Reed shows that many China missionaries, along with some sympathizers in the State Department, used the concept of the “Open Door” in China—a concept popularized by Secretary of State John Hay at the end of the nineteenth century—as their means of trying to contain both European and Japanese aggression against China. Foreign diplomats, many businessmen, and more than a few in Congress, found the whole idea of the Open Door to be either meaningless or unenforceable.

One good example of successful missionary pressure is shown by the way that the mission community persuaded the American political world to take seriously the request made by China’s new president, General Yuan Shikai, for Christian prayer on the Chinese republic’s behalf in 1913, although skeptics noted that Yuan had not the faintest interest in Christianity and precious little in the republic. (In 1915, in fact, Yuan tried to have himself named emperor.) An intriguing example gives real weight to Reed’s point concerning the remarkable absence of knowledge of China in the US at the time. When Professor Frank Goodnow of Columbia, a political scientist, was approached by Yuan Shikai to be his adviser on political matters, one of the few people whom Goodnow could think to ask about China was the former president of Harvard, Charles Eliot. Eliot’s reputation for expertise was in fact backed by nothing more than his having taken a brief trip to China in 1912 as a spokesman for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The two main themes suggested by these examples—the lack of people with firsthand knowledge of China, and the effectiveness (coupled with sentimentality and gullibility) of the China missionaries who seemed to make up for that lack—were to be important in Wilson’s decisions in 1913 and 1915. The two chapters devoted to these issues are the best part of Reed’s study, and he is right in suggesting that US recognition of the Chinese republic in 1913 was a major irritant to European powers, as its interference in the Twenty-One Demands was to the Japanese in 1915. Both episodes set up an unfortunate pattern (echoing the prior reiteration of faith in the Open Door) by which the United States offered expressions of support and confidence in China that it was to be unable to back up with any tangible force. Whether these were to initiate a trend that continued almost inexorably through the 1930s and 1940s and colored all American dealings with Japan and Chiang Kai-shek’s Guomindang (Kuomintang) is a more debatable point, as is Reed’s rather somber aside that the nature of these foreign policy decisions by the United States “suggest[s] some deeper flaw in the society.”

In his two chapters on 1913 and 1915 Reed draws on much valuable archival material to give a sense of the political stages by which Wilson arrived at his decisions, and at times he approaches the pace and precision that one hopes for in good diplomatic history. Yet again, because of his determination to organize his story around the work of the missionary mind, he keeps confronting the reader with remarks that pull him up short. For instance, of the congressmen returning to Washington in January 1912 after their Christmas recess Reed can only say (not without a trace of humor) that “having spent the months since adjournment in their home districts, Members of Congress were doubtless aware that a sizeable bloc of their constituents had reacted to the Chinese Revolution in what might be called the missionary manner and would be receptive to a like-minded congressional initiative.” Yet only a few pages before this passage Reed told us that American newspapers “gave great coverage to the 1911 Revolution” and that “the unfolding narrative dominated the front pages of major American dailies.” Why then was the fact that the congressmen were “doubtless aware” of the missionary responses as significant as the fact that the raw details of imperial Qing collapse and the struggle for life of the new republic were kept before the congressmen’s eyes almost daily throughout their recess?

Similarly, in the often excellent analysis of Wilson’s shifting positions during the Twenty-One Demands crisis of 1915, Reed shows that Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan had a particularly pragmatic view of the China problem, which set him apart from the “missionary mind” group. Hence Reed makes little mention of Bryan’s Christian interests and attitudes since these would not reinforce his thesis. By contrast, the head of the State Department’s Far Eastern division, E.T. Williams, who backed a strong stand against Japan, and fits Reed’s theory, is almost always introduced in the book as “the missionary Williams”; while that highly enigmatic figure Robert Lansing, serving at this time as President Wilson’s counselor, is pushed into the category where Reed wants him to be by being typed as “a card-carrying participant in the Missionary Mind.” Even if we accept that Reed is speaking “metaphorically” here, as he assures us he is, what on earth does such a phrase mean? And how does this verdict, with its ironic communist echoes, help us to understand either China or the United States?

Obviously a book cannot do everything, but Reed seems to have put himself in the unenviable position of having a preestablished thesis on the missionary mind that constantly whittles away at the effectiveness of the data he has uncovered through his research. Since he cannot be specific about the nature of that “mind,” and since he gives so little background on the realities of the actual political situation in China at the time, he keeps on looking as though he is loading his entire argument.

For the reader interested in Chinese history generally, it is surely important to remember that the 1915 American decisions against Japan were not just a case of E.T. Williams relaying the overdramatized views of the Peking minister, Paul Reinsch, to President Wilson with the conniving assistance of Robert Lansing, though that of course is part of the story; nor did they stem from the fact that Paul Reinsch himself was being manipulated by his shrewd Chinese nationalist adviser in Peking, Wellington Koo, though he almost certainly was. Reed is oddly bland about the actual force of Japan’s aggressive intentions, but surely the whole story only begins to make sense if we remember that hundreds of thousands of Chinese saw the probabilities of Japanese dominance of their polity and economy with a terrifying new clarity in 1915, and it was they themselves who raised the clamor that was heard by concerned citizens throughout the world.

Reed’s “missionary mind” seems far away from the ramified missionary minds that are the theme of Jane Hunter’s The Gospel of Gentility. In this subtle and finely written book we hear the voices of scores of women who worked in the Protestant China missions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Jane Hunter draws most of her material from the diaries and letters written by the women themselves, and her categories grow not from preestablished schemes but from the rhythms and preoccupations of her protagonists.

By the 1890s, 60 percent of the Protestant missionaries in China were women; their careers and locations were governed either by the exigencies of their husbands’ lives or by women’s mission boards, of which there were forty-one by the end of the century. Hunter traces the backgrounds of most of these mission women to the midwestern farming heartland of the country, and she is interested in their families. She goes on to explore how many of them came from families that had borne only daughters, and how many were eldest daughters in large families, and unusually close to the fathers who educated them. Their poignant sense of a life of opportunity thwarted by gender comes through the sentences of their letters and diaries: “It will make Dad wish that some of us were boys,” says one. “Oh! I want to do something,” exclaims another. A very deep zeal for social service burned within many of them, Hunter shows, despite what she terms “the wispy rhetoric of feminine self-sacrifice” that clouds so many of their utterances.

How strange their lives were! Many went to China after the deaths of husbands or parents, or else to flee unwanted marriages. Many others married in order to get away from home, an astonishing two-thirds of these (in the American Board files) having married within the year they sailed. To the strangeness of life in China was added the birth of a first child, perhaps conceived on the boat, and born and nurtured in a frightening, new environment, far from siblings or maternal support, with inadequate food and hygiene.

How swiftly and energetically they worked thereafter to re-create the American homes they had left behind. They sheltered themselves in walled compounds with their overstuffed chairs, their books, their treasured pianos (heaved by struggling porters from mission to mission station). The married women raised their families behind the veils of gentility that Hunter alludes to in her title, kept them away from Chinese children as much as possible, and out of the schools they themselves were running. (Some wonderful photos capture the mood of these Chinese mission worlds, and the details of this hard-won domesticity.) The single women worried about their “mannish” or “unstylish” images, and while living for the weekly letters to and from “home” they often refused to send the requested snapshots lest they seem too “queer.” Thus, Hunter observes in a typically perceptive passage, time in China was “frozen” for them in the “idealized family relations of childhood.” Slowly they learned to cluster together in “women’s houses,” to avoid the family tensions, and misconceptions on the part of the Chinese, that had arisen when they boarded with younger married couples. Hunter tactfully explores the deep and passionate female friendships that arose, the “diffuse sexuality” that lay behind the ebullient innocence of those letters home: “My we did cuddle up and love each other.”

One of the many other themes that Hunter explores is the validity of the opportunities that many American women found “under the guise of submission,” whether that submission was to the mission boards or to their husbands. Working as itinerating preachers, or as teachers in their own homes, these American women developed with the Chinese “an evangelism of intimacy,” and encouraged them to accept marriage and docility even as they introduced them to new possibilities of freedom of thought. Once more, passionate friendships could develop between the mission women and their converts. In one illuminating section Hunter explores some of these relationships and finds how the Chinese convert came to act toward the Western woman as a “dutiful wife, helpful in work and playful in rest.” Predictably these relationships could lead to disappointments and jealousies. They could also lead to major character changes and new opportunities for the Chinese women, some of whom were sent for advanced education in the United States by their protectors, and returned to lives of fulfillment and service.

Complicated patterns lay behind these stories—subtle blurrings of the position of Chinese men, for example, in a world where “Western women found Chinese men unmanly and Chinese men found Western women unwomanly.” As a result, Hunter argues—and corroborates with more splendid photos—Western women would go off alone on long trips with several Chinese male converts and male retainers, though of course they would never have spent a moment alone and unchaperoned with a Western man. The upshot was a curious blend of two realms that Hunter aptly terms “Domestic Empire” and “Imperial Evangelism.”

Western women missionaries discovered to their surprise the many ways that “colonial inequalities would cancel out American sexual imbalances and help them to liberation.” The trouble was, as Hunter points out, that once they were in China, “the balance tipped too far. The politics of fulfillment has rarely been democratic, and the richness of life afforded one group inevitably occurs at cost to another.” The subtleties and sadness of this paradox are admirably explored in this fine study of an aspect of the mission world in China that has never before received such probing, affectionate, detailed treatment.

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