Mission Impossible

The Call

by John Hersey
Knopf, 701 pp., $19.95

John Hersey
John Hersey; drawing by David Levine

John Hersey’s The Call is an epitaph for 120 years of Protestant missions in China. From 1830 to 1950 the China missions had a steadily growing place in American public sentiment. At the turn of the century John R. Mott of the Student Volunteer Movement for overseas missions called for “the evangelization of the world in this generation,” with China as a special target. Unless we can understand the atavism today of Reaganesque piety and Falwellian evangelism we shall never comprehend how we could have felt so deeply the “loss of China” in the 1950s or initially accepted so casually our crusade to save Vietnam from communism in the 1960s.

The American opportunity to Christianize China arose from special circumtances. First, the Americans were the only people who came to China by sea for trade and evangelism without thought of territorial aggrandizement. In contrast, the British, the French, the Russians, the Germans, and finally the Japanese all encroached upon China’s border regions. Only Americans, with their New World democracy, felt they were anti-imperialists. This self-approval, easily perceived by the Chinese, became the basis for the Chinese-American “special relationship.” (Scratch our China specialists of today and you will find traces of this in their bloodstream.)

Our conviction of Sino-American friendship seemed to be confirmed by our privileged status under “extraterritoriality,” which meant that a foreign consul had jurisdiction over his nationals in China. This had come from the medieval Chinese practice of letting foreign headmen keep the foreign communities in China, with their strange ways, under control. Eventually Chinese converts to Islam in Central Asia, for example, were allowed to be governed by Islamic law. In the invasion of China by the West after 1842, extraterritoriality became the linchpin of the unequal treaty system. As with other old Chinese customs, the Anglo-Saxons prided themselves on having invented it. The British who ruled India soon worked out after 1860 a division of sovereignty with the Chinese Manchu Ch’ing dynasty that had conquered China. These alien rulers over conquered peoples could understand each other. The result was that missionaries were assimilated into the Chinese ruling class not by mutual love but by Ch’ing imperial policy. They got their chance to attack the outworn evils of Confucianism, the subjection of women, the subordination of youth, from the inside, in the villages. Confucianists rightly saw them as subversive of the old order.

To this circumstance was added the rhythm of Chinese political life, which produced a thirty-eight-year interregnum between the fall of the central government of the Ch’ing dynasty during the revolution of 1911 and the revival of a central power under Mao Tse-tung in 1949. During these decades of warlordism, revolution, and invasion, foreigners had special opportunities to participate and be helpful or acquisitive in Chinese life. It was a golden age, the great American experience of semicolonialism. It is a fine thing if you…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!

Subscribe for $1 an Issue

Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue — that’s 10 digital issues plus six months of full archive access plus the NYR App for just $10.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.