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 can get it, as we could, without a sense of guilt for having set it up. After all, our state of California grew no opium poppies as British India did to pay for China’s teas and silks.

It is this period of maximum American influence, between 1905 and 1950, that John Hersey deals with in The Call. His central character is David Treadup, a six-foot-four farm boy from upper New York State, tireless, energetic, and full of good will. During the forty-five years of his career in China he sees himself as working in the forward edge of the missionary effort. After the comparative failure of evangelism in the nineteenth century and the success of hospitals and schools, David arrives in China in time to attend the centennial missionary conference of 1907 (one hundred years after the arrival of the first British Protestant, Robert Morrison, in 1807). The conference is split between the fierce, bewhiskered, older evangelists from the back country, who believe in spreading only the divine word, and the younger newcomers convinced of the need for a social gospel that will meet China’s needs with good works. Treadup is among the latter because he is a YMCA secretary. In fact when David Treadup is in Tientsin he is put up by another Y secretary, Roscoe Hersey, whose son, as we can recall from John Hersey’s recent pieces in The New Yorker, was John Hersey. The Call describes the modern wing of Christian missions, which was most responsive to Chinese needs and proclivities.

The Protestant denominations reduce the competition among themselves by agreeing that each will concentrate on certain parts of China, but they are united in preserving the spirit of the Reformation and in having nothing to do with Roman Catholic missionaries. The early history of the Jesuit mission between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries seems barely known to them. Those who seek to convert upper-class Chinese reformers in the 1890s feel they have devised a new tactic.


Thus Treadup demonstrates his inventiveness by organizing lectures on science to attract the interest of upper-class literati and officials. Where the Jesuits three hundred years before had used clocks, prisms, maps, and other products of Western technology, David Treadup lectures on the gyroscope. He holds up a limp chain. Can it be made to climb a ladder at the back of the stage? No? His assistant spins it on a wheel and releases it to roll like a wheel across the stage and up the ladder before losing its momentum. Treadup tours the United States seeking funds from businessmen and collecting equipment with which he sets up a laboratory in Shanghai to produce the machines for his lectures on electricity, aircraft, and other scientific wonders. So successful are these lectures that Treadup goes on tour with James B. Todd (a surrogate for the prominent missionary John R. Mott) to attract audiences for the latter’s evangelism, but Treadup’s lectures outdraw Todd’s by a wide margin. In the China of 1910–1915, as in the late Ming Dynasty, science is in, but Christianity still knocks at the door.

The next phase of Treadup’s experience is the discovery of the Chinese common man. In the twentieth century the American missionaries in China became increasingly involved in the social problems of a people undergoing a profound transformation. In such a perspective, the evangelism practiced in the United States may have won a few Chinese converts but to most Chinese it seemed beside the point. David Treadup follows this secular trend when he goes to France along with other YMCA secretaries, including a number of Chinese, in order to help the Chinese labor corps of some 180,000 men write letters back home. This inspires the Y secretaries to start a literacy movement and it helps to stimulate the mass education movement in China. One leader was Y.C. James Yen, known throughout the world as Jimmie Yen, who went into the North China countryside in the 1920s to reach the common people with programs for literacy, public health, and agronomic science. In The Call, where he appears as “Johnny Wu,” Treadup tries to join him, and he replies that foreigners are not welcome. This is a distortion of history since the real Jimmie Yen was supported mainly from America and was in fact stigmatized by some Chinese patriots as being too friendly to foreigners.

Hersey resorts to this distortion I think because he wants to make the point that the anti-imperialist movement among students during the 1920s, which was inspired by Japan’s being left in control of Shantung province in the Versailles peace settlement of 1919, began to concentrate on missionaries as cultural imperialists. Here emerges the intense Chinese patriotism that seeks to dispense with missionary good works because they come from outside the country and seem to support the status quo.

Such incidents raise the question of John Hersey’s use of actual people and events in his fictional account. One of his characters, the scholar Lin Fu-chen, who founds Peikai University in Tientsin, is an obvious stand-in for the great Chinese educator Chang Po-ling, who founded Nankai University there. In the novel Treadup converts Lin, but nothing of the sort took place in the case of Dr. Chang Po-ling, even if he did for a time become a Christian. Thus the characters are part real and part fictional. Treadup of course meets Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek, but many other figures are composites.

The Call is fascinating to read. This is partly owing to its organization. Treadup writes prodigiously, turning out a journal entry or a letter almost every day. When he is interned by the Japanese in 1943, he writes a long, retrospective self-examination called “Search.” Hersey is thus able to quote on one page what Treadup wrote at the time, and on the next page what he thought about it forty years later, while Hersey supplies the narrative commentary. The book also gives an authentic sense of the sights, sounds, and smells, the amenities and disasters, of the old China, which have even now not been wholly swept away by modernization. David Treadup is certainly the most articulate writer to have come out of the missionary movement.

Reflecting on his life fifty years later, he attributes his original conversion to missionary work to four factors—personal need, group hysteria, hypnotism by the preacher, and fear for himself. He looks back on the event as a stage in his growing up. When he wants to go to China as a missionary he finds the mission board, as was then the custom, require that he go as a married man. He is cast down until he discovers that a Miss Emily Kean, whom he had known briefly in college, is still unmarried. They correspond and by mail agree to make a life together. With a wife in prospect, Treadup is fully equipped for the field. He is sent first; she follows but does not marry him until eighteen months later. In his domestic life Treadup holds the missionary’s belief that families should be subordinate to the cause. When one of his children dies at the age of two, he is away on one of his frequent excursions.


Of course the missionary life is a very busy one, the missionaries spending much of their time with other missionaries, including the Chinese Christians in the movement. Living in the heat and dirt of Chinese cities and villages, the Treadups relish their vacations at the mountain retreat from the lower Yangtze at Kuling, “a hiding-place from China,” or at Peitaiho on the coast north of Tientsin. Here as well they are out of touch with Chinese life. Hersey makes it clear that missionaries on the whole take their culture with them and sedulously maintain it. After all, if they became too Chinese in their habits and outlook they might lose the missionary impulse.

Still another phase of Treadup’s career begins in the 1930s. The home office decides that he has become a mere “humanist,” not really devoted to a personal God and his Son as Saviour. As Emily says, David is “too full of love for human creatures.” He is dropped from the rolls but manages to get private support for his work and carries on. Soon he has another kind of opportunity. When the Japanese seize Manchuria in 1931 and begin to encroach on North China, the foreign missionaries with their extraterritorial status can be of real help in maintaining their hospitals, colleges, and other good works. They remain immune to Japanese attack until 1941. Caught between Chinese nationalism and Japanese invasion, the missionaries see that their days are obviously numbered, and yet they can continue to be of help.

After Treadup goes into rural work on his own, Hersey gives us a vivid picture of this six-foot-four American visiting his villages on his Indian motorcycle in a cloud of dust and clatter. The crises caused by the local warlords and the Japanese invasion, by famine and disease, crowd his days. These harsh realities eclipse matters of the spirit. When the Japanese finally intern Treadup in 1943, Hersey tells us that he suffers a breakdown of his faith. Emily has been repatriated, he is ill, and his life’s work seems to have come to nothing. Neither God nor Jesus seems to be an adequate explanation of the human suffering he has observed.

This loss of faith seems to tell us more about Hersey than about Treadup. The missionary’s writings show little concern for spiritual devotion but a large interest in giving practical help to the Chinese people. He is not the type to collapse under pressure or recant a faith which seems not to have been central to his life in China. I believe John Hersey here is portraying his own disillusionment with the letter of Christianity, a disillusionment he no doubt came to quite early in life. After all, Hersey is himself not a YMCA secretary but the son of a YMCA secretary. He is using Treadup’s loss of faith to represent the passage of Christian evangelism into the dustbin of history, at least in China. The whole panoply of missionary institution-building and helpfulness to the oppressed Chinese people has now had its golden moment and come to an end.

If this is John Hersey’s message, he combines it with a full recognition of the American concern for the Chinese people that has been a constant theme in American life. After repatriation by the Japanese, Treadup returns to postwar China to work, first, under the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, and, later, under the industrial cooperative movement. He even gets back to his North China villages until the Communist organizers of 1949 have him vilified in a “struggle meeting” by his peasant friends, who next day greet him warmly on the street. He is expelled from China as a symbol of cultural imperialism, and shortly after his return to America dies at the age of seventy-two.

Hersey’s labyrinthine account of a great multitude of people and events in modern Chinese history leaves him no time to look at the folklore that spread in America about the China missions. Americanist historians have signally failed to examine the subject as well. They have reached across the Atlantic to our European origins and have followed the westward movement across the continent to the Pacific. But no one has tried to synthesize the lore of the old China trade with that of the new frontier which seemed to open in China in the 1890s. By 1899, in fact, the open door became enshrined as the American policy in China. Trade did not notably prosper but China emerged thereafter as open territory for Christian work.

This American image of China differed profoundly from that of the Russians. Their image of China began with the frightful devastation of southern Russia under the Golden Horde of the Mongols who erupted westward from China in the thirteenth century. Russia’s eastward movement to find a warm water port on the Pacific had little missionary motive. The Russian Orthodox Church set up an ecclesiastical mission in Peking but its members ministered only to other Russians and spent their time largely with Sinology or alcohol. The Russian march across the Siberian tundra had gained them only an early defeat and expulsion in 1689 from the Amur Valley in northern Manchuria by the powerful Chinese Ch’ing empire of the Manchu. The equivalent American experience in their continental expansion had been limited to the conquest of tribal Amerindian chieftains like Sitting Bull and Geronimo, who lacked the abilities of their distant ethnic cousin, the K’ang-hsi emperor of China, victor over the Russians.

Fortunately for us, the Russians never tried to save Chinese souls until the Marxist-Leninist expansion of the Comintern in the 1920s. No doubt the Russian example was central in carrying out China’s great revolution just as Japan’s invasion convulsed the Chinese people into a nation. But we can hardly say that the contiguous Russians have had more influence in China than the distant Americans. When we contemplate our superpower confrontation today we should recall our anguish when the antichrist of Russian Communism in the 1940s stole China’s open door and its Christian potentialities away from us. In the 1980s when Deng Xiaoping’s modernization drive has enlisted our sympathy and support, perhaps we should scrutinize our unconscious motives. Haven’t we been here before?

Treadup is an omnicompetent and ubiquitous figure who undertakes practically every sort of activity a missionary might do, short of becoming a journalist, a Communist, or a Foreign Service officer (categories that Joe McCarthy soon lumped together). Yet the trend of his life leads him away from religious belief into the world of practical realities. He arranges for the transfer of technology to China and tries to transplant human rights there. Such activities will certainly continue and will make more sense if only we can think about them on the basis of knowledge such as that provided by The Call.

This Issue

May 30, 1985