breadcrumb

Our Mission in China

This is the bicentennial year for contacts between the United States and China, since it was in 1784 that the merchant ship Empress of China sailed to Canton from New York. It was an auspicious beginning, at least for the American backers of the voyage; the trip netted them 30 percent profit in their investment.

In the ensuing years Americans joined with the British in reaping diplomatic and commercial gains from the Opium Wars of 1839 and 1858, before drifting off to chart their own foreign policy. Highlights of this policy included the “Open Door Notes” of 1899, the recognition of the new Chinese Republic in 1913, the Washington Conference of 1922, the dispatch of General Joseph Stilwell to serve with Chiang Kai-shek in 1942, and the non-recognition of the People’s Republic in the decades after 1949. It is perhaps the rosy tint that comes to this story from its peripheral relationship to America’s real problems that has led Americans across the years to hail this history as a “special” one, marked by warmth and understanding on both sides. The Chinese have, in general, been rather more skeptical. In his visit to New York this January the premier, Zhao Ziyang, sensibly described the long saga as one of “many vicissitudes.”

* * *

There has been an immense amount of American scholarly attention to Sino-US relations, and scores of competent monographs have been published, drawing from the diplomatic archives of the United States and Europe; yet because of the language barrier there has been no comprehensive scholarly study that attempted an examination of the Chinese and Western-language records at the same time, so that the vicissitudes could be examined in the light of the special relationship, and vice versa. Now Michael Hunt, a historian of diplomacy at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has made an original and bold attempt to survey the whole story of the foreign policy interplays between the two countries, from 1784 up to 1914.

Hunt is clearly a little nervous about the task he has undertaken, as is revealed by a couple of metaphors in the preface: he asks his readers if they are ready to “plow straight through this book,” and mentions how he himself “waded through a wide range of Chinese documents.” But the apologetic tone is unnecessary; his wading has left no scum upon the surface, and his guidance of the reader’s plow is firm and sure. With this volume Hunt confirms his reputation as a deft, comprehensive, and intelligent historian, and one can only hope he is already working on a second volume that will bring the story to the present.

In the first part of The Making of a Special Relationship, Hunt looks at what he calls an emergent “Open Door Constituency,” as Americans sized up the possibility of the profits to be made in the China trade, and fitted their hopes skillfully into the tough-minded foreign policy being conducted by the British. In the second, he examines the hardening of lines between 1860 and 1898, as American politicians made political capital out of the need for exclusion of Chinese immigrants, while bankers and railwaymen (in particular) dreamed of carving out new commercial empires in China once their own West was won. In the third part, covering the period from 1898 to 1914, Hunt shows how a measure of compromise was reached as insistence on the Open Door, even if it could not be adequately enforced, became a staple part of American policy along with exclusion, though most of the more grandiose expansionist schemes were dropped.

* * *

Such aspects of the story are quite well known, and Hunt claims no more than to be retelling them—though he does so exceedingly well, and his bibliographical essays at the beginning of each section of notes are exemplary, and would be useful to all teachers of the subject. But the originality and interest of his book lie in Hunt’s ability to parallel each of these features of the American story with the feelings and experiences of the Chinese themselves. Thus in Part I he offers us a succinct introduction to the earliest Chinese writings about America, and summarizes the points of origin, the expectations and the ways of life of the first emigrants who traveled from the area of Canton to the coastal cities of California in the 1850s. In Part 2 he shows how an “American policy” slowly came to be formulated by the Chinese court, under the direction of Li Hongzhang (Li Hungchang), and how important the Chinese response to the humiliations experienced by their fellow nationals in the United States was to that formulation. In Part 3 he links that Chinese experience of American racist legislation to the development of an indigenous Chinese nationalism, a nationalism that contributed largely to the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911 and 1912.

The narrative is uniformly so rich that it is hard to single out any particular aspects for praise over others. But two sections struck me as particularly interesting. One was Hunt’s account of the geographical region of southeast China from which most of the emigrants came, and his description of how those tightly localized lineage and dialect regions were replicated in the United States as a means of control and of social bonding.

The detailed breakdown is fascinating: Chinese from Sam Yup, around Canton city, dominated their fellow countrymen in the American butchering and garment trades; those from Sze Yup, southwest of Canton, became dominant in laundries, retail stores, and restaurants; the Hsiangshan Chinese, from south of Canton, were particularly strong in flower growing and retail fish sales. As a second example, on quite another tack, Hunt lets us follow the development of Li Hongzhang’s strategy for handling the belligerent Japanese by means of mediation, and pays particular attention to the ways that Li (on the advice of William Pethick, his secretary) relied too much on the efforts at mediation by former president Ulysses S. Grant.

One can see why and how Li over-estimated Grant’s influence, and also why he received news of Grant’s defeat in the 1880 Republican Convention “with disappointment, even some bewilderment. Was not a man who had twice served in a post, Li asked an American, best suited to fill it again?” (The Chinese communists, under Mao and his successors, were to be similarly baffled by President Nixon’s removal from office, and were to continue to court his favor long after he had lost significant influence.)

The second section that fascinated me was the one in which Hunt draws varying themes together in showing how the leadership of the Bureau of Immigration, created by Congress in 1891, “fell under the control of Sinophobes from the ranks of labor,” and how this was disastrous to Chinese hopes for a generous interpretation of the new exclusion laws. Especially under the bureau’s director Terence Powderly, son of Irish immigrants, Hunt writes, “the treatment the new regime accorded arriving Chinese was as intimidating, arbitrary, and abusive as its regulations were stringent.” The devices of this treatment included protracted and humiliating medical examinations, scrutiny of every visa for translation errors, intensive interviews to provoke inconsistencies in personal histories, rejection of women on the grounds that they were potential prostitutes and of children as potential laborers. Powderly’s successors regularly raided the homes of Chinese residents in the United States, and harried all groups of Chinese traveling to this country, among them the delegations visiting the St. Louis exposition in 1904.

Numerous American diplomats are given careful (and occasionally scathing) scrutiny, as are many of the leading missionaries who had much to say about, and sometimes influence on, the making of foreign policy. Hunt well emphasizes the curious similarities the missionary and emigrant actors in the story had to one another:

Chinese immigrants and American missionaries, the two groups whose lives impinged most intimately on the other culture, evoked in the xenophobic imagination strikingly mirrored anxieties over sexual pollution, physical contamination, and the disintegration of the social and political fabric. The supposed proclivity of depraved missionary and immigrant alike to defy sexual taboos and to make use of drugs and potions to seduce unwary women and children and poison the community around them was a centerpiece of xenophobic literature. The mission compound no less than Chinatown was regarded as a hotbed of subversion. The despotism of Chinatown held newcomers back from assimilation, thus challenging American political and social ideals, while missionaries spread heterodoxy among the poor, the socially marginal, and the disaffected. These foreign enclaves became the lightning rods for the problems of the society. On the one side, Chinese served as scapegoats for the failure of California to provide the wealth its white settlers expected, while on the other missionaries drew down the wrath of a people plagued by hardship and unsettled by foreign aggression.

This powerfully stated view of the overlapping realities and clichés leads Hunt to his conclusion on the members of what he calls the “open door constituency”: their vision of China and its huge population as holding out “boundless opportunity to the American expansionist impulse in all its guises” had almost no grounding in economic or strategic reality, and can only be comprehended, with hindsight, “in terms of the vision that both drew from and fed back into the national fantasies of redemption and dominion.”

* * *

Given the period Hunt’s book spans—between 1784 and 1914—it is perhaps inevitable that he gives only brief attention to two actions that took place in the early years of the Wilson administration, even though they were to have considerable effect on later American foreign policy in Asia: one was the American decision to extend diplomatic recognition to the new Chinese republic, in the late spring of 1913, despite the desire of the European powers (especially Great Britain) to wait for proof of the Chinese regime’s ability to survive; the second was the American protest against the Japanese imposition of the so-called Twenty-One Demands on China during 1915. In these demands, Japan claimed extensive new rights over the Manchurian economy, over Chinese mines, and over stationing Japanese nationals as police officers in many Chinese cities. James Reed’s goal in The Missionary Mind and American East Asia Policy is to give a new perspective to the discussion by showing how what he calls “the missionary mind” figured in the formulation of these important matters of policy.

What exactly is “the missionary mind”? It is, Reed tells us, a “collective mentality consisting of a generalized sense of moral obligation toward Asia and toward China in particular.” This “mind” was “emotional,” he adds, was “often quite intelligent” and also “characteristically gullible.” It took for its focus the twin ideas of a “Christian Civilization” and a “Christian China,” but despite the vastness of these concepts it was restricted in its base; Roman Catholics were not part of it, nor were blacks, nor indeed were many East Coast Episcopalians. In fact, the “mind” of Reed’s title was largely restricted to the Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Congregational churches of the small towns of the Midwest, where the active spokesmen for the China missions kept in contact with some 5 million adult parishioners, and a further 5 million “Sunday School children and adolescents.”

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.

Topics: 
Jonathan D. Spence holds the position of Sterling Professor of History, Emeritus, at Yale University, and is well-known throughout the world for his insightful views on modern China. His books...
Reviewed in This Article

The Making of a Special Relationship: The United States and China to 1914
by Michael H. Hunt
Columbia University Press, 416 pp.

The Missionary Mind and American East Asia Policy, 1911-–1915
by James Reed
Harvard University Press, 258 pp.

The Gospel of Gentility: American Women Missionaries in Turn-of-the-Century China
by Jane Hunter
Yale University Press, 318 pp.

Go to the nybooks.com homepage

To subscribe, click here.

This article was first published in the September 27, 1984 issue of the New York Review of Books.

DISCUSSION

The Popularity of Chinese Patriotism

MARTIN BERNAL

Fundamentally China is a sellers’ market. The first half of this century, when there was a glut of books, seems to have been the exception. Since 1949 a veil has once more been drawn over the center of the mysterious east, and the situation has reverted to that of the...

Mao’s China

MARTIN BERNAL

To most Westerners China is not a part of the known world and Mao is not a figure of our time. The ignorant believe he is the leader of a host of martians whose sole occupation is plotting the destruction of civilization and the enslavement of mankind. The more sophisticated say...

Down There on a Visit

MARTIN BERNAL

In many ways this is the book that everybody interested in China has been waiting for, a book describing what it feels like to be a peasant living through the Chinese Revolution. In the summer of 1962 Jan Myrdal, the thirty-year-old son of the famous Swedish sociologist Gunnar...