Lutheran Women & Missions Around the World

Christianity in China

by Ashley Walker

 

 

On the second day of their mission to China, the foreigners were attacked by a mob in a small country village. The streets were crowded with vendors and people and mules and carts. When the villagers saw their unfamiliar skin, they began to yell and shout some kind of “unearthly war whoop.”[1] The drivers of the carts were unsettled, struck with fear. While trying to get away, one of the carts hit a vendor of bread, leaving the small boy who owned it screaming loudly as he watched his precious cargo get stolen by petty thieves. The mob followed them for miles, shouting and screaming, hurling things at them and their mules. They were “beaten most unmercifully with large, heavy lumps of sun-dried clay,”[2] some even hitting children with them. Imagine not being able to hear or think outside of the yelling and hollering from the native Chinese people. Eventually, they broke through to safety, outdistancing themselves from the howling mob.[3] This is why they were here.

Historically speaking, China was on the brink of revolution. Although there were many Christian converts in the 19th century, the Fists of Righteous Harmony Movement, alternatively known as the Boxers, began attacks on foreigners in 1899[4]. This meant tension between Western societies and China, as many saw China as a threat to their wellbeing. On September 6th, 1899, the United States proposed an “open door” trade policy with China[5]. Met with mixed feelings, this furthered the tension between China and Western cultures, specifically the United States. In 1905, the Qing court decided to send two missions abroad to study foreign political systems[6], suggesting that China was on the verge of a political or constitutional reform. Leading up to the Chinese revolution in 1911, the missionaries were living in a state of unrest and tension between China and foreign nations. Plenty of Chinese people suffered from opium addictions, causing many conflicts. Addiction was considered sinful to Protestant Missionaries, as substance abuse meant people not taking care of the body that God gave them. Furthermore, China had 5 major religions established in China: the Confucian, Buddhist, Taoist, Mohammedan, and Christianity.[7] To a missionary, this meant a broken and sinful society divided by many beliefs. By spreading Christianity and western civil traditions further around China, these missionaries felt they were doing China a justice.

So, the question stands: How did Christian missionaries help move the socio-political status of China during the early 20th century? Specifically looking at the work that women did in 1905, a “women’s primary function was to create peaceful and virtuous homes in which they would nurture young Christians, train good citizens, and offer refuge from the competitive male sphere.”[8] This is because of “The Cult of Womanhood” giving women four specific attributes: purity, piety, submissiveness, and domesticity.[9] Women in the twentieth century were given only maternal roles, but this did not stop Christian women from doing more than that overseas. Female Christian missionaries in early 20th century helped China by expanding Christianity, providing access to modern education and translations, and by working with female communities. In doing so, Christian missionaries revealed an outlet for a modernization of Chinese society, creating a safer socio-political status.

To the Protestant missionaries, Chinese life seemed taboo, unfamiliar, and sinful. China was full of different religions, as mentioned earlier, giving Christian missionaries a reason for their mission. Protestant missionaries at the time, specifically the Augustana Synod, felt that sin was like a disease. It is recorded that the Confucian were hard to convert because “Confucius did not realize that evil in the heart of man is a sore disease which can only be cured by the aid of God through earnest prayer.”[10] By trying to convert Chinese people to Christianity, female missionaries felt like they were helping create a safer and nurturing environment. Realizing one’s own sin is crucial to Christianity, which then brings about humility and empathy towards society; stereotypically feminine attributes. Taking into consideration the tension that was within China during this time, the missionaries must have thought that Christianity was essential to calming down the present socio-political issues. Chinese people often practiced Ancestral Worship: “By sacrificing to the ancestors, Chinese believe they preserve the integrity of the family and clan…This form of worship is idolatrous, and a rival to the worship of the one supreme God.”[11] For female missionaries to nurture young Christians, they needed to disband this belief and change how people currently thought about worshiping idols. Idolatry, being one of the most readily known sins, was taken quite seriously by Protestant women. These women felt that Chinese Religion and tradition was sinful and that Christianity held the answer.

Spreading Christianity was harder than it looked. Often, people responded well to the idea of Jesus; a godly figure who held unconditional love and forgiveness. Chen Duxiu, for example, head of the literature department at Peking University and editor of New Youth, expressed “great admiration for the personality and teachings of Jesus; he was especially taken with Christ’s doctrine of ‘universal love’, which he took to be the central teaching of Jesus.”[12] This, however, did not mean that Duxiu was for the theology of Christianity itself. He often rejected the idea that Christianity was positive for China.[13] To the missionaries present at the time, this may have been a small victory. While the idea of Jesus as nurturing and loving was being spread around as beneficial, Christianity as a whole was not being readily accepted. This may be contributed to the “feminine” aspects of Christianity; loving, nurturing, empathy, humility, and devotedness, just to name a few. Many of the religions in China held “masculine” characteristics, such as sacrifice, nationalism, nobility, honor, etc.  This specific example shows that the masculine figures held more religious agency than the feminine voices of Christianity. This, however, did not discourage female missionaries to continue doing mission work in China; they would find other means than just evangelizing.

By opening schools in China, the missionaries gave way to a modern way of thinking about the world, as well as create a space for Christianity to exist. For the Augustana Synod, schools were a way to create a Christian community by converting children.[14] Missions schools were a way to do that. They Augustana Mission aimed to educate children in the way of “New Learning”, which included “geography, arithmetic, physiology, etc.”[15] By educating Chinese children in the same way that American children were educated, the missionaries were setting up the new generation for modernization. Furthermore, “educated mothers were deemed essential to a strong, modern China.”[16] By allowing mothers to be educated along with their children, society allows for mothers to teach the new generation other beneficial lessons. Education gives people the ability to work, learn, inquire, and understand the world through a different lens; or in other words, opportunity. When the first school was built by the Augustana Synod missionaries in 1905, however, the curriculum was not fully comprehensible, causing the attempt to fail.[17] According to Daniel H. Bays, “Until Chinese schools with a new curriculum could develop in sufficient numbers to meet the demand… Protestant schools in a system now capped by post-secondary level colleges in major cities, set the standard for modern education.”[18] This brings light to just how important Protestant schools were to the modernization of China. Without these missionaries, Chinese education would be little to none. Protestant schools provided Christianity, modern education, and opportunity, something that was foreign to Chinese people.

The missionaries also emphasized the importance of medical education. According to the record kept by the Augustana Synod, “2 years ago,” (most likely 1903), “there were eight medical schools. Since then the number has nearly doubled.”[19] By educating the Chinese in modern medicine, the missionaries were able to provide jobs, create a healthier environment, and prevent disease. This did much good in the socio-political status of China, as well as modernizing China by means of modern medicine. Medical missionaries specifically played a large role in evangelical practices:

Medical missionaries are to be regarded, not simply as an expedient for opening the way for, and extending the influence of the gospel, but as an integral, coordinate and permanent part of the missionary work of the Christian church and as continuing the work of our Lord in the double capacity of healer and teacher.[20]

The idea of creating “healers and teachers” mimics the ways that Jesus Christ lived. The double meaning behind doctors and medical education provided a passage for female missionaries to evangelize and work hands on with the Chinese people. By introducing different types of education, these missionaries molded generations of Chinese people into social modernization.
To further education, missionaries translated texts into native Chinese language, allowing the missionaries to relate to and learn about Chinese culture. Women tasked with translation would often translate religious texts and teach them to other women. Referencing the following image, we see a representation of two women teaching other Chinese women about Catechism:

Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church. 1915. Our First Decade in China, 1905-1915; the Augustana Mission in the Province of Honan. [Rock Island, Ill.]: China Mission Board of Augustana Synod, 62.

Catechism is a systematic set of instructions on how to follow Christianity developed in churches in the Reformation era, making it especially popular with Lutheran churches like the Augustana Synod.[21] This image tells the story of missionary women and their ability to educate other women through community. By teaching these women the rules of which their church follows, they evangelized and educated them on a new understanding of what it means to have a religion. Translation in a biblical sense gave women agency within their missions, which allowed for a different social dynamic than what was before.

With translation comes education, but not all translations were from English to Chinese. In fact, it was common in the schools that the students would learn English. According to the Augustana Synod:

The principal reason for opening a school in the English is, not so much to teach them English, as to come in touch with the better class of Chinese. Christ died, not only for the beggars in rags, but He also wishes His gospel to become a power among the really influential classes of Chinese society.[22]

By teaching the children English, the missionary society is also making their language universal and creating a space for learning and inquiry. The boys who attended these schools were asked to read, write, and spell in English.[23] Being bilingual in a modern sense often is associated with advanced learning and thinking. By teaching children English in school, the missionaries set up a new path for modernization in a “Western sense”.

­­­            Female missionaries also helped specifically with women’s ministry. A common practice among Chinese women was foot-binding. Referencing the following images, the evidence of the severity of the foot-binding is clear:

Richardson, Michael L., M.D. “Chinese Foot Binding: Radiographic Findings and Case Report .” University of Washington, Radiology Department, January 31, 2009. (Notice the bone structure of the foot)

Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church. 1915. Our First Decade in China, 1905-1915; the Augustana Mission in the Province of Honan. [Rock Island, Ill.]: China Mission Board of Augustana Synod, 35.

Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church. 1915. Our First Decade in China, 1905-1915; the Augustana Mission in the Province of Honan. [Rock Island, Ill.]: China Mission Board of Augustana Synod, 64.

The women would handicap themselves for the sake of beauty, which was a great deal of concern for the female missionaries. According to the missionaries there, “Chinese women have exercised a great deal of power in the home during the centuries of the past, though suffering from the foot-binding and handicapped by ignorance.”[24] Yet, through their suffering, many saw great potential in these women to bear spiritual gifts. By attending to women with this disability, the women of the mission could obtain agency and motherhood for these women by teaching them the ways of the Gospel, morals, and how to channel feminine gifts. A missionary said about Chinese women, “Morally, they are China’s ‘better half”—modest, graceful, attractive.”[25] These morals, given, are quite biased to what a Christian male would think about society, but this allowed the women of China to be looked upon with agency and a sort of holiness at that. This story tells us that the Chinese women were crucial to the missions of evangelism. Chinese women would put forth what was being taught to them to their families, making them a great resource for female missionaries. It appears women’s missions was a bright spot through the struggle of missionary work: “When surrounded by a group of wrinkled old women, sad face daughters-in-law, and bright little girls, eagerly listening to the good tidings or, some of them, even trying to learn to read, we forget out difficulties.”[26] This clearly shows that women’s missions were crucial to the successes in China. By tending to the women of China, missionaries could use them as an outlet for peace within the home, ultimately affecting the socio-political position of women in China.

When looking at women’s roles in Chinese missions, it is clear that women were vital to the socio-political changes occurring in China. Through evangelism, education, translation, and women’s works, female missionaries could modernize previous ways of thinking. Women’s missions specifically gave China the ability to learn, inquire, teach, and nurture in a way that China would not have in the past. Although it may seem imperialistic of these Lutherans to force their way of life onto the native Chinese, the positives outweigh the negatives. Through investigating the stories of female missionaries in China, the impact these women had in China was a strong contributing factor in creating a safer environment for women to live.

 

Footnotes

[1] Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church. 1915. Our First Decade in China, 1905-1915; the Augustana Mission in the Province of Honan. [Rock Island, Ill.]: China Mission Board of Augustana Synod, 11.

[2] Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church, Our First Decade in China, 11.

[3] Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church, Our First Decade in China, 11.

[4] “Chinese Revolution timeline – to 1911,” Chinese Revolution, September 02, 2015.

[5] “Chinese Revolution timeline – to 1911,” Chinese Revolution, September 02, 2015.

[6] “Chinese Revolution timeline – to 1911,” Chinese Revolution, September 02, 2015.

[7] Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church, Our First Decade in China, 25.

[8] Johnson, Sarah E. “Gender.” In Blackwell Companions to Religion: The Blackwell Companion to Religion in America, edited by Philip Goff. Blackwell Publishers, 2010.

[9] Johnson, Sarah E.

[10] Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church, Our First Decade in China, 25.

[11] Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church, Our First Decade in China, 25-26.

[12] “The ‘Golden Age’ of Missions and the ‘Sino-Foreign Protestant Establishment,’ 1902-1927.” In Blackwell Guides to Global Christianity: A New History of Christianity in China, by Daniel H. Bays. Wiley, 2011.

[13] “The ‘Golden Age’ of Missions and the ‘Sino-Foreign Protestant Establishment,’ 1902-1927.” Daniel H. Bays.

[14] Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church, Our First Decade in China, 79.

[15] Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church, Our First Decade in China, 79.

[16] Jessie G. Lutz. “Introduction” In Pioneer Chinese Christian Women: Gender, Christianity, and Social Mobility

[17] Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church, Our First Decade in China, 80-81.

[18] “The ‘Golden Age’ of Missions and the ‘Sino-Foreign Protestant Establishment,’ 1902-1927”,  Daniel H. Bays.

[19] Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church, Our First Decade in China, 75.

[20] Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church, Our First Decade in China, 76.

[21] “Catechism—What is that?” Covenant of Grace Protestant Reformed Church. Accessed May 17, 2017. http://www.reformedspokane.org/Doctrine_pages/Doctrine_Intro/Doctrine_Intro_pages/Catechism.html

[22] Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church, Our First Decade in China, 82.

[23] Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church, Our First Decade in China, 82.

[24] Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church, Our First Decade in China, 63.

[25] Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church, Our First Decade in China, 64.

[26] Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church, Our First Decade in China, 65.

 

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