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China Mission: A Personal History from the Last Imperial Dynasty to the People’s Republic

China Mission: A Personal History from the Last Imperial Dynasty to the People's Republic

Martin Lavicka03 Aug 2015Leave a comment


TOPPING, Audrey Ronning. China Mission: A Personal History from the Last Imperial Dynasty to the People’s Republic. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2013. 472 pages. US$ 36.00 (hardcover). ISBN: 978-0-8071-5278-2.

Written by Magdaléna Masláková

In her book Audrey Ronning Topping tells two parallel stories. One of them starts in 1891 and is about the establishment of a Christian mission in China’s interior by three missionaries: the Reverend Halvor Ronning (1862-1951), his sister Thea and his future wife Hannah Rorem. The second is the story of the Chinese nation since the end of the nineteenth century, with references to earlier events. This story describes the devastations China suffered under the rule of the last Qing (1644-1911) emperors. It takes us through the events of the Sino-Japanese War, the attempts at reform at the end of the Qing dynasty, the Boxer Uprising and siege of Peking, the fall of the Qing dynasty, the Warlord Period, the near total annihilation of the Communists in 1927 and, finally, the capture of Nanking (Nanjing) by Communist forces in April 1949. In addition to published historical accounts, the author uses  eye-witness accounts, family letters and memoirs preserved within the Topping family in order to weave her family’s history into the extensive fabric of more than eight decades of Chinese history (since the first arrival of Halvor Ronning to China in 1891 until the death of Premier Zhou Enlai in 1976).

We can gauge the degree of culture shock experienced by Hannah Rorem at first in a letter to her mother, in which she speaks about the alien country with its “horrifying traditions and customs”. Not unexpectedly, information recorded by her pen is influenced by her own cultural values and Christian belief, as well as by contemporary western conceptions of Chinese culture. Despite these influences her writings retain their value as descriptions of China’s contemporary situation.  We are informed about the tradition of foot binding and, maybe even more importantly, about Christian reactions towards this practice; only girls without bound feet were allowed to attend schools run by missionaries. This rule was followed even though missionaries faced huge problems convincing local parents to let their daughters attend these schools. Missionaries were constantly arguing in favor of education for girls. In Topping’s account, we witness the struggles of the Canadian mission as its members initially try to acquaint themselves with Chinese language and culture; but also how, later, the Reverend Halvor Ronning comes to realize the importance and beauty of Chinese culture in all its difference. As he became attracted towards it, his children were raised Chinese, which led to a feeling of estrangement from their own culture after they had moved back to Canada.

The book is written in a very lively and engaging style that enables the reader to empathize with the missionary families’ experience of anti-foreign harassment, violence and persecution during the Boxer Uprising in 1900. It was at that time that the Ronning family was forced to leave China. The narrative of the book continues to follow the major events in China even after the Ronnings were far away in Canada, focusing on the rule of Empress Dowager Cixi, the siege of Peking and, eventually, Cixi’s “victorious” return to the capital—the foreign diplomats had soon almost forgotten her support of the Boxer Uprising thanks to her elegant manners and beauty. When covering this particular period, the author’s account is no longer based on family documents.  Rather she has to rely on newspaper articles from the North China Daily News and the Times (London) as well as on a number of popular books published in English: China under the Empress Dowager by J.O.P. Bland and Edmund Backhouse (London, 1910), Henderson Arthur Smith’s China in Convulsion (New York, 1901) and Peter Fleming’s The Siege at Peking (London, 1959).

After their return to China a few years later, the Ronning family witnessed the end of the Qing dynasty, followed by the rule of the warlords. In his letters, Halvor Ronning paints a bleak picture of the situation in China, which he describes as worse than ever before. At this time, Halvor and Hannah Ronning’s sons, Nelius (1893-1920) and Chester (1894‑1984), met a new group of older schoolmates who introduced the two brothers to revolutionary ideas. These ideas had already spread among the younger intellectual elite. The two generations of the Ronning family thus mirrored the division between the older and the younger generation in China. Under the influence of his classmates, Chester represented and supported the revolutionary movement. His father Halvor, on the other hand, still believed in the possibility of society’s peaceful reformation without the need for revolution. As China descended into the civil war between the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists under Mao Zedong, the family was forced to leave the country for the second time.

Only Chester and his wife Inga were to return to China, while Halvor Ronning stayed in his newly established parish in Canada. After first being a teacher in his father’s parish for some time, Chester was able to join the diplomatic corps thanks to his knowledge of the Chinese language and culture. Since 1945 he served in Chongqing and Nanking as a Canadian diplomat and mediator in the negotiations between the Communists and Nationalists and was very disappointed by their failure. During this period he built a close personal relationship with Zhou Enlai. Chester was very supportive of Communist ideas, an attitude which is reflected in his letters and may very well have shaped the positive views on the Communist Party displayed by the author of this book.  Criticism of Communism is limited to the reflections on the Cultural Revolution by Audrey´s husband “Top”.

Halvor Ronning was forced to leave China several times, and even Chester had to leave China more than once. Chester left China for good after Mao Zedong’s victory in the civil war. He returned to the People’s Republic only as a visitor or tourist after relations with the USA had normalized in the early 1970s. Accompanied by his daughter Audrey, Chester Ronning was one of the last people to see Zhou Enlai alive before his death in January 1976.

The personal story of the author Audrey Ronning Topping concludes this family history. She briefly tells us about her studies at Nanking University, her life as the wife of a famous journalist, and her own experiences as a publicist.

The book vividly captures intensely emotional moments in the life of the Ronning family, moments which also help the reader to fathom the wide-ranging impact of key events in modern Chinese history. The text also includes photographs from the Ronning archive that enable us to visualize the world as it was experienced by the protagonists of this book.  I recommend China Mission primarily as a book for students of Chinese history, for it brings back to life important moments of modern Chinese history through the lens of the history of one family. It is well written and therefore easy to read, thus stimulating this reviewer’s curiosity to learn more about the events covered in the book. Readers should be aware, however, of the overly positive evaluation of the Communist regime, which has its basis in the friendship between Chester Ronning and Zhou Enlai. We can observe a certain nostalgic melancholy in the discussion of some events. Despite these critical remarks, Ronning’s book is not only valuable as an example of one family’s encounter with China, but also  as an entertaining way to learn about modern Chinese history.

Magdaléna Masláková, M.A.

Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic

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