A Personal History from the Last Imperial Dynasty to the People's Republic
Publication Year: 2013
When the Reverend Halvor Ronning, his sister Thea, and fellow missionary Hannah Rorem set out in 1891 to found a Lutheran mission and school in the interior of China, they could not have foreseen the ways in which that decision would ripple across generations of the Ronning family. Halvor and Hannah would marry, and their son Chester, born in Hubei Province in 1894, would spend over half his life in China as a student, teacher, and a Canadian diplomat. Chester's daughter, Audrey, studied at Nanking University during the Chinese Civil War and later spent decades reporting on the People's Republic of China for the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, and many other publications. "During the last century," Audrey Topping notes, "a member of our family was there for almost every event of importance." China Mission presents a personal history of her family's ties to their adopted home and the momentous events that radically changed one of the most powerful countries in the world.
The Ronnings found Imperial China at the end of the nineteenth century to be a nation on the cusp of change, and they were swept up as both observers and participants in these dramatic events. During their years as missionaries, the Ronnings witnessed the Boxer Uprising in 1898, the subsequent Palace Coup and the Siege of Peking, the death of the last emperor, and the collapse of China's dynasty system. They also endured personal challenges -- famine, births, deaths, and the almost constant threat of attack -- that were countered with songs, celebrations, friendship, and a deep appreciation for the culture of which they had become a part.
Later, Chester Ronning would return to China, as would his daughter Audrey, bringing their family's story to the end of the twentieth century. This extraordinary account, compiled from the diaries, letters, and photographs of three generations, offers modern readers a rare and remarkable look at a world long gone.
Published by: Louisiana State University Press
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Title Page, Copyright Page
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Like any great novel or movie, China Mission, by Audrey Ronning Topping, tells a compelling story filled with drama and a wonderful, if somewhat extraordi-nary, cast of characters. China from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century confronted a series of domestic and international crises that would ultimately end the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) and launch the ailing society into ...
Preface and Acknowledgments
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Within the common destiny is the individual destiny. That destiny is fixed by heaven, by the stars in their courses. Only as one lives does the pattern of one’s life show forth.It had been raining that night, and the streets of Fancheng were muddy. A Chi-nese woman who had been following us took the arm of my father. “Please, Lao He thanked her profusely in Chinese and politely asked her “propitious” age....
Milestones in the Lives of the Ronning Family
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March 3, 1862 Halvor N. Ronning is born in the parish of Bo, Telemark, November 6, 1871 Hannah Rorem is born in Illinois to Togrim and Anna Spring 1883 Halvor and his sister Thea travel to America to attend November 1891 Halvor, Thea, and Hannah travel to China to become the 1899–90 The Ronnings return to Telemark, Norway, and to Iowa....
Author’s Note on Sources and Chinese Romanization
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The primary source and inspiration for China Mission are the personal letters hand-written to loved ones by three generations of the Ronning family recording their experiences in China and Canada. The letters serve as narrative threads woven into a vivid tapestry entwining the history of our family with the his-tory of China. This book begins with family letters and eyewitness accounts ...
Prologue: China’s Incredible Find
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China’s twentieth-century diplomacy or its twenty-first-century world role must begin—even at the cost of oversimplification—with a basic appreciation of the traditional con-Once upon a time in the Kingdom of Qin, there dwelt a prince who wanted to live forever and spent his life searching for the fountain of youth. He inherited the throne at age thirteen and spent the next twenty-one years in battle until, ...
PART I. ARRIVING IN THE MIDDLE KINGDOM
1. Destination Shanghai
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The outbreak against foreigners in China at the close of the Century, like most human events, and all things Chinese, has its roots in the remote past, without some knowledge Three American missionaries braced themselves on the deck of the SS Oceanic as the rising sun exploded across the horizon like a hallelujah chorus lighting up the distant shores of the Celestial Kingdom. The morning sunbeams turned the ...
2. Crossing the Pacific
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You are about to look upon the fascinating but frightening, once beautiful but now rav-aged, face of the ancient and dying Imperial Empire of China; it is a sight that stuns the senses and defies imagination! Only through constant prayer and implicit belief in God It was barely six months since Hannah had first seen Halvor and Thea on the stage of the Lutheran church in Radcliff, Iowa. When she shook hands with ...
3. Sailing up the Yangtze River to Hankow
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Back in the mists of time, when the gods were maneuvering for power over the Celestial The stay in Shanghai was short. The following evening at dusk the three Ameri-can missionaries, along with the Norwegian missionary Sigvald Netland and the Chinese evangelist Sen Li-fu, set off from the China Inland Mission compound to Foochow wharf, where they boarded a wobbly tender to reach the Ta-tung, a ...
4. Culture Shock
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Hankow, January 15, 1892. Dear Mama: We have arrived at our new mission at last! I can tell you that the Chinese live in a world beyond the imagination of our friends in Iowa. Halvor and Thea and I often walk on the ancient stone wall that surrounds the city. Here we have a splendid view of the surrounding country and the air is fresher than in the dirty streets. The wall stands 15 feet high and stretches fifteen miles around ...
5. The New Mission Field
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The missionaries from Norway and the Norwegian American missionaries de-cided to work together but maintain separate organizations. They agreed to build a new mission home in Hankow together and select a new mission field in an area where there would be room for all the Lutheran missions to help establish an independent Chinese Lutheran Church. Reverend Ronning was appointed ...
6. Journey up the Han River
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At dawn on May 1, 1894, the Ronnings arrived on the banks of the Han River to board the passenger junk Man-Kan and sail six hundred miles up the Han as it winds in innumerable S-bends to the walled-in twin cities of Hsiangyang and Fancheng, known today as Xiangfan. Halvor was eager to show Hannah the new mission station he had established in the commercial city of Fancheng directly ...
7. Opening the Ronning School
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Education of the common man is of prime importance to the modernization of China.As supervisor of the mission, Halvor felt strongly that all Chinese children should be enlightened intellectually as well as spiritually. With Netland and a dozen workmen, he built a two-room schoolhouse, one for boys, whom he would teach himself, and one for girls, to be taught by Hannah and Thea. During June ...
8. The Sino-Japanese War, 1894–1895
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August 27, 1894. Dear Nils: War! War! That is the topic here now. The gigantic Im-perial Empire is in the throes of a war with the small island nation of Japan over Korea. China claims suzerainty over Korea, and Japan claims it to be an independent State under their protection. God alone knows what the end shall be. China is ada-mant, claiming that Korea has been their tributary for two hundred years. The young ...
9. Carving up the Chinese Melon
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This is her story. She had been staying with her intended mother-in-law for many years. It is the custom here for poor families to send their small daughters to the home of their future husband where she is virtually a slave in the family until she is married. Even afterward she is a slave, but she must also bear as many children as possible.The missionaries had long realized the need for medical personnel. Sigvald Net-...
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Life within the mission now took an unexpected and tragic turn, overshadow-ing concern about the growing antiforeign sentiment in the country. Halvor’s mission was one of the few where women missionaries were permitted to read their own progress reports instead of sitting quietly at the conference table while their husbands or superintendents spoke for them. On the last evening of the ...
11. Hundred Days of Reform, 1898
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We have heard of Chinese ideas being employed to convert barbarians, but have never No one escapes history, but the Chinese seem more aware of this than most other people. The Ronnings, like the Chinese, began dating events in their lives by historical episodes. The year my father was born, 1894, was the “Year of the Sino-Japanese War,” and 1898 was the “Year of the Reform.”...
12. The Year of the “Boxers United in Righteousness”
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There are many roads to the top of the mountain. We only know one way. No one, not By 1898, Nelius was seven years old and Chester five. They were too young to understand why their parents were so involved with their mission work and the growing unrest that they had little time for their own children. By the closing months of 1898, there was serious trouble caused by the growing secret societies, ...
13. The Gathering Storm
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Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly The Ronnings had personally experienced the misunderstandings and wrath engendered among the Chinese by the arrogance and greed of foreign colonial-ists. Halvor was shocked but not surprised by the antiforeign riots led by the ...
14. The Palace Coup in Peking
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September 21, 1898. I am willing to shed my blood, if thereby my country may be saved. But for every one that perishes today, a thousand will rise up to carry on the work of In 1898, a century before the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong was returned to China, the Empress Dowager Cixi retired to the Summer Palace that had been reconstructed after its destruction by the British and French troops. The ...
15. Escaping the Boxers
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Dear Halvor: Make evacuation plans to be used as soon as possible, if conditions worsen. Halvor implored Hannah to leave with the children, but the stubborn look on her face told him differently. “My place is with you,” she replied simply. “If you stay, we all stay. We will live or die together. It is in God’s hands. There is nothing Halvor heard nothing more about the Boxers until June, when a dispatch ...
PART II. HOME LEAVE AND RETURN
16. “Foreign Devils” in the Homeland
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In Shanghai, the Ronnings boarded the Villanger, a 20,000-ton Norwegian freighter, to sail along the east coast of the Pacific to the Indian Ocean, with stops in Ceylon and Alexandria, Egypt. They then proceeded through the Suez Canal on to Germany, from where they went by train to Naples. There Hannah bought Chester a smooth little mouse carved out of red marble from Mt. Vesu-...
17. Hannah Returns Home
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After nine years in the Middle Kingdom, Hannah was coming home again. Nils bade his loved ones farewell in New York and returned to Minneapolis, where he edited a newspaper called the Friend. The Ronnings boarded a train to Radcliff, Iowa. Three horse-drawn wagons waited to carry them the last lap to the Rorem family farm. Driving along a dirt road through waving wheat fields and tall, rus-...
18. The Siege of Peking
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There are things which could never be imagined, but there is nothing which may not It is safe to say that where one real Boxer has been killed since the capture of Peking, 50 harmless coolies or laborers on the farm, including not a few women and children, have On June 21, 1900, China declared a “War on the World.” Empress Dowager Cixi ordered an attack on the international legations in Peking. Two thousand foreign ...
19. The Ronnings Return to China, 1901
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Something told us that the return of the Court to Peking was a turning point in history, and in our breathless interest we forgot our resentment against the woman who was That little bow, and the graceful gesture of the closed hands, took us by surprise. From all along the wall there came, in answer, a spontaneous burst of applause. The In 1901, shortly before the dowager Cixi returned with her royal court to Peking ...
20. Roots of Revolution, 1904–1905
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In their translation of the American Declaration of Independence, our Chinese students had substituted the “Empress Dowager” for “King George the Third.”By 1905, the high school was filled with a new type of student. During the young emperor’s Hundred Days of Reform back in 1898, thousands of students from wealthy families had gone abroad—especially to Japan—to be educated. They ...
21. Sun Yat-sen
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Three Principles of the People: To establish Ultimate Peace, Freedom, and Equality.The gospel of revolt seems to be spreading more rapidly throughout the country than the March 25, 1905. Dear brother Nils: All my interests are now in the mission work with its joys and sorrows. Doors are opening all over and strange things are happening. The old Empress has abolished the Imperial Examination System and the students ...
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When Hannah became pregnant again, she was filled with both joy and fear. She struggled to conceal the latter from her husband but wrote of her trepidations to her sister Rebecca, who had recently given birth to the fourth of her nine children: Pray for me about the middle of February—it is too much to ask to have the easy time you had but I should be thankful with less struggle than last time. You ...
23. Missionary Conference in Peking
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In the summer of 1906, Reverend Ronning was invited to attend a convention of the Mission Society in Peking concerning plans for expanding the missions. Halvor was eager to participate but felt uneasy about leaving Hannah. She, how-ever, urged him to go. He was accompanied by Sen Li-fu and his brother-in-law Carl Landahl, who, a year after Thea’s death, had married Alice Holmberg, a ...
24. The Old Silk Road
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If any place deserves to be haunted, it is the Old Silk Road. For amid the ruins of ancient Buddhist cities, once strung like prayer beads across the forbidding terrain of Central Asia, there have occurred more mysterious happenings, rich pageantry, magical rituals, sinister intrigue, heroic battles, and cruel massacres than the imagination can encompass.Before Halvor left Peking, he met with an old friend, the Swedish archaeolo-...
25. The Last Years
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When Halvor arrived home from Peking, he was shocked to find Hannah seri-ously ill. Her beautiful countenance did not convey her condition. Her gentle features without sharpness or creases were still given more to expressing joy, love, and tenderness. Only her eyes betrayed her pain. She harbored a lingering fear of death that she had tried to conceal from Halvor. But it was revealed in a ...
26. The End of the Imperial Qing Dynasty
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Looking back upon the memories of these last fifty years, I perceive how calamities from within and aggression from without have come upon us in relentless succession, and that The crumbling Manchu Era completely collapsed three years after the death of the empress dowager. The Imperial dynastic system, founded by the first Em-peror Qin Shihuang in 221 BC, had governed China for 2,200 years. The Man-...
PART III. SETTLING IN CANADA
27. New Frontiers
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I longed to go home to China where the people were friendly and did not regard me as The Ronning children were devastated by the passing of their mother. Nelius was thirteen, Chester twelve, Almah nine, Talbert six, Harold and Hazel four, and Victoria only two years old. Halvor’s concern now was for his children, and he first gave thought to the education of his two eldest sons. He decided ...
28. Vikings Go Forth
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It has often been said that wherever there is a new frontier, Norsemen will be found. In the settlement of the Canadian Northwest, Halvor Ronning was amongst the vanguard.After five years in Bardo, now happily married to Gunhilde, the wandering mis-sionary seemed to have finally found a home. Halvor was forty-six years old, healthy and handsome with a shock of graying hair. His family was comfortably ...
29. Three Greenhorns on the Edson Trail
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On the third day, after cutting through thick bush, we came to the 27-mile stopping place run by a Swedish proprietor. He prepared a meal of tough roast pork and watery potatoes, but we were so hungry we devoured it all. After the meal the host got out his fiddle and insisted we sing for our supper in Chinese, so we sang “Cho-shih Wode Duzi Tung” but As soon as their semester at Camrose Lutheran College was over, Nelius and ...
30. Valhalla Homestead
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The Ronning family devoted the next months to clearing the land and settling into the homesteads. On Sundays, Reverend Ronning donned his high starched collar and adjusted his worn black cravat as the children, dressed in their Sunday best, watched in awe. Talbert would proudly help his father into his thirty-year-old Prince Edward suit coat, which had become just a bit snug. Then, putting ...
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I am determined to return to China but not sure in which capacity. If my decision is not in accordance with God’s plan, He will block my pathway and turn me into the path Nelius stayed with Chester’s family in Edmonton while he was studying for his master’s degree in geology at the University of Alberta and working as a field as-sistant in a survey expedition under Dr. J. Allen. Their most important discovery ...
PART IV. CHESTER RETURNS TO CHINA
32. In the Footsteps of Halvor, 1921
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Chester was devastated by the death of Nelius. His life had been entwined with that of his beloved older brother since birth. Father Halvor was comforted by his complete faith in the afterlife, telling his children that God works in mys-terious ways beyond our understanding. Yet Chester felt broken, as if part of him had died with his brother. And he felt guilty for surviving. Why Nelius? ...
33. The Grand Canal
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The Ronnings embarked on a historic route home to Fancheng. The plan was to sail from Peking to the southern capital of Nanking along the famous Grand Canal, which connects the Yellow River to the Yangtze, an engineering accom-plishment comparable to the Great Wall. They would then sail up the Yangtze to The Ronnings boarded a comfortable houseboat, which was named Little Red ...
34. Return to Fancheng, 1923
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Chester was accorded a great welcome in Fancheng. Observing his emotional reception, Inga was moved to a deeper understanding of Chester’s profound at-tachment to his Chinese friends. Among those who warmly welcomed him was Tung Tse-pei, who had led the revolutionary cell in Halvor’s school, Chester’s adopted brother Peter, now a teacher, and his former playmates Shi Gun-ching ...
35. Narrow Escape, 1927
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At the end of 1926, Chiang Kai-shek, aware of the growing power of the left-wing labor unions in Shanghai and secretly fearing the Communists were growing too powerful there, decided to make a push down the Yangtze River to the coastal metropolis to oust the dominating warlord, Sun Chuanfang, and take control of the city, rather than moving north to topple the Mukden Tiger, Zhang Zuolin, ...
36. Uncle Talbert
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It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness! That’s why I am here as a mis-In 1931, three years after Chester and his family made their harrowing escape from Shanghai, his younger brother Talbert and his new wife, Ella, witnessed tu-multuous events that became turning points in Chinese history.* While Talbert was the only child of Hannah and Halvor born in America, he spent most of his ...
37. Camrose and Valhalla
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After their escape from China in 1927, Chester and Inga settled in the town of Camrose, in the lake district of Alberta, with their three children, Sylvia and the China-born Alton and Meme. I was born shortly after they arrived, and the fam-ily was completed with the birth of my sister Kjeryn and brother Harmon. Father accepted the position he had been offered unexpectedly while waiting in Hankow ...
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You do not understand the actual conditions here because you come from a totally dif-Chester was assigned to Chungking with the senior rank of first secretary, under Ambassador Victor Odlum. The two of them, with the military attaché, Brigadier Bostock, made up the entire diplomatic staff of the newly established embassy.In early November 1945, Chester left Ottawa for Chungking. Transportation ...
39. Chester’s Family Arrives in War-torn Nanking
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The City, a tiger crouching, a dragon curling, outshines its ancient glories.In December 1946, while my father, as chargé d’affaires, was establishing the first Canadian embassy in Chiang Kai-shek’s capital of Nanking, I was sailing to China with my mother, sisters Meme and Kjeryn, and brother Harmon on a converted troopship, the SS Marine Lynx. I was eighteen and had just graduated ...
40. Audrey and Top
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Seventeen years would pass before Top and I would return to mainland China. Yet in the interim, as journalists covering the Cold War, we remained directly in-volved or in close touch with the tumultuous events there. I offer glimpses here of what transpired in those intervening years in the life of a journalist family traveling a turbulent world and of the extraordinary turn of events when Ches-...
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My family’s principal mission in life has been to promote peace and understand-After serving seventeen years as a missionary in China, Grandfather Halvor Ron-ning went to Canada and became a Canadian pioneer. He finally settled on his homestead in Valhalla Centre in the Peace River District, where he lived with his second wife, Gunhilde. But China was always on his mind. He converted the ...
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Teacher Sen with young missionaries Halvor Ronning (clean-shaven), Daniel Nelson, and Johannes Brantzaeg, 1892. This photo was taken just before the missionaries’ first journey up the Han River to Fancheng.Halvor’s sister Thea, Hannah, baby Nelius, and Halvor, 1893. Nelius was A view of the compound of the Lutheran mission in Fancheng, with Halvor’s church at ...
Page Count: 432
Illustrations: 49 halftones, 2 maps
Publication Year: 2013