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China Mission

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

Audrey Ronning Topping

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

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-x

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pp. xi-xiv

...Like any great novel or movie, China Mission, by Audrey Ronning Topping, tells a compelling story filled with drama and a wonderful, if somewhat extraordinary, cast of characters. China from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century confronted a series of domestic and international crises that would...

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Preface and Acknowledgments

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pp. xv-xviii

...It had been raining that night, and the streets of Fancheng were muddy. A Chinese woman who had been following us took the arm of my father. “Please, Lao Fuzi, let me help you along.” He thanked her profusely in Chinese and politely asked her “propitious” age. “Oh, I am a mere seventy-five,” she said, “and how old are you?” “Only a humble ninety years,” he replied. She stopped to look at him closely. He stood six foot three...

Milestones in the Lives of the Ronning Family

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pp. xix-xxii

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Author’s Note on Sources and Chinese Romanization

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pp. xxiii-xxvi

...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 history of China. This book begins with family letters...

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Prologue: China’s Incredible Find

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pp. 1-4

...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, in the words of China’s Han Dynasty historian Sima Qian, he conquered the six other Warring States “like a silk worm devouring a mulberry leaf.” The king then...


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1. Destination Shanghai

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pp. 7-19

...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 rough ocean waters into molten gold and reflected off the massive, full-blown sails of the ocean liner as it crossed from the Pacific into the East China Sea on...

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2. Crossing the Pacific

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pp. 20-27

...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 Halvor, she felt an immediate sense of predestination. The meeting changed her life beyond her wildest imagination. It was the spring of 1891, and Halvor and Thea Ronning had been appointed missionaries by the Hauge Synod of the...

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3. Sailing up the Yangtze River to Hankow

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pp. 28-37

...The stay in Shanghai was short. The following evening at dusk the three American 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 British steamboat anchored in the Huangpu River. The squat double-decker was...

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4. Culture Shock

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pp. 38-48

...Hannah and Thea needed all their inner strength to adjust to China. Unable to speak the language, they felt woefully inadequate to spread the Gospel. But ready or not, they were soon faced with their first challenge. Their innocence and frustration was expressed in a letter after eight neighborhood ladies, dressed...

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5. The New Mission Field

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pp. 49-56

...The missionaries from Norway and the Norwegian American missionaries decided 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...

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6. Journey up the Han River

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pp. 57-63

...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...

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7. Opening the Ronning School

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pp. 64-69

...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 and July, they hung posters on the town bulletin boards announcing the opening of the schools and visited families in the area, urging them to send their children...

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8. The Sino-Japanese War, 1894–1895

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pp. 70-75

...The turmoil of war had an unexpected effect on the Ronnings’ mission. The Manchu Bannermen, who had become dissipated and lost their will to fight, periodically swept through Fancheng and other interior cities to pick up conscripts to do their fighting for them. By rights of extraterritoriality, they were forbidden to enter the American mission compound. When the watchmen at...

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9. Carving up the Chinese Melon

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pp. 76-84

...The missionaries had long realized the need for medical personnel. Sigvald Netland, who had a store of medical supplies and had acquired some knowledge of medicine in his youth, helped as best he could, but he was overwhelmed by the growing numbers who came to the mission for care. Once a week he rode on horseback into the countryside to proselytize and aid the sick. The two nurses...

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10. Thea

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pp. 85-92

...Life within the mission now took an unexpected and tragic turn, overshadowing 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...

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11. Hundred Days of Reform, 1898

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pp. 93-99

...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....

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12. The Year of the “Boxers United in Righteousness”

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pp. 100-109

...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...

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13. The Gathering Storm

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pp. 110-114

...The Ronnings had personally experienced the misunderstandings and wrath engendered among the Chinese by the arrogance and greed of foreign colonialists. Halvor was shocked but not surprised by the antiforeign riots led by the Boxers and encouraged by the empress dowager. The Western powers had been chipping away at Chinese sovereignty, without regard to Chinese traditions and...

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14. The Palace Coup in Peking

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pp. 115-123

...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 young emperor, encouraged by some progressive Chinese officials and missionaries, organized a Reform Party. Halvor Ronning had high hopes for...

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15. Escaping the Boxers

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pp. 124-132

...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 more to say.” Halvor heard nothing more about the Boxers until June, when...


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16. “Foreign Devils” in the Homeland

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pp. 135-141

...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. Vesuvius...

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17. Hannah Returns Home

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pp. 142-154

...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, rustling corn, they soon came to the land where Hannah had spent her childhood...

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18. The Siege of Peking

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pp. 155-168

...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 diplomats, representing eleven nations, along with 2,800 Chinese Christians and missionaries, were trapped in the walled-in Legation Quarter, surrounded...

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19. The Ronnings Return to China, 1901

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pp. 169-177

...In 1901, shortly before the dowager Cixi returned with her royal court to Peking from her exile in Sian, the Ronnings returned to China to continue their work in the mission. While the family was traveling by train from Iowa to board a ship in Vancouver, an extraordinary coincidence occurred. At the station in Calgary, Halvor recognized John Anderson, a fellow classmate from the Red...

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20. Roots of Revolution, 1904–1905

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pp. 178-183

...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 returned to view afresh the tyranny of their own government and the backwardness of China. Nelius and Chester soon discovered that the seeds of revolution...

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21. Sun Yat-sen

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pp. 184-187

...Sun Yat-sen appeared at a time when the Chinese nation was suffering grievously. Japan and the Western powers were tearing the country apart, and the Manchu rulers had lost the respect of their subjects. Sun introduced a new political philosophy to China that would eventually destroy the two-thousand-yearold dynastic cycle. Like most revolutionary leaders in China, Sun had received...

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22. Famine

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pp. 188-193

...In the fall of 1905, drought in the Yellow River Valley spread north. The food shortage was not yet critical in Fancheng, but refugees from the countryside filled the streets of the twin cities and told terrifying tales of famine. Food was hoarded, leaving little for the hungry to buy. Fancheng was soon overflowing with the wretched creatures, and still they came, staggering skeletons, haggard...

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23. Missionary Conference in Peking

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pp. 194-198

...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, however, 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...

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24. The Old Silk Road

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pp. 199-203

...Before Halvor left Peking, he met with an old friend, the Swedish archaeologist, explorer, and cartographer Sven Hedin, at the Grand Hotel des Wagon- Lits. Hedin was preparing for another expedition in search of the ruins of the legendary lost Buddhist cities along the Old Silk Road. He had first met Halvor...

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25. The Last Years

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pp. 204-210

...When Halvor arrived home from Peking, he was shocked to find Hannah seriously 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...

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26. The End of the Imperial Qing Dynasty

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pp. 211-214

...The crumbling Manchu Era completely collapsed three years after the death of the empress dowager. The Imperial dynastic system, founded by the first Emperor Qin Shihuang in 221 BC, had governed China for 2,200 years. The Manchus had ruled for 268 years. The empress dowager reigned behind the Brocade...


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27. New Frontiers

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pp. 217-220

...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 to send them to live with their mother’s sister Julia and her husband, Albert...

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28. Vikings Go Forth

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pp. 221-227

...After five years in Bardo, now happily married to Gunhilde, the wandering missionary 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 settled on a flourishing farm, with the younger children enrolled in the local school and Chester and Nelius attending the Camrose Lutheran College. But...

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29. Three Greenhorns on the Edson Trail

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pp. 228-234

...As soon as their semester at Camrose Lutheran College was over, Nelius and Chester hurried to Uncle Tom Rorem’s home in Bardo, where Tom had kept horses and equipment for their expedition up the Edson Trail to join the rest of the family in Valhalla. They set out from Bardo in May 1913. Nelius was nineteen and Chester seventeen, both having grown into tall, strapping young...

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30. Valhalla Homestead

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pp. 235-242

...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-yearold Prince Edward suit coat, which had become just a bit snug. Then, putting...

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31. Nelius

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pp. 243-246

...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 assistant in a survey expedition under Dr. J. Allen. Their most important discovery was the fossilized skeleton of a huge dinosaur (Albertosaurus) that Nelius found in Alberta’s Red River Valley. After a lengthy excavation, the fossil was presented...


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32. In the Footsteps of Halvor, 1921

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pp. 249-260

...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 mysterious 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...

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33. The Grand Canal

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pp. 261-264

...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 accomplishment comparable to the Great Wall. They would then sail up the Yangtze to Hankow and continue up the Han River to Fancheng...

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34. Return to Fancheng, 1923

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pp. 265-273

...Chester was accorded a great welcome in Fancheng. Observing his emotional reception, Inga was moved to a deeper understanding of Chester’s profound attachment 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...

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35. Narrow Escape, 1927

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pp. 274-282

...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...

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36. Uncle Talbert

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pp. 283-292

...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 tumultuous 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 childhood in China and was fluent in the language. Talbert was...

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37. Camrose and Valhalla

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pp. 293-297

...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 family was completed with the birth of my sister Kjeryn and brother...

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38. Chungking

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pp. 298-307

...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 from Ottawa to Chungking could only be provided by the armed services, and Chester was expected to make his own arrangements. He spent seventy hours...

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39. Chester’s Family Arrives in War-torn Nanking

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pp. 308-324

...was eighteen and had just graduated with my nineteen-year-old sister, Meme, from Camrose Lutheran College. Meme and I were like twins and shared everything. We had heard so much about the arrival of my grandparents and parents that when we docked in Shanghai we both experienced déjà vu. We went through a similar hassle with ragged coolies fighting to carry our baggage. I began to understand the culture shock...

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40. Audrey and Top

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pp. 325-338

...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 involved 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 Chester...

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pp. 339-348

...After serving seventeen years as a missionary in China, Grandfather Halvor Ronning 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 steep valley on his land in Canada into a Chinese scholar’s garden with moon...


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pp. 349-352


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pp. 353-364

Image Plates

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pp. 365-404

E-ISBN-13: 9780807152799
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807152782

Page Count: 432
Illustrations: 49 halftones, 2 maps
Publication Year: 2013