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  • In War and Famine: Missionaries in China's Honan Province in the 1940s
  • Ruth Compton Brouwer
Erleen J. Christensen . In War and Famine: Missionaries in China's Honan Province in the 1940s. McGill-Queen's University Press. viii, 292. $44.95

Erleen Christensen was an infant when her Swedish-American Lutheran missionary parents brought her to China in September 1940. Letters and memoirs written by her father, Dr Emery W. Carlson, are her major source, but she also draws on records left by other missionaries and by two journalists to present a detailed account of Christian missionaries' last decade in Honan. Christensen does not downplay instances of naive, short-sighted, and mean-spirited missionary behaviour found in these sources. Overall, however, this is a sympathetic and moving account of women and men who stayed on in Honan in a time of turmoil and, together with Chinese Christians, witnessed in practical ways for their faith as long as was humanly possible.

The Carlsons' part in this saga began when, along with other missionaries, they ignored diplomats' warnings and undertook a circuitous and dangerous trip inland to their church's mission station [End Page 384] at Hsuchang. The impediments and dangers en route were a foretaste of what was to follow as a result of the Sino-Japanese war, Nationalist Communist conflict, and indiscriminate banditry. The United States' entry into the Second World War brought increased isolation and danger to the 250-odd missionaries still working in Honan. Hsuchang itself remained part of 'Free China' until the spring of 1944, when invading Japanese forces took control of the area, but it did not escape the crises that devastated the province. From the summer of 1942, crop failures exacerbated other problems: inflation, refugees, orphans, and abandoned infants. Though some outside aid was reaching Honan by 1943, inadequate transport, inefficiency, and corruption still left thousands starving. Writing in April, Canadian Anglican Bill Simpson estimated that one-third of the province's population had died. Within the Carlsons' own mission, a psychological low point was reached when mission president Victor Swenson used relief funds to finance the building of a cottage. Despite their disapproval of the odious Swenson, his fellow missionaries pragmatically sought to conceal his behaviour from the local community and home-base supporters. More positively, relief needs gave rise to an unprecedented level of cooperation between Catholic and Protestant missionaries and to heroic efforts by unsung workers. An account of the famine by Time magazine's Theodore White would prove far more effective than missionaries' reports in forcing Chiang Kai-shek's government to release food stocks to the needy. But as Christensen notes, White's account contained 'nary a word about heroic single women staffing stations alone under enemy guns, nor about Chinese who risked their lives – and died – to get relief to the starving.'

When western and central Honan finally fell to the Japanese, many missionaries fled to West China, where a number of missions were still operating. Many missionary families subsequently went on furlough, among them Dr Carlson's wife and children. Carlson himself was recruited by the US government to return to Honan as part of an intelligence network. While he viewed this effort as largely useless, it meant that he was on hand to witness the end of the war and participate in efforts to restart medical work. Following a furlough, Carlson returned with his family to China, hopeful, like other missionaries, that a postwar truce between Nationalist and Communist factions would hold and allow for the resumption of mission work.

But it was not to be. By the end of 1949 all but a handful of missionaries had left China for good.

Instead of treating their departure as a tragic conclusion to In War and Famine, Christensen deals briefly with the late twentieth century when, as a result of the efforts of a core group of faithful believers, there was a resurgence of Christianity in Honan and, under Communist rule, 'a measure of peace and tranquility' in the province, 'a place [End Page 385] where even the poorest have quilts and coats against the cold and seldom go hungry.' This is an effective ending to...


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pp. 384-386
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