- Missionaries on the “Middle Ground” in China
When John K. Fairbank, back in 1968, counseled historians to give attention to the long-scorned foreign missionary, 1 his plea was effective partly because of a new willingness within the guild to take religion seriously, and partly because of the source of the appeal: Fairbank was someone we listened to. But also, as in the case of Richard Nixon’s later “recognition” of communist China, Fairbank’s advice gained credibility from the fact that he could not be accused of undue ideological bias. The American president, so far as we know (though one should stay tuned), was not soft on Communists. The AHA president carried no ideological brief for Christian evangelists.
Fairbank’s appeal was effective also because he led by example—writing theretofore “invisible” missionaries into his books, prodding at least two generations of China scholars to study missions, and offering both moral and material support to Americanists who in many cases had never before considered getting into such a subject.
As the productions of a new, detached-but-sympathetic, mission history proliferated in succeeding decades, some of the old tensions persisted. Even today, historians who try to deal as evenhandedly with missionaries as they would with, say, politicians or captains of industry must expect some tepid reviews from old style confessional missiologists on one side and equally old fashioned missionary-haters on the other. Between those extremes, however, one finds nearly universal agreement regarding sources and methodology, and on the need to probe such issues as the missionaries’ relation to imperialism. [End Page 631]
Partly because of the last-named set of issues, almost no one would disagree that “nationals” need to assume a greater role in the writing of mission history. Too important to be left to the hagiographers and debunkers, that history is also too complex to be assigned entirely to European and American scholars—however fairminded. Prescient mission leaders in the nineteenth century sought to “indigenize” the overseas churches and colleges. Scholars over the past fifty years have agreed on the need to indigenize the scholarship.
Since the imbalance between “Western” and “non-Western” scholarship on missions nonetheless persists, the appearance of these two books by Chinese specialists in American history is an especially welcome and propitious event. Jun Xing and Lian Xi received their upbringing and collegiate education in China. Both came to this country to pursue doctoral studies—Xing taking his degree at the University of Minnesota, Xi at the State University of New York in Albany. Both, as one would expect, are expert in China’s turbulent twentieth-century history, a history they know not just as scholars, but as latter day participants. (Xing worked for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and then for the National People’s Congress.) And both, as they investigated liberal and social gospel strands in the fabric of American foreign missions, found themselves analyzing a cultural “middle ground” much like those to which Richard White, James Axtell, and other students of North American Indian-white relations have drawn our attention.
Neither of the books under review uses “middle ground” terminology; but in twentieth-century China, as in the colonial Great Lakes region, boundaries between still-distinctive cultures (to use White’s phrasing) “melted at the edges and merged.” Chinese and Americans, like Algonquins and Frenchmen, “had to arrive at some common conception of suitable ways of acting,” and found themselves engaged willy-nilly in “a process of mutual invention.” 2 As this drama unfolded in modern China, individuals and organizations, of course, were changed; and these authors find, as have the middle ground scholars, that the dynamics of change worked in both directions. We are reminded, in these accounts, not merely of North American cultural collaborations...