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Reviewed by:
  • Upstream Odyssey: An American in China, 1895-1944
  • Robert Shaffer
Upstream Odyssey: An American in China, 1895-1944. By Daniel W. Crofts . Norwalk, Conn.: EastBridge, 2008. 253 pp. $29.95 (paper).

Normally one approaches with skepticism a biography of a missionary written by his grandson, but this book about Daniel Webster Crofts [End Page 637] by his near-namesake, Daniel Wallace Crofts, will be of great interest to scholars and students of China, of the Christian missionary enterprise, and of world history. The younger Crofts is a professional historian—a specialist on the U.S. Civil War era who also teaches world history—and he places this study of his grandfather clearly in the context of the turbulent late imperial and republican eras in China. Author Crofts interweaves the letters and reportage of missionary Crofts with the latest scholarship on missions and on Chinese history to produce a narrative that is both intensely personal—the epilogue describes the visit by the author and his daughters to the sites where their ancestor worked—and of broad interest.

The author's sensibility as a world historian is evident throughout: in his comparison and contrast of the work of Chinese laborers towing his grandfather's houseboat upriver with the horses, mules, and men who towed canal boats in the United States just a few years earlier, for example, and in his attention to the introduction by the elder Crofts of tomatoes and potatoes to the rugged southwestern province of Guizhou. While drawing a sympathetic portrait of his grandfather, the author retains a degree of critical detachment. Indeed, he compares his grandfather more readily to the rigid and obsessive figure that Pearl Buck had depicted in Fighting Angel (1936), about her missionary father, than to the more "culturally flexible team player" that John Hersey presented in his analogous book The Call (1985).

The elder Crofts, born in 1866 and raised in rural Ohio, worked for just shy of fifty years in China, forty of them in Guizhou (still the poorest province in the country), under the auspices of the China Inland Mission (CIM). This British-based, nondenominational enterprise, which eschewed work in the treaty ports, emphasized above all the individual conversion experience. While its missionaries benefited from the cheapness of Chinese labor, they were not spared from the harsh environment: Crofts, with four young children, lost his first wife to dysentery in 1909 and his second to typhoid in 1942. The author effectively portrays the often lonely and tedious life of the itinerant preacher, who tramped the mountainous paths for days to sell a few tracts. Passage after passage testify to the obstacles to success, as in this quotation from 1941: "Here we go on meeting people by hundreds and more hundreds and often having long talks with them about spiritual things. But we never have any indication that a single one of them cares anything at all about the Gospel" (p. 196). The "upstream odyssey" of the title, then, refers both to the hard journey far up the Yangzi and to this seemingly quixotic endeavor. Indeed, it is clear that the CIM's isolated mission stations, like those of their more modernist colleagues [End Page 638] in other denominations who by the 1920s were emphasizing social and economic services rather than conversion as such, made their biggest impact on Chinese life with their rudimentary medical clinics, for which there was a constant demand.

For scholars of Christian missionaries, four main contributions emerge. First, fundamentalists such as the author's grandfather, not just the modernists whose experiences culminated in the pathbreaking 1932 Re-Thinking Missions, developed a radical critique of capitalist society and consumer culture, and their faith in their homelands, too, if not their religion, was shaken by the implosion of the West in World War I. Second, the author shows that, despite the CIM's emphasis on learning the Chinese language and adopting Chinese dress, the missionaries' assault on ancestor veneration severely limited their ability to attract converts. The one group in Guizhou among which missionaries garnered some success was the minority Hua Miao, who were oppressed by the Han Chinese. Third, just as early modern Christian missionaries became important...