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Rooted in the Good Earth: White, Protestant “China Brats” in the Foreign Service

A confluence of two rising movements in the early 1800s, Western outreach to China and reinvigorated Christian evangelism, led to a surge in missionaries going to China from the U.S., the UK and Europe. The Protestant and Catholic missionaries were initially restricted to living in an area now known as Guangzhou and Macau. They were later allowed to settle in five coastal cities, and then permitted to work throughout the country. The number of missionaries in China grew from 50 in 1860 to 2,500 in 1900. Missionary activity reached its highest point in the 1920s; by 1953, the communist government of China expelled them.

Living and working in China was a challenge because of health problems, linguistic barriers, spartan living conditions, and a low success rate in converting Chinese citizens to Christianity. Among the most famous children of missionary families in China was Pearl Sydenstricker Buck, whose Southern Presbyterian missionary parents took her to China as a baby. She recalled in her memoir that she lived in “several worlds,” one a “small, white, clean Presbyterian world of my parents,” and the other the “big, loving merry not-too-clean Chinese world,” and there was no communication between them. Writing about the life of Chinese peasants in her Pulitzer prize-winning novel “The Good Earth,” she also won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Several Americans who were later to enter the U.S. diplomatic service also grew up as part of missionary families in China, including Howard E. Sollenberger, Charles T. Cross, James M. Wilson, Jr., and John S. Service. Charles Stuart Kennedy interviewed Sollenberger in December 1997, Charles Cross in November  1997 and James Wilson in March 1999.  John Service was interviewed by Rosemary Levenson in 1997.

To read more about Foreign Service families or China, please follow the links.


“They were ahead of the Foreign Service in those days”

Howard E. Sollenberger : Childhood China (1919) Director, Chinese Language Program Beijing (1947-1950) Foreign Service Institute, Chinese Language Professor Washington, DC (1950-1955)

SOLLENBERGER: [My parents] were both from a rural area in southern Ohio.  Grandfathers on both sides were farmers, and ministers in the local church, Church of the Brethren, which is the religious background from which I come, mixed with the Quakers and Mennonites.  I didn’t grow up in North Manchester; I was born there. I grew up in China. My parents were missionaries to North China… (Sollenberger is seen at left.)

They went to China in 1919, and in those days that was not [unlike] going to the moon. There seemed to have been a movement at the time of American church people interested in spreading [the Word] and saving the world.  They were a part of that movement.  According to my father, the impetus came from my mother, and he followed her rather than she followed him.

They went to north China, Shaanxi Province, Taihang mountain area, which is really a rural and very poor area.  My father, when they first started, spent most of his time in road construction. There was a major famine in the area at the time and, with the International Red Cross, [he] had undertaken a work-for-food project. My father was assigned a section of road that he was to supervise the building of, for which relief food was handed out…

I’ve been really amazed that the organization of the church that sent missionaries overseas had the foresight to understand that language and some knowledge of the culture was important. The first year that they were in China, they went to the College of Chinese Studies in Beijing to learn the language. They were ahead of the Foreign Service in those days…

For a long time I resented [growing up in China.] The expectation was that I would come back, my home was in the United States, I was an American citizen, I would go to college in the United States. And it seemed that growing up in China did not particularly prepare me for the culture shock you ran into when you came back to the United States. But there were lots of interesting things that happened.

I did have Chinese friends.  Being in quite a rural, mountainous area, the contact with Chinese was probably greater than for those that grew up in places like Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, [the major urban centers].  So, I did have that contact, and I’ve always been amazed at how free my parents were in letting me move around in that area.

The earliest memory that I have is going with my father when he was supervising road construction. I was left behind in a room while he was out doing something, and I’d fallen asleep. When I woke up, there was a strange man with a beard, something like you have.  He turned out to be a White Russian engineer that the Red Cross had hired for the purpose of road construction, a civil engineer.

I, of course, was young enough at that point to not only be worried, but to start yelling for my parents. At which point he brought out a nice big red apple, which was very nice.

There were other missionary children in the area. I had contact with them. We went through the usual childhood experiences of learning how to get along with other kids, and in this case to get along in a different culture. We had Chinese servants, and from the beginning I found learning Chinese easier than my parents did. So in some circumstances, I had to be the interpreter for them…

[In terms of health conditions,] you could understand the nervousness of parents with little kids. I think a recent study of missionaries indicated [premature death] is higher than with any other group of people. Largely from disease, but not entirely, because in those days as you know they didn’t have all the wonder drugs that we have right now. I can remember within our small mission group a number of the people that didn’t make it.

And yet my parents seemed to realize that we were kids, we were in this [strange] culture and that we ought to have some contact with it. And we did. As a matter of fact, my parents did put me for a short period of time in a traditional Chinese school, which was run by mission people. I was [put with] other Chinese kids, I was the little foreign devil, and had to defend myself on several occasions…

“There was definitely segregation”

[I learned] Mandarin, northern Chinese but with a Shaanxi dialect which is rather strong and well understood… I’ve never fully unlearned it.  As a matter of fact, just within the last month I returned from a sentimental journey to China which took me back to the same area where I grew up.

And I had a chance to not only hear but to try to practice, and I discovered that my Chinese has become a mixture of the standard Beijing variety, but all too frequently with the tones of the Shaanxi dialect which raises some eyebrows.  But when I talked with the people in Shaanxi, they thought I spoke Chinese better than they did because I spoke the higher social level [vocabulary] that obviously had been picked up while I was serving in Beijing.

[I was insulated from some of the turmoil in China because] Shaanxi Province was then under the governorship of Yan Xishan (seen left), who was referred to frequently as a model governor. But nonetheless he was a warlord, independent, printed his own currency, collected his own taxes, built a narrow gauge railway into his capital so that these outside trains were on a different width of track could not move into his province.

But things were relatively under control, although the Shaanxi Province has always been considered a strategic province to the defense of the capital, Beijing and the north China plain. On several occasions, we ran into military operations in the area that, of course, to a child were exciting.

I should perhaps mention here that foreigners in China at that time had extraterritorial privileges, much like diplomatic privileges, where foreigners were basically a law to themselves. They were not subject to domestic law and control.

It didn’t take the kids long to realize this, and sometimes would take advantage of it. There are several things as I look back on, I’m ashamed of now, but it shows that kids will be kids wherever they are.

I went to boarding school for five years, eighth grade through high school at Tongzhou, which is a suburb of Beijing now.  We would have to go back and forth from home during the summer vacation, and sometimes for Christmas.

I remember one Christmas trip that we made on the train, there were several of us missionary kids, we’d purchased some of these concussion firecrackers, things that you throw down on a hard surface and they explode. Being poor, although we didn’t know we were poor at the time — missionary kids — we didn’t have much money, we traveled third class.

And in this particular incident there was an old Chinese gentleman that was stretched out on a bench across from two of us who were there, and we had these little concussion bombs. He was asleep. We also had a lot of chewing gum, which apparently, as I heard the story, came to China from Wrigley’s chewing gum, who when they heard about the severe famine in north China decided it would be a wonderful thing if they could get the Chinese hooked on chewing gum.

At that time they were talking about 300 million [people in northern China]. Well, the Chinese didn’t take to chewing gum at that time, but the missionary kids got all the chewing gum their parents would let them chew. We took some of this chewing gum and stuck these concussion crackers on the soles of the old gentleman’s feet while he was asleep. And you can imagine what happened when he woke up.

On another occasion, we went through the train with punches and punched everybody’s ticket ahead of the conductor and got them all mixed up for him. And yet he could do nothing about it, because we were foreign kids…

[We were getting] a traditional American education to prepare us for college.  We did have a course, but it was Chinese as a foreign language. They did think that we ought to be learning about Chinese, but there were no Chinese students in the boarding school for foreigners. There were several Russians, but it was basically a segregated educational experience.

There was definitely segregation. The missionaries at that time, and to some extent this was because of the Chinese insistence on it, built little separate compounds.  They built American-style structures; that’s the only kind of structure they understood and knew.

It was difficult, particularly for the women in these rural area, to establish any sort of close relationship with [Chinese] women. Partly this was because of the role and status of women at that particular time. I remember one of the missionary women, who was there before we were, talking about the way in which she was finally able to establish contact with Chinese women.  And that was through the death of one of her babies.

At that point the Chinese women expressed sympathy and came to her to express this. And she often said it was through the death of one of her children that she was finally able to make contact with the Chinese women.

This was, in a sense, driven home to me later on when I was back as an adult and was able on several occasions to see the mission establishments through the Chinese eyes as something that was clearly foreign, clearly from the outside, something that from the Chinese point of view had a lot of money behind it.

Also, foreigners who had special privileges, or appeared to have special privileges in China, before whom the Chinese had to, an expression they use, kowtow, which means to lower your head and not look at the person in the eyes.

So we had that separation, but my father was always uneasy, mother also was always uneasy with that sort of relationship and did what they could under the circumstances, as I look back on it now, to bridge that, not only for themselves but for [us] kids.

 “My last three years in high school were under Japanese rule”

Charles T. Cross,  Foreign Service Officer, 1949-1981

CROSS:  My parents were missionaries, essentially in the education field.  My mother went to China first in 1915; she was a music teacher and a professional kindergarten teacher in Beijing. She organized some of the first kindergarten teacher training schools in China. She also established a number of kindergartens in the city. (Cross is seen at right.)

My father came to China in 1917. His first job, after a couple of years of language training, was at Peking National University (Beida) — then and now China’s foremost university.

It was an interesting time for him to be there because it was a time of seething intellectual activity in China. Mao Zedong was at the University; Chen Duxiu, one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party, led some of the discussions that had been organized by my father. So he was very much part of the surging intellectual activity which was part of the May 4th Movement. That movement was one of the great forces in Chinese intellectual history.

A lot of things happened at about the same time. For example, the Chinese characters, which were used in ordinary talk, were substituted for traditional, classical-style characters. That made it possible for many, many more Chinese to be literate. The communists and the nationalists, as well as non-political forces, took advantage of this change since they could then reach much wider audiences.

My father later became the General Secretary of the American Board Mission in North China. That board was part of the Congregational ministry. Both of my parents were Congregationalists.

In 1931, we returned to the States for a couple of years, as I mentioned. We returned to China in 1933; we took up residence in what is now a suburb of Beijing, about 14 miles outside the city walls.

In that suburb was an American boarding school which I attended. I attended that boarding school for seven years. During that time, the most important event in my life was the Japanese invasion of North China in 1937, starting on July 7.

There was a considerable amount of fighting in our neighborhood; there were sizeable massacres first perpetrated by the Chinese and then by the Japanese. So my last three years in high school were under Japanese rule although we had extra-territorial privileges and therefore did not suffer the hardships that were rained on the Chinese…

“Chinese students from nearby schools paraded past our house and the Japanese sentries were stationed on the city walls”

I don’t think my parents kept me away from Chinese playmates. When I lived in Beijing, I had as many Chinese playmates as American. It is true that our Chinese language skills were not advanced sufficiently. We learned Chinese in school, but we didn’t go very far because it was just another academic subject.

We also had to learn French and Latin, for example. So I never progressed very far in the written aspects of the language. My accent in conversations has a Beijing flavor and that is an asset…

The Kuomintang had just barely finished the formal unification of China in 1937.  In 1931, the Japanese took all of Manchuria. From there, they began to infiltrate south of the Great Wall into the Beijing area. Starting in 1933 and for the next couple of years, they marched inexorably south. The Kuomintang was the national resistance.

In December 1936, Chiang Kai-shek was kidnapped by General Jang Xueliang, who had been a young marshal in Manchuria where he had been defeated by the Japanese. He stayed in North-West China where he kidnapped Chiang Kai-shek.  The latter had come to attack the communists, who at the end of the Long March had reached Yanan. Chiang’s release was contingent on his declaration of nationalist solidarity.

I remember that on Christmas night — or eve — Chiang (seen right) was released. Immediately, in the area where our home was, the Chinese students from nearby schools paraded past our house and the Japanese sentries were stationed on the city walls.  They shouted slogans such as “defeat the Japanese” or “long live the Kuomintang,” sung to the tune of Frere Jacques.

My father noted at the time that this demonstration and those throughout China would remind the Japanese that China was united, which should have been a warning to them. The Japanese read it as a threat and decided to complete the conquest of China, which they started in July 1937.

As high school students, we visited the battlefields and had some contacts with Chinese students. A classmate of mine and I took some money, wrapped in some old clothes, and travelled from Beijing all the way out to Fenzhou in Shanxi province — that is the area from which Art Hummel, later an ambassador to China, came.  Carrying that money was illegal under Japanese rule.  The train tracks had been blown at a couple of spots, which made the trip quite exciting…

The communist resistance was all there was opposing the Japanese. So a lot of the foreigners had contacts with them. They were all very tightly organized. Inside Beijing, they had many agents.  But if you went to some of the rural areas which had mission stations, some that were less than fifty miles from Beijing, you could meet the communists quite openly.

In fact, Chinese students were heading towards “Free China” — the nationalist area where Chongqing is located. They would head that way by foot transiting areas run by the communists, who would help them reach “Free China.”

 “The “white man’s burden” mentality was still very evident”

James M. Wilson, Jr., Foreign Service Officer, 1961-1978   

WILSON: I’m a China brat.  I was born there of American missionary parents and grew up there. I was born in a mountain resort outside of Hangchow in 1918. My father was an architect/engineer who went out to China in 1911 to build various things for the American mission boards. He built hospitals, schools, houses, and churches all over China. (Wilson is seen at left.)

As a matter of fact, the book on the coffee table right in front of you that I just got from the Old China Press has a piece in it on my father. We lived first in Hangchow, where my father also taught engineering and math at Hangchow college.

We lived very well on a college campus — in many respects, as you might on a college campus anywhere else around the world. When we moved to Shanghai, my father went into partnership with a fellow American architect and they planned to take over a lot of the construction that had previously been done by his engineering office in Hangchow…

[The American School in Shanghai] was very much (and deliberately so) like a private school here.  SAS was conceived as a preparatory school for American children going back to college in the States. It has now come back to life, enrolling many more nationalities than just the children of Americans, as it did in my day.

Q: Did you feel as though you were living a somewhat separate existence in those days?

Of course. This was in the days when so-called extra-territoriality was flourishing. The “white man’s burden” mentality was still very evident.

“I’m surprised at the “Americanness” that my parents were so anxious to instill”

John S. Service, Foreign Service Officer, 1943-1950

SERVICE: [China] was a tremendous country, a great challenge, which was on the verge of changing from ancient to modern. It was a great magnet, because everyone was convinced that great things were about to take place there and there was a tremendous, bright future for China.

When my father went to Chengdu, where there had been no Y at all, he had to really start from scratch. At the same time he had to learn Chinese, which he did at home. He got a teacher who came in everyday in the morning.  He sat down at a table and read Confucius, the classics, or whatever the textbooks were.(Service is seen with his family at right.)

The teacher, of course, knew no English and one sort of fumbled or stumbled along. My father learned to speak extremely well. He was absolutely superb in his spoken Chinese. Almost at once he was forced to begin speaking.

He had to start dealing with workmen remodeling his house, trying to get acquainted with students, trying to widen his circle of acquaintances, trying to call on gentry and leaders in the community because he had to have their support. He had to get people of substance to act as directors and so on.

So eventually he became a marvelous speaker of Chinese-local Sichuanese dialect, pure and perfect Sichuanese. The Chinese used to love to hear him because he was so good and could joke and all the rest of it. My father actually never learned how to read and write very well, which puzzles me a little bit because I don’t know how he conducted Bible classes. I don’t think that he could read enough to read the Bible.

How he got along-some way or another.  Maybe he had someone else read the texts. But my mother didn’t become very fluent. She could speak to get along socially and with the cook. She had to teach the servants everything they knew.

She started with raw country boys from the village, shall we say, who had never seen a foreigner, most of them. She taught them how to cook and make bread. My father loved baking powder biscuits and this and that  So, obviously she could manage. But she never learned to read and write, never really spoke very well…

We lived Western. Once a week we had Chinese food. It was a big event. Saturday noon we had Chinese food. We all liked it. Later on when I got a little older, every Saturday noon we boys would go over to my father’s office at the Y and then go out with him and have Chinese lunch, usually with some of his Chinese colleagues, secretaries in the YMCA. This was always a big day of the week.

We loved Chinese food, but the rest of the time we ate foreign. My mother taught each cook. We had several cooks. Finally we got this one man, Liu P’ei-Yun, who stayed with my parents then for many years, who became a very good cook.

Everything had to be done. It was like living in a pioneer settlement in a way. The local salt was coarse and very black, gray, so that we used to purify the salt. The sugar was coarse and brown. I don’t know how we did it, but we actually refined the sugar. I don’t know how my mother ever got it crystallized. The salt I think we just beat up with a mortar.

We bought Chinese flour, but we made our own laundry soap from lye and ash and fats. We bought, or saved pork fat. Of course, there were no electric lights. We used kerosene lamps. There was no running water. There were no telephones.

If you went out, you usually went by sedan chair, which meant that we kept our own chair carriers. We even kept our own cow for many years because there was no way of getting milk which was dependable. Apparently, we even took the cows to the mountains in the summer sometimes.

But, you lived a very self-sufficient kind of life that required a lot of work and supervision. If you wanted to communicate with anyone else you sent a coolie with what we called a chit, a note, around town.

We had our own well. But all water had to be boiled. The well wasn’t very deep.  The water table was maybe ten or twelve feet down. All sorts of unsanitary things were going on around, or course. There were no sewers or anything like that in town. So all water that was to be drunk had to be boiled. You ate nothing that was raw, uncooked.

Most Chinese students wanted just to learn about the West. The West was a subject of great interest to this new generation, this modernizing generation.

But I think my parents felt that it was desirable for them to try to live in a foreign, Western way. Earlier missionaries had tried to merge in a Chinese community, had dressed in Chinese clothes, worn queues and so on. This was partly because of intense anti-foreignism. They didn’t want to be conspicuous…

“We moved into the ground floor and lived and slept in my father’s library because, in addition to the mud walls, we were surrounded by bookcases”

Well, you see, what happened in Sichuan was that after the Revolution, 1911-12 Revolution, things really fell apart. Sichuan was fought over by a lot of Sichuanese, but also became a hunting ground for people from other provinces, especially Guizhou and Yunnan.

When Yuan Shih-Kai (at right) tried to become emperor, the revolt actually started in Yunnan, and the leader Tsai led an army from Yunnan into Sichuan province in 1916 to give battle to the local commander, who had bet on Yuan Shih-Kai.  The Yunnan army stayed on and on in Sichuan.

Almost every year, in these years we’re talking about, there was fighting going on-this was a part of the life. Some of it was bloody, some of it not so bad; but almost always with looting, first by the defeated or evacuating army and then, of course, by the victorious army. Each side grabbed what it could.

Sometimes they would persuade the chambers of commerce, the leading businessmen to pay them a ransom, in other words.  But, if the ransom wasn’t paid, or even if the ransom was paid, there would still be looting and burning…

There was one period when we all moved down into the ground floor of the house because the compound had mud walls. We moved into the ground floor and lived and slept in my father’s library because, in addition to the mud walls, we were surrounded by bookcases. We put mattresses against the windows.

There was artillery fire going across the city from one side to the other, from one camp to the other, passing over our area. There was a mission hospital, an American Methodist Mission hospital which for some reason was not being operated. Whether they just didn’t have money or what-I don’t know. But, it was empty.

The missionary community thought they ought to do what they could. So they opened it on an emergency, temporary basis to take care of the hundreds of wounded soldiers. I was, I suppose, maybe ten. Anyway, I volunteered.

Some of us children volunteered to act as orderlies and fetch-and-carry boys, boy scouts.  I remember it was a terrible, terrible thing to see these wounded people.  Most of them had been wounded several days before. The fighting was some distance away at that time.

The wounds had not been properly dressed or taken care of. So, they were suppurating and so on — awful. I remember having to leave the operating room where the doctor was cutting. I went outside and was sick. I just couldn’t take it.

The foreigners did what they could.  My father was always helpful in things like this.  Several times he actually was able to act as a go-between, mostly to save people that were caught in between the firing.  He was known to people on both sides, to officials, to the generals, and so on.

In fact, he was so well known that the British Consul General…there wasn’t any American consul in Chengdu, never was. The nearest American consul was in Chungking, and that was only part of the time. Most of the time the nearest American consul was six, seven hundred miles away in Hangzhou.

But, the British consul general made a protest at one time to the American legation in Peking about my father’s having contact with officials. The consul thought that only he should have contact with the officials and resented my father’s being on very good terms with the local generals, the top people!…

I suppose [the conflict and terrible conditions] affected [my mother] more than us.  She was conscious of the dangers. Children can adapt, and like excitement.

Let me jump ahead to an episode in the Chungking days. We spent the summers, like most of the foreigners, in bungalows along the top of hills on the south bank of the Yangtze, across from the city. One summer – I think it was ’23 — a Guizhou general, from the south, decided to take over Chungking. These wars were usually more skirmish and maneuvering than hard fighting.

For several days, the defenders’ front line was along our range of hills.  Then, one night the attackers made a night attack.  Altogether, spread about, there must have been a good many thousands of troops.

And Chinese make a night attack very theatrical and frightening.  Everyone shouts “Sha! Sha! Sha!” (Kill ! Kill! Kill!) and fires their guns into the air or at anything that looks like a target.  The defenders fired a few shots but discreetly fled, long before the attackers got close…

[My childhood in China was] very happy. It was an odd life in the sense that it seems odd to have lived in a country and spent all your childhood there, and look back and realize that you never had a Chinese friend!

We never played with Chinese children. I think for one thing, that my mother was terribly conscious about sanitation and so on. In any case, my mother was simply obsessed that Chinese children were allowed to do things that we should not do, eat things we weren’t allowed to do, and so on, so that we rarely saw them. Sometimes on Sundays there might be a visit to some family, university family or somebody in the Y, something like that.

Looking back, I’m surprised at the “Americanness” that my parents were so anxious — apparently anxious — to instill. We played mostly with American children, as I said, but also with some Canadians. But, we didn’t go the Canadian school.

My mother felt that the school wasn’t very good. It was just starting in. It was the equivalent perhaps of a one room or two room school in the early days in the United States. The teachers were usually untrained, whoever happened to be available, maybe some missionary daughter who had finished high school but hadn’t gone on to college, or a wife who happened to be available.

She wanted us to have an American education. She was very definite that we were coming to America eventually. We were going to an American school, an American university. There was that feeling of identity.