Update 2: Facts, Rumors, Suspicious Appreciation and Fearful Hopes: Make Sense of History

In the past week, I read more historical materials from various mission boards stored at Yale Divinity School Libraries. I mainly examined how American Protestant missionaries perceived the political and social conditions in China, and how they contributed to American images of China from 1945 to 1949. As I wrote in my last update that  missionaries attitudes towards Chinese communists were more diverse and mixed than many scholars recognized, so I placed some special emphasis on their observations, and sometimes interactions, with communists. I have several interesting findings which may help explain missionaries’ mixed attitude of both suspicion and appreciation, and of fear and hope. The missionaries’ suspicion towards Communism was always explained in terms of ideological incompatibility, while I think that their sense of unpreparedness, the confusion over the nature of Chinese communism, and the desire to find a pattern of communist tactics also greatly contributed to their distrust and complex attitudes toward Chinese communists.

Several scholar works discuss how missionaries think about Kuomintang and Chinese Communist Party(CCP), and why would they think that way. They shared the point that missionaries felt quite uneasy with both: the Nationalist government under Kuomintang was democratic in name but its ruling was filled with corruption, inflation and strict censorship; the communists were well-disciplined and worked for relieving the grievances of the vast majorities, but news and rumors of their hostility to westerners never stopped, and their ideology was utterly unacceptable to the West. This dilemma has been carefully examined and discussed. Nevertheless, this narrative gave an impression that the missionaries gave priority attention to the civil war, and were well-informed of the political situations which made them form quite clear opinions. According to materials I have read which covered reports from major mission boards, this narrative was a little deviated from what the missionaries had experienced and thought, which contributed to the complexity of their experiences during the Chinese civil war.

It is necessary to think as the missionaries did. For historians, 1945 and early 1946 was the first year of the resumed Chinese civil war full of tensions and ideological struggles, while for the contemporary missionaries, this period was the end of the harsh WWII and a new start for the Chinese people for rehabilitation and development. The civil war and communist forces, in their eyes, were not necessarily something which would completely change China. Rather, they were largely deemed as one interruptive element—probably less severe than the contemporary government corruption and economic inflation—in China’s long struggle for an American-style government which would promote unity, liberty, democracy. Some missionaries even thought about Kuomintang and CCP in terms of U.S. party politics, in which  Kuomintang was the “major party” and CCP “the minor party”, and that this political problem should be settled “not by battle, but by ballot.”(“Speaking of China”, 1943, United China Relief Records, Series 1 Box1 folder 1, MRL 6:China, Missionary Research Library). Under this mentality, a paradox emerged:  though many missionaries did feel the tension between Kuomintang and CCP and realized that an armed conflict was probably inevitable, few of them—and perhaps few Americans—were really concerned with Chinese communists as they believed that Communism, deemed as radical and doctrinal, was fundamentally incompatible with the Chinese who were moderate and practical. Some documents did discuss the feature of Communism or the possible future of Communism ruling, but it is noticeable that few ever thought that communists would take full control of China. What most of them envisioned was a victory of Kuomintang by American aid or a coalition government, and in the worst case may be a divided government where communists control north part of China and Kuomintang south part of China——quite a few of them kept holding this idea until late 1948 when communists were about to cross Yangtze River and move southward, or even until April 1949 when communists took over Nanking, the capital of Nationalist Government. 

The mental aloofness from the political situations led to a profound sense of unpreparedness when communists gained decisive advantages in late 1948, and missionaries began to try to collect information from any source—what they got was a mixture of facts and rumors, plain descriptions and exaggerated accounts which denoted both benevolence and brutality. This mixture made the missionaries unable to form a predicative pattern of what will happen after communist takeover. That’s what many scholars have talked about the dilemma facing Communism, especially during and after late 1948 when communists began to enter south coastal cities where missionaries typically gathered: when they listened from radio that missionaries in communist-dominant area were able to continue their works, they were suspicious of its authenticity; when they were encouraged by communists’ lenient attitudes and little interference with missionary works and activities, they could not stop wondering whether it was their tactics to prepare for later persecution. This profound suspect contributed to a widely-accepted theory of “phases of communist approach” (memorandum, July22, 1948. CRP, RG8, Box 60-2, Yale Divinity Library): first, freedom and toleration; second, toleration with control; and third, active opposition.

This theory was not unfounded, as communists did take a radical policy towards foreigners and religion people under the principle of atheism and anti-imperialism, especially in 1946 and 1947 before religious tolerance was issued into order in the spring of 1948. However, based on reports from 1946 and 1947, I think that the pattern of benevolence and brutality was not divided by “phases”, but was determined by “areas.” Reports of opposition towards Christianity in 1947 did not mention the changes in attitudes over time—instead, it stated that “usually from the very first, all forms of Christian activity was banned.” (Conditions in North China, June 1, 1947. CRP, RG8, Box60-1, Yale Divinity Library) Communist ruling in North China, especially their attitudes to foreigners and Christians, from 1946 and 1947 always vary by locations as at that time no universal principle towards religion was implemented. Some local leaders were more actively anti-religion under the atheistic ideology, and others may be more tolerant and lenient, but the policy was relatively consistent over time in one area. The news of oppositions to Christianity further gave rise to rumors of brutality ands hostility, and forced the missionary leaders to often emphasize that it was necessary to filter unfounded information. However, no matter rumors or facts, no matter whether the tactics vary by phases or by areas, it is natural for the missionaries to be fearful and suspicious in front of the inconsistency in lenience and hostility when they hastily tried to understand what will happen after an ideologically challenging political party took control. What’s worse was that this inconsistency was explained in terms of “phases of communist approach” which deepened fear and made trust almost impossible, as one could hardly be convinced that the current benevolence was a true sign of friendliness instead of being just one step of the “boiling frog” tactics. The missionaries’ suspicion towards Communism was always explained in terms of ideological incompatibility, while I think their sense of unpreparedness, the confusion over the nature of Chinese communism, and the desire to find a pattern of communist tactics also greatly contributed to their distrust.

As I have mentioned in the last update, we should not take “anti-Communism” as a de-facto feature, as this sentiment was largely constructed throughout the Cold War period. I am delighted that this week’s research shed some light on the formation of fears towards Communism, as it is necessary to look back on the origin of criticism and suspicions towards it in the post Cold War era. In the next week, I will look more closely at to which “the phases of communist approach” was true and to which extent it was constructed from 1948 to 1950 when missionaries were in direct confrontation with communists. I will also look at whether American public accept the idea that communists were good at “boiling frog” tactics, and whether this idea contributed to the anti-Communist fever.