Final updates: American missionaries and Chinese Communists. Summary and Possible Further Topics

  • Summary of the work

This summer I have looked into American missionaries’ experiences with Chinese Communists from 1948 to 1950, a period of mutual tolerant observations. I tried to find explanations for missionaries’ vacillations between pessimism and optimism which nevertheless could hardly escape from the fundamental sense of distrust. I was trying to look beyond the usual narratives centering on ideologies or the theist-atheist divisions, which are too inclusive and grand concepts for explanations.

As the one last group of American witness of Communist China before the bilateral communications had been cut off for more than two decades, missionaries had nevertheless been marginalized in scholarly works as they were assumed to be either anti-Communism, or to be Communist sympathizer in the naive hope to continue their works in Communist China. Exploring their writings, however, I found their  experiences and thinkings much more complex and nuanced. Their writings were not easy to read, where facts, rumors, emotional writings and objective observations mixed together among 40 boxes and thousands of pages which were random in dates, locations and writers. Nevertheless, by regrouping the writings by time, areas and authors, I was able to make some analysis from the complexities and confusions, which potentially touched something nuanced but essential for understanding the tensions and dynamics between Communist China and the United States.

One major factor deeply confused the missionaries was that they appreciated certain Communist programs—some of which kept long unaccomplished by the former government and the missionaries—most prominently education to the grassroots levels and to ease the grievances of peasants. However, they were deeply suspicious of the government-directed programs where the line between the state and individuals was utterly blurred. The missionaries’ writings reflected their dilemma of evaluations that they recognized the new authority’s efforts to solve some accumulated problems——in a way unacceptable to missionaries which made Communist China  radically different from the pre-Communist era and from the United States where missionaries felt familiar and comfortable. It could be argued that what most deeply concerned missionaries was not what the new authority had done or had preached, but was an irremovable suspicion about what the new authority could potentially do with its implication of the relationship between authority and individuals, even if they recognized some appreciable programs of the new authority.

This confusion on how to evaluate Communist China was multiplied by missionaries’ attempt to use preconceived frameworks to make sense of Communist China—which nevertheless mixed Communist and non-Communist factors and both radical and continuous elements under the program “New Democracy” when Chinese Communists did not call their program “Communist” yet—that made it hard ft the missionaries to have a balanced understanding. Missionaries’ writings often captured one facet of Communist China and their attitudes thus often vacillated from over optimism to hysterical despairs, which were similar to Americans at home—as the few American presence in Communist China, their way of thinking and sentiments might shed light on a wider range.

  • Possible further topics from the work

I am always interested in  studying how “involved outsiders” observe a society which is different from their own. They had fairly good observations of the different society, but their way of thinking kept to be their own which reflected the social values which they were used to. Their experiences and thinkings, just as American missionaries in Communist China, illuminated some more subtle but essential root of suspicions and tensions, which nevertheless might provide some reflections on future possibilities of mutual understanding and reconciliation. One of my major concerns, however, is that though I found several missionaries talked extensively about Communist China, most missionaries’ writings were short, scattered, and in small number. I tried to extract  some general thought patterns or shared assumption from these small writings, but it was a little difficult to have a more extensive analysis. Also, though I found American missionaries in Communist China and Americans at home shared the mentality  which  vacillated between optimism (or hand-off attitude) and hysterical despair, it was difficult to determine to which extent missionaries’ thinkings of Communist China represent the Americans’ due to lack of materials.

However, I do think that missionaries provided some insights into tensions between Communist China and the United States, most importantly the different basis of government, and the confusion on how to recognize a radically different and new form of authority. Their writings helped narrow the grand concept of ideologies—which often dominated the analysis of relations between Communist China  and the United States—to more tenable sources of uncertainties and confusions. It is possible to conclude more American groups in China, such as journalists and businessmen, to construct a more comprehensive picture and to investigate to which extent they, especially the journalists, reflected or influenced American public opinions.

On the other hand, missionaries’ writings also reconstructed some aspects of Communist China at its very early years, which only recently attracted scholar interests. Missionaries’ writings included considerable information about its policies towards peasants, small private business, and intellectuals; efforts to combat the hyperinflation and to stabilize society. One word “Communist” had long been used as the framework to explain Communist China. Yet it must be noticed that Communist China faced many problems long unresolved from pre-Communist era——as what were mentioned most in missionaries’ writings: unbalanced development and large-scale underdevelopment, central government’s lack of control to local government, and disturbed social and economic order. Thus, it could probably provide new insights by interpreting Communist China at its early age as efforts to solve these long-accumulated problems and to modernize the country. One thing from the missionaries’ writings was that its policies showed a considerable degree of diversity and sometimes inconsistency in different areas, and combined Communist and non-Communist elements in their programs to stabilize society and economics. These factors indicated the central government may not possess dictatorial control of every phase of government as many may suppose, and a concrete plan to “Communize” the country in traditional historical narratives possibly did not exist. It has to be admitted that missionaries’ writings only provided limited observations and their information might not be accurate. However, their writings of day-to-day life in early Communist China is a valuable source of information, when few personal accounts or observations were available. Missionaries’ writings thus shed light on and provided some materials for a relatively new scholarly interest on Communist China at its early years from 1949 to 1953 when a series of Communist program—most prominently Five-Year plan and land reforms—had not been carried on. One of scholarly interests debate whether this period was a time of transitionary to Communism, or was a period by its own which was inherent of another possible development. Though missionaries’ writings could not provide an answer, they nevertheless provided some observations and thinkings from an involved outsiders’ view,  which might be incorporated into analysis of contemporary administrative works in Communist China and other sources of materials to provide some new insights to understand this period. 


Brown, Pickowicz, Brown, Jeremy, and Pickowicz, Paul. Dilemmas of Victory : The Early Years of the People’s Republic of China / Edited by Jeremy Brown, Paul G. Pickowicz. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007.