On blustery frozen winter days when I was a young child, my Mother would at times gather my sister and I and take down the wonderful “China Box”. When opened, the mysterious smell of sandalwood and camphor told of far away places.
After my mother completed her university studies at USC in Southern California, she went to China as an educational missionary with the Methodist church. She went with a strong faith in God and a sincere wish to help the people of China find a better life through education. She expected this to be her life's work. She was trained to establish local village schools in the Hingwa region of the Fukien province, across the strait from what today is Taiwan.
Planting rice - Fukien provence
She lived in a compound with other missionaries, and upon her arrival received on the job training in the local dialect of Chinese, and how to function in the Chinese culture. It was a bold thing for a young single woman to travel so far from home and take on such responsibilities. While there she developed a great love for the Chinese people and a desire to do what she could to improve education for the people. She often talked about visiting village projects and of the schools she helped develop and maintain. She also took every opportunity to learn about the life of the people, the temples, the workers, the way of life. She found much that was incredibly beautiful, and things that were shockingly cruel and ugly.
In those days there were strong local leaders in the provences (essentially war lords) and a weak central government. Travel to the villages involved traveling in a sedan chair suspended by poles from two men who carried her along footpaths between the rice fields.
Sedan Chair Travel - Along foot paths between villages
Early on she travelled with a translator to help her assist the local teachers in the villages. She told tales of the heads of road bandits being hung in a basket at the crossroads as a warning to others. Male children were more prized than females – the baby girls were sometimes rescued by the missionaries from garbage heaps where they had been left to die (to be cared for in an orphanage). She told of visiting Buddhist temples thick with idols and incense, also staying with village families on her visits to outer schools. To my young ears stories of her life sounded exotic and exciting.
My favorite part of the magic China Box were the rough wood block pictures of the various gods who were thought to influence the lives of people in this region. There was the kitchen god who must be appeased with a clean and orderly kitchen, dragon figures that were protectors of the household, one person who became a god by one by one taking his body organs out of his body, washing them in the river to purify himself, and then putting them back.
Chief of all the gods
There was a very powerful looking god that was the chief of all the gods. There was the gentle goddess of mercy. These and many more… One by one, there on our farm in north eastern Kansas, she would tell us again about each figure. Is it any wonder that I grew up with a fascination for travel to distant lands?
The European/American community in Hingwah
I also loved the lacquer bowls that fit one inside another – down to a very small size… and the cloisonné bowl with intertwined dragons. The rich pieces of fabric with shiny figures and designs woven into the cloth, There was a wonderful wooden gong to be used in the temple and my first exposure to the concept of chopsticks… there were cut paper decorations and tiny shoes made for a woman with bound feet. There were brush painting of paper rolls that could be opened to show beautiful landscapes of mountains and water, of horses and beautiful women in flowing robes. We loved to hear the stories! At special times our mother might brew a pot of exotic tea that smelled of flower blossoms or once in a while light a stick of incense that produced a narrow stream of perfumed smoke that rose and twisted into the air.
There was a tightly bound roll of small photos in the China Box – and she never talked about them to us – she would say – “Oh these are just little photos that she had collected…. just pictures of people…” (I suspect that photo paper was rare – so the prints were made were small) – Many of the photos are hauntingly not in clear focus– but clear enough to give some details of life. I include some of the photos in this entry.
In the two decades before the second world war, the situation in Southern China became increasing unstable - and many missionaries were sent home. About the same time she became quite ill and after recovering was told that for her health she must return home to the US. I think this must have been a very wrenching experience for her … She loved her work and many of her coworkers in her community. From my own experience I often find the worst cultural shock when I return home after adjusting to a foreign way of life – I suspect this was especially true for my mother. She maintained contact with many friends among that Missionary community.
She returned to the family farm in Kansas to regain her strength. And while there, redeveloped a relationship with my father that she had known years earlier. They were married, and she settled in to her new life as housewife and mother in a small Kansas farm community. She was a loving mother and good wife. As an adult I can now imagine how difficult it must have been for her to set aside the other life she had known and loved to live in a community where she was perceived as "different" because of her education and experiences, and where there were not opportunities for her to use her teaching and organizational skills.
After my father died, she returned to teaching in a California school. Even late in her life at times she would often recall an experience in China, a person who had touched her deeply, or a phrase in Chinese. All her life she carried a deep appreciation for the Chinese people she had known. Our experiences do change us.
I have included a brief sample from a letter that she wrote home shortly after arriving...
Letter home: Hingwa, Fukien; 2/14/25
Will I ever forget the thrill of departure when with the shriek of a whistle, our ship began to quiver, the pretty colored streamers that bound us to the homeland were gently broken and we had started. 20 wonderful days on shipboard followed, days filled with sports, reading, making new acquaintances, and luxuriate ease and restfulness. I enjoyed every minute of it; even the storm that raged one night, sending vases off of dressers with a crash and upsetting many an equilibrium. Shanghai was interesting and our six days there gave us ample time to see something of the city. A 2-day trip down the coast in an English vessel brought us to Foochow where we were transferred to a houseboat that took us some 6 hours up the Min River. The river was very smooth with scarcely a ripple and wound its way through a beautiful valley, marked off into little patches of vegetables and grain, and guarded by low mountains. Only the weird, melancholic chant of our oarsmen broke the silence as we glided along.
After a night on the houseboat, we started 6:30 the next morning on our first trip through the country. It was a novel experience to be packed into a sedan chair with a rug and pillows, hoisted into mid air and carried by coolies. It was a never to be forgotten day. We passed through beautiful valleys and low mountainous country; we saw a wedding procession and witnessed a funeral; there were shrines, graves. And ancestral tombs in abundance; and I had my first glimpse into the home and village life of a non-Christian civilization. The next day we arrived in Hingwa about noon to receive a hearty welcome.
Hingwa is a city of trees, surrounded on 3 sides by low distant mountains. I came to live in a good house with 4 other missionary people. It is fine to be relieved of all household cares, and it saves much time. There are between 20 and 30 American and English people in Hingwa and they are fine folks; we have had many good times through the holiday season.
The first 2 weeks here were full of preparations for and the festivities of Christmas. I wish you could have seen the dear little Chinese girls when they received their dolls and other gifts that came from America. It was a happy time for them and it certainly was a beautiful Christmas for me. I had had just 4 weeks of language study when here came the Chinese New Year vacation and study must stop for a time.
Chinese New Year is the one important festival of the Chinese year and it is ushered in with a loud booming of fireworks. Festivities last for weeks, depending on the financial condition of the family. I traveled through the country the day before Chinese New Year and the air of expectancy that I felt reminded me of the day before Christmas at home. Women were having their hair dressed, kitchen pots were being cleaned, and clothes that had recently been washed were hanging in all sorts of place drying; we stumbled over a butchering party in one narrow street and saw a woman cleaning a chicken on the floor step a little further along. Temples and ancestral tombs had been redecorated with red scrolls and lighted candles. Chinese New Year is also the time for weddings and feasts. It is the time when many of the gods must be taken on parades through the streets. Lantern parades are frequent and interesting. The lanterns are made into all sorts of fantastic shapes of bright colored paper, then lighted by candles and carried through the streets on long poles by men and children, accompanied by that weird, discordant music that is used for every occasion.