Finding My Mother: The Red Box
Chapter Two: Opening a Window
My mother arrived in Nanking on September 29, 1917. She was a student once more, one of 66 at Nanking University’s Department of Missionary Training. There she was, in the middle of Nanking, with all of China around her and beckoning. Yet there was only one paragraph about Nanking itself in the materials that she had bequeathed to me in the form of her “A Window in China,” written some two years later:
“Nanking on the Yangtze Kiang – the great river of China – was the Southern capital of China during the Ming rule; excursions to Hankow where there is almost daily service to Ichang and connections are made with the modern passenger river steamers for a two hundred seventy-six mile trip through the Gorges and rapids of the Upper Yangtze to Chungking, penetrating the very heart of the Dragon Kingdom, one of the most unique, interesting and thrilling short tours to be found anywhere in the world.”
During her one year in Nanking, my mother fell in love with the Chinese language and the marvel of Chinese civilization. They contributed to her life-long mantra of never making tragedies out of trifles, which enabled her in later years to survive a deadly typhus attack in Chengtu and a dangerous evacuation in 1927 from Wuhu down the Yangtze to Shanghai amidst heavy fighting.
For that one year in Nanking, a single paragraph in the “Window in China” was all I had. Purely by chance, I happened on a book called The Linguist while rummaging through cartons of my books that I kept in storage. The Linguist was written and published by the students of the Language School and its Directory listed the names of all Resident students from 1912-1913 to 1923-1924 as well as the Denomination and assigned Station of each student. Two students listed for 1917-1918 were Lanphear, Mr. B.W., American Church, Wuhu, Anhwei, and March, Miss C. E., YWCA, Chengtu, Szechuan.
In its foreword, The Linguist worried that “perhaps we are blind to treasure in the hearts of these people whose ways are strange to us. How could it be otherwise. We have too newly come to lose yet the tourist look of staring interest in all things curious.” President Bowen warned new students against “wearing the mask of imperialistic arrogance.”
At the Language School, each student met with his teacher every day one on one. According to The Linguist, the first day began with the Chinese for, “Good morning! Please sit down. What is your honorable name? Where is your honorable home?” And you were plunged into your first conversation with a private teacher.
The best description of the misery that was learning Chinese can perhaps be found in the account of the medical missionary Dr. Harry B. Taylor, who arrived in Anking in 1905. His fiancée, Alma Booth, attended Language School the year before my parents. She became Mrs. Taylor in 1917. (Dr. Taylor would later give invaluable help to my very ill father when they were both herded into an internment camp in Shanghai in 1942.) Dr. Taylor’s memoir is called My Cup Runneth Over. In it, he writes that before lay workers could become full-fledged missionaries, they had to pass four examinations – and clerical workers, six examinations – at six-month intervals in a regular course of study.
A certain number of characters had to be learned for each examination: “Each character has between two and twenty-two brushstrokes, which must be committed to paper in a specific order, which requires endless practice. The characters are a highly stylized form of picture writing. They are composed of radicals and phonetics. The radical gives the category to which the character belongs and the phonetic often gives the pronunciation. There are 214 radicals and 888 phonetics, so the study of the characters is most complicated. Reading is difficult but writing is far more difficult.
“However, the spoken language is highly simplified and easy to learn. American children in China pick up monosyllabic Chinese more easily than they do English. For example, in Chinese there are no declensions, no conjugations, no genders, no irregular verbs, no articles. Future tense is made by adding the same word to all verbs and the same is true of the past tense. What is difficult is the presence of tones for each sound. These are necessary, as there are only about four hundred different sounds in the language, and to express all the different ideas it is necessary to inflect each sound. Thus there are five tones to each sound in the Mandarin language as spoken in Anking – the high level, the low level, the rising, the falling and the short and sharp. These make spoken Chinese somewhat sing-song and it is easier for one with a musical ear to speak it well. The fact that my teacher was old and knew no English made it more difficult to learn to speak, read and write the language. Of course, teaching a beginner was terribly boring to him and he often lapsed into slumber, from which I had to awaken him.”
I applaud Dr. Taylor’s perseverance – and my mother’s. Even the thought of mastering Chinese makes me give up before trying. I recently read an article by the New York Times correspondent Richard Bernstein called the “Ultimate Journey” in which he summarizes his thoughts on learning Chinese. Like Dr. Taylor, he points out that “there are no tenses” in Chinese. ”Past and present are indicated mostly by context.” The sinologist Percy Link notes that a student of Chinese must focus on cognitive linguistics, rhythm, and conceptual metaphors, making it all the more daunting a task to master the language.
But my mother had only been in Tientsin three years when she wrote that she had just passed “five out of eight credits for 3rd year Chinese.” I can hear her shouting: “Hurrah! My third year Chinese study is finished.” To pass those credits, she had to be able to place clauses and seven hundred pairs of characters in parallel and balanced lines.
She never bragged, but I want to brag on her behalf: Soon, she was able to give speeches and homilies in Chinese to groups who spoke not a single word of English.
While still at Language School in Nanking, my mother heard a lecture by Dr. Frank Rawlinson, the long-time Editor of The Chinese Recorder and Missionary Journal. Rawlinson was a missionary through and through. Still, he urged a better understanding of the Chinese, their history, and their culture in order to help usher in a modern, independent China. In her humble way, my mother’s reports from Tientsin and her later letters illustrate that she had at least as good an understanding of the political and religious issues swirling about her.
Of course, not all of the Language School graduates from 1917-1918 were either pure evangelists or pure promoters of the social gospel. Most of the graduates espoused some of each. One of my mother’s classmates, a woman named Maude Russell, had also gone to China with the YWCA and was swept into the same political upheaval. But Ms. Russell forged a much more radical path than my mother did: She came to believe that the Protestant Mission project in China had become a partner of American Imperial interests in the country. She became a strong advocate of the Chinese Communist Party and never stopped voicing her views even after she returned to the United States in 1943.
Both Ms. Russell and my mother had, in the form of The Linguist, a very helpful introduction to China. The essays in the publication, sprinkled with the occasional Chinese poem, were supposed to help turn them from tourists into specialists on China. The essays ran the gamut: “The Music of Old Cathay,” “A Quarter-Mile of Odors,” “Physical Education for Chinese Girls,” “Sending Money to the Dead,” and “Mission to Buddhists,” along with a detailed report on China’s New Year and its Fables. “Every nation has its own customs,” the reader was told. “These may be interesting to foreigners and may mean nothing to the natives, who merely take them for granted.”
The Linguist reports that, during the first part of the twelfth month, all Chinese families must choose a bright morning to dust the house: “It is called ‘Tan ch’en.’ This indicates a new year is coming and the old is swept away to make room for the new. In the kitchen of every Chinese household there is a hole in which the picture of the kitchen god is placed. This kitchen god is the master of the house. He has the power to observe and report the good and bad deeds of the members of the family. On the evening of the twenty-third or twenty-fourth day of the twelfth month, he is ceremoniously sent to heaven to make his report. A pair of candles is lighted before him, and pieces of candy are offered to him. This is supposed to influence him to report only the good deeds. On each side of the picture of the kitchen god is a sentence written on a narrow strip of red paper, pasted vertically. The words sound like these: ’Shan tien dzeo hoa sze, hua giai bao pin ang.’ Over the picture is pasted a piece of square red paper on which is written, ‘Fooh,’ which means blessing. The kitchen god comes back on the last day of the year. He is welcomed. The family offers him rice and rice-balls. It is said that by this act the family is blessed.”
Unfortunately, my mother devoted very little attention to her new home of Tientsien in her “Window in China” but what she did write is enlightening.
“The cities of China are very old and interesting,” she wrote. “Because of their mysteriousness, their histories are worth reading. It is for these reasons I am including the early history of one of China’s great cities, Tientsin. The district of Tientsin claims to have been known in the legendary age of the great Yu, who founded the first Chinese Dynasty in B.C. 2205. But it does not seem to be until the Yuan Dynasty A.D. 1280 that the emperors realized the importance of the place geographically. It is conjectured that two thousand years ago the sea came up to Tientsin, which was known in those days by the picturesque name of the “country of the Sea King.” It was in 1271 that Kublai Khan reconstructed the Grand Canal between Hankow and T’ung Chou, and the fact that yearly hundreds of junks bearing tribute grain to Peking passed through this district was cause for its first introduction to importance. Small villages, maybe three hundred – scattered over this area, all engaged in fishing and in the production of salt. Standing today in the city, the center of the cluster of the villages, is the Drum Tower. To call this the Drum Tower is a misnomer as it never seems to have possessed a drum. Its original name was ‘Ku-lou’ ... the ancient tower, but it was always popularly called the Drum Tower, the Chinese for ‘ancient’ and ‘drum’ having the same sound and tone, but different characters. The Drum Tower is in the center of the city with its quadruple arch straddling Tientsin’s two main roads. The four giant guardians of the gate are still in their own places but in front of them are two up-to-date fire engines.
“... [T]he only room in the tower used to be a Temple – the Wu Hsien T’ang – where the fox, the weasel, the hedgehog, the snake, the rat were worshipped. But it was really the fox that held sway. He is the keeper of the seals, and the Viceroy and other city officials had to go to temple and worship on their appointment ... with a libation of three cups of wine, three sticks of incense burned, and two candles lighted in his honor.”
My mother’s nieces Elizabeth and Lucille and her nephew Robert, Christine’s three children, must have raced to read what came next in the “Window”: “In 1888, a small snake about a foot long was discovered in Tientsin and carried in great state through the streets in procession before being deposited in the temple, where it was worshipped for twelve years until it escaped in 1900.”
My mother told her nieces and nephew that that it was the snake that controlled the floods: “The Tai Wang Miao was his special temple. The legend has it that a huge snake came up from the Canal from the South and came ashore at the spot where the Temple was afterward erected. When a snake is found anywhere he has to be carried to this or another suitable temple. During the recent floods people went to the Canal banks and hunted for snakes. They found several and they were carefully placed on plates covered with yellow silk and carried in chairs through the city preceded by the ceremonial umbrella.”
My mother was able to tie these historical and cultural stories to the life she saw around her in Tientsin. One day, she was horrified to meet a heartbroken mother who could no longer feed and clothe her young daughters. This reminded my mother of the Lieh Nu Tz’u, a memorial temple to women: “This memorial was originally erected to four virtuous women and since then others have been commemorated here. These were women, who had either sacrificed themselves to their husbands or parents, or who as widows had chosen not to survive their husbands long or remain unmarried so as to devote themselves to their parents-in-law, or to their husbands’ memories in caring for their graves.”
The last two women my mother added to this pantheon were two sisters of 16 and 13, who died two or three years before she began her “Window”: “They were very poor and, on their father’s death, they and their mother were left destitute. The latter was a mother of no conscience. She told the girls that she had arranged a wealthy marriage for the elder one, who would provide for them all and things seemed to be turning out well and then they discovered that their mother was selling them into shame. They determined to escape by death and that night committed suicide by drinking kerosene and then swallowing matchheads. The superintendent of police heard about the case. He had the mother punished, bought especially fine coffins for the girls, and gave them a big funeral, one of the two biggest ever seen in Tientsin. The girls were canonized and also commemorated at this temple.”
Of all the stories in my mother’s “Window in China” that focused on women, my favorites, and maybe her nieces’ too, went back to another temple – the temple of the Heavenly Queen and Holy Mother or T’ien Niang: “She was the wife of the Supreme Deity of the Taoists. Her temple is situated in the Kung Pei Chieh, which is now a back street running between the Chinese Bund and the Tung Ma Lu, but before the growth of the Concessions it was the most busy and central commercial street and residential quarter of the foreigners in 1860.
“There is a big arched gateway leading into the courtyard of the temple. At the Chinese New Year in particular the courtyard is crowded with stalls for the sale of toys, sweets, artificial fruits, and flowers, and so forth. It is also swarming with beggars of every description. Some wide steps lead up to the main hall, in the center of which sits, in state, the big idol of T’ien Niang, almost entirely concealed by her silk cloak. Here are many other Goddesses much sought after by women. The chief ones are the Pan Chen Niang Niang and the Sung Tzu Niang Niang. A piece of red rag made in the shape of a peach, which corresponds to the apple of Jewish mythology – the fruit of life – is sewn to the back of a child’s coat to remind the Pan Chen Niang Niang that the child is under her protection against disease and death.
“The Sung Tzu Niang Niang is a smiling goddess with children clambering all over her – on her knees, in her palms, in the curve of her elbows, on her shoulders, and so forth. The woman who comes to her prays for a son and can buy for a few coppers a small porcelain doll which she can leave in the temple with a cord tied about him to mark him out – the cord being removed when the real son is born, or she carries him home, setting him up there in a prominent place. The doll, which is usually in a sitting position and measures about three inches high is tended with scrupulous care, clothes being made for him and a portion of food set apart for him at every meal. Later a moustache is painted on, to mark the passage of years, and he is never ousted from his proud position as the oldest son. Should another son be born he is known as number two. This Son-Giver has a double face – white and smiling in front but black and scowling behind. This is to prevent the child from following her as she runs an errand. The boy on seeing such a hideous face looking back at him cries in terror. This is the cry of the newborn child who never wants to leave the protection of his earthly mother.
“Then, not to be forgotten are those afflicted with eye trouble. They seek the aid of the Goddess of the Bright Eyes. In her temple white cloth eyes can be bought at two coppers a pair. These can be carried home and rubbed in the diseased member’s eyes to promote healing. The Goddess is much worshipped. She also has a legend attached to her. The daughter of an Emperor, she was devoted to religious studies, spending much time in solitary meditation in some mountain temple. Her father became afflicted with a disease that his physician said would prove fatal unless he be given medicine made by boiling the eyes and arms of his daughter. The Princess on hearing this cheerfully consented and as a reward for her filial piety, the gods gave a thousand arms and a thousand eyes to replace the ones she had lost.
“There in the center of the Temple of the Heavenly Queen is the big idol of T’ien Niang almost entirely concealed by her silk cloak. One notices at once, hanging on either side are a number of model junks, evidently offerings. These suggest that the Goddess is worshiped by mariners, as indeed is the case.
“There is an interesting legend about her, that she belonged to a family named Lin, fisher folk, who lived about the year seven hundred A.D. at a small coast village of Fukien. One day, while her father and two brothers were away fishing, she was sitting spinning on the k’ang with her mother. When, through excessive weariness, she fell asleep with her head on the wheel. She had a dream. She dreamed that a terrible storm blew up at sea, and that she heard her father and brothers calling to her for help. She swam out to them and seized the junk with her teeth, while she caught her brothers’ boats in one hand and the other, and was returning them to shore, when she heard her mother’s voice calling her. Having been trained to obedience and forgetting what she held in her mouth, she opened it to answer the call. In this case, obedience brought calamity. Her father was swept away. At this point she awoke with great distress and related the dream to her mother. A few days later, the brothers returned alone with the tale of how they had encountered a fierce gale at sea, during which their father’s junk had floundered and how they too were nearly overwhelmed but were saved miraculously.
“It was the result of the dream that the peasant girl has become one of the most popular objects of worship. Sailors, before a voyage, visit her shrine and take from her censer incense dust, which they tie up in little bags and wear on their persons. Should they be in danger from storm or wreck, they hold these bags in their hands while praying to the goddess for deliverance.”
My mother interrupted her lesson on idols for Elizabeth, Lucille, and Robert to give them her reflections on the political status of Tientsin in 1919: “Had some incense dust in little bags been worn by foreigners,” she wrote, “the death and destruction wrought by the Fists of Righteous Harmony in the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 might have been less. As it was, foreigners and Chinese Christians were murdered with abandon. All foreign countries with vested interests in North China mounted an Eight-Nation Alliance to protect Boxer targets in Tientsin and Peking. Herbert Hoover, with his wife Lou, was in Tientsin at the time serving as a geologist. With U.S. Marines, he actually guided three columns of British, American, French, Japanese, and French troops to the approaches to the South Gate of Tientsin. He was asked to return to his wife in the city, and he did. The Boxers, with their swords, spears, and antique guns, may have been backed by the Qing army, but within a year, they lost.”
My mother must have known that her nephew Robert would be fascinated with the swords and spears, but she offered Elizabeth and Lucille a description of another fascinating idol to a woman – “the famous Kuan Yin, or Goddess of Mercy. When on earth, she did not seem to have been a very praiseworthy mortal. She was the daughter of the Chief Minister of an Emperor. When the Emperor heard of her great beauty, he wished to make her one of his wives. But the girl, being only about sixteen, had no desire to marry anyone so old as the Emperor. She ran away. In her flight she came to a lonely monastery where the priest in charge of the gate refused to let her enter for fear that the Emperor should vent his wrath and destroy the temple.
“However, the girl by her beauty was able to persuade the priest to accompany her and assist her in her escape. After many days of travel amongst the mountains, they finally reached the sea shore, where they saw a fleet of fishing boats. However, the owners, fearing the Emperor’s wrath, refused help. Again the maiden used her wiles and was able to persuade them to give in. When she had climbed into the boat, she took off her small shoes and handed them to the fisherman, telling him to make footprints in the sand towards the sea, and to say when questioned that indeed they had been besought to give help to the girl, who, however, on being refused, had rushed into the water and had disappeared. Having given this advice, she rowed out towards the horizon with the priest and never returned. Later the Emperor galloped up in hot pursuit, but on questioning the boatmen was shown the footprints in the sand. As he was examining these marks, he saw a lotus rise from the water and whirling round slowly ascend and disappear into the heavens. This then is the legend of the divinity that is looked upon as the special patron of the so-called Lotus School, the most popular sect of Chinese Buddhists.
“Near this Goddess of Mercy is the God of Riches, also a popular god whose natal day is kept on the fifth day of the fifth moon, when merchants and shop keepers spread a feast in his honor. Business was not resumed after the New Year until a sacrificial feast was given to this idol, which has completely superseded the former Yuan Tai, or God of Wealth. This latter used to ride a black tiger, hurling large pearls which burst like bombs. He was overcome by witchcraft. A straw model of him was made and its eyes and heart were pierced with needles, thus causing his death. Afterwards he became the God of Wealth.
“Nearby on the upper room of a long and narrow double-storied building are some more gods, including Wang San Nai Nai, the Goddess of Medicine for children. Children who pay her a visit come on the back of a donkey. There is also the Sha Ti Shen, or Foolish Brother God.”
My mother then returns to the China of her own times. “In 1861,” she wrote, “a Lazarist Father came to Tientsin and in the following year the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. The former worked on the north bank of the river. A cherished national site overlooked the river where the Canal joins it and on which stood a “hsing kun” or Imperial rest lodge used by the Emperor when visiting Tientsin. It was wrested from the Chinese by French troops without compensation and on it was built the French Consulate and a fine Cathedral of Gothic architecture in 1869. This contributed to the Tientsin Massacre of 1870.
“On the west bank of the river in the Yang Hou Chieh, near the present Austrian Bridge, were a Church, hospital, and orphanage in the care of the Sisters. In the summer of 1870 rumors were current that foreigners, especially missionaries, were kidnapping young children and gouging out their eyes and cutting out their hearts to make magic medicine. It happened that at this time an epidemic prevailed and there were many deaths in the hospital and schools. The statements were made that these young children were exhumed and that their eyes and hearts were found missing.
“The popular mind was lashed by fury by these stories and on the morning of June 21st, 1870, the Bell on the Drum Tower tolled out the signal and two bands moved simultaneously towards the Cathedral. The Consul receiving warning went to the Ch’eng Hou’s yamen (office of the Imperial official) for help which was denied on the ground that the Viceroy had given no instructions. On the way back the Consul was killed and this resulted in a wholesale massacre. Twenty-two foreigners met their death. The buildings were burned and some forty orphan children, who had hidden in the cellar beneath the church, were suffocated. Eleven of the Sisters of Charity met their death. In a small courtyard off the street, a round concrete pillar with her name carved on it marks the spot where each Sister suffered martyrdom. These pillars were thrown down and broken in 1900, but have lately been repaired.
“It has been said that one of the Sisters had been pickling small spring onions and that these round glistening objects, standing in glass jars of vinegar, so looked like eyeballs that on sight of them credence was given to the rumors already afloat.”
Rumors about foreigners preserving Chinese eyeballs in vinegar, and other crimes, contributed to the fury unleased by the Boxer Rebellion. The military loss in 1901 resulted in a terrible political humiliation for the Chinese. The country was forced to “concede” land to the victors in which these foreigners, occupying Chinese territory, were exempted from the rule of Chinese law, not unlike diplomatic immunity normally granted foreign embassies, only more encompassing. Parts of Tientsin – the “Concessions” – literally came under Nine Flags: France, Britain, Japan, Russia, Italy, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Belgium, and the U.S. Foreign military forces could now be stationed permanently in Tientsin. Only a small guard was kept at the U.S. Legation in Peking. But in Tientsin, the U.S. Army’s 15th Infantry Regiment arrived in 1912 and remained in garrison until 1938 throughout the ongoing political upheavals.
My mother was startled to see nine different foreign flags flying over a Bamboo Grove in her new home town. Tientsin came to refer to the city proper while the Bamboo Grove came to refer to the Concessions. My mother noted that the Grove got its name from a temple that had stood there “boasting of a few shoots of bamboo in its courtyard.”
Both my mother and John Hersey, the novelist and journalist, saw the Concessions the same way. Hersey was born in Tientsin in 1914, three years before my mother arrived there. Much later, in 1982, Hersey returned to Tientsin for a visit and wrote an article for the New Yorker on what he called the “blatantly imperialistic city I had grown up in.” It was a “weird” city, he wrote, to have grown up in. “For three or four Chinese coppers, I could ride in a rickshaw from my home, in England, to Italy, Germany, Japan, or Belgium. I walked to France for violin lessons. I had to cross the river to get to Russia, and often did, because the Russians had a beautiful wooded park with a lake in it. I hold my nostrils to this day against the strange odor of tadpoles captured in Russian waters and taken back to England.”
Hersey’s father Roscoe worked for the “Y” at the same time my mother did. He, too, was a Syracuse graduate, pledged to Psi Upsilon. In his son’s words, “Roscoe became president of what was then one of the most prestigious organizations on campus, the YMCA. He was recruited by the International Committee of the YMCA.” Roscoe Hersey wrote a manual for Tientsin’s Neighborhood Committees, concentrating on their social work. Street parades were held to educate the masses about basic health care. A campaign was launched to “Kill Flies. They cause cholera.” Roscoe Hersey was heavily involved in soccer, tennis, and basketball. He made note of the “symbolic warfare on the gym boards in which China won avenging battles against the great powers. For example, the Y team often trounced the five from the U.S. 15th Infantry.”
Touchingly, John Hersey wrote that his father had given all of himself, even his life, “in trying to understand and meet the needs of the real China. He had travelled by mule cart into famine country toward the end and contracted encephalitis that was to bring him down.”
Unfortunately, unlike Hersey, my mother never described her days in the Bamboo Grove of Tientsin. I could, however, fill in some of the blanks with the help of official documents. Like the other foreigners living in the Bamboo Grove, my mother would experience at least several of the different countries that had planted their flags there every day.
The YWCA office was on 29, via Vettor Pisani, in the Italian Concession. I looked it up and it turns out that the Vettor was a class of armored cruiser that served in the Far East during the days of the Boxer Rebellion, so even the name of the street was an insult to the Chinese. My mother lived on the rue Dillion in the French concession. She must also have known, and known well, both the Astor House Hotel and the Tientsin Club, which were in the British Concession. From his childhood, Hersey remembers the Tientsin Club “as the poshest place in town, very British, to which only a handful of rich Chinese were admitted.” I also found an article from 1937 by a man named G. H. Thomas noting that that the Germans had their own club, the Concordia, and my mother must have known that as well. Yuan Shih-k’ai, the Chinese military commander under the Qing Dynasty, had built himself an elegant mansion in what became the Austrian Concession. Contrary to what one would expect, the Russo-Chinese Bank was not in the Russian Concession but in the British, for “apparently all banks were in the British Concession.” I wonder if my mother ever paid attention to the fact that she could be walking along Victoria Street one moment, then the rue de France the next. Hersey later wrote that he could cross continents in minutes.
I visited Tientsin myself a few years before John Hersey made his pilgrimage there. I was spending half a year teaching English as a second language at the Second Foreign Language Institute in Beijing in 1980 when I took a day’s outing to my mother’s first home in China. The city I found was relatively nondescript, with few vestiges of international metropolis that my mother had known. The 1976 Tangshan earthquake, in which so many thousands were killed, had hit Tientsin hard. Most of the buildings from my mother’s day that survived the earthquake were badly damaged. Battered early 1900 buildings creaked and smiled with jagged-tooth faces. A guide took two companions and me through the streets of the former Concessions along the esplanade by the Hai River.
During our nostalgic roam around the city, we came upon an unmistakable Cathedral dome, surrounded by scaffolding, beckoning from the end of a long boulevard. Once there, we entered through the old compound gate. We asked if we could see the old church building and were ushered in, but not before being given straw helmets. We had a look-see amidst huge trucks and cement heaps. There were two secondary domes temporarily perched some eight feet off the ground, swaddled in straw mats. Pondering what my mother’s Tientsin days might have been like, I thought about the damaged Cathedral domes that I saw in 1980. They could well have been the predecessors to the ones my mother described being destroyed in the 1870 Tientsin massacre. It was during the 1870 massacre that the Sisters of Charity were accused of making “magic medicine” from the cut-up hearts and eyes of the local children. My mother softened the story for her nieces and nephew, saying only that, “at this time, an epidemic prevailed and there were many deaths in the hospital and schools.”
In her “Window in China,” my mother did not describe her daily life in Tientsin, but she did describe some of the city’s foremost monuments. “[T]here were many other places of interest in Tientsin,” she wrote, “but time does not allow a description of them.” However, she did note that “the Lung T’ing Miao, to the east of the North Gate, was a temple of Imperial ancestry. Li Hung Chang petitioned for its use for philanthropic purposes and it has been transformed into an Industrial School where girls and women learn embroidery and needlework of every variety, carpet weaving, and other handicrafts. The building can be distinguished by its roofs of yellow tiles. There is also a very flourishing Boys Industrial School in Hopei, where porcelain, cloth, carpets, furniture, and the like are made and sold. The school is well managed and very successful.
“Near is the Wa Wa-T’ang or Infant Asylum, which was founded about four hundred years ago. In 1898 there were over six hundred children in it of whom two hundred had died in the course of three weeks from dysentery and typhoid. Any orphans are admitted and the children of working parents can be boarded there. A woman with a baby can go there for two years; her own child is taken away from her and given in charge of another woman, whereas she has two other children entrusted to her. This is to insure impartiality of treatment. At the end of the period, she can either take her child with her or leave it at the home. Girls as they grow older are trained in domestic work and sewing, and later husbands are found for them. There are fewer boys than girls as it is a comparatively easy matter to get them adopted.”
“Next is the Hsi I So, or Industrial Prison, a place of great interest. It demonstrates the progress of China in western methods. This is partly prison and partly a work house where beggars and tramps are housed and fed while work is found for them. The number fluctuates, being smaller in summer when harvesting and the like calls many away. Many of the prisoners, who wear a uniform, are employed, under supervision, in rod mending and scavenger work. Classes are held for them where they are taught to read and write. Lectures are given to them on hygiene, Christianity, Confucianism, and so forth. Also they are taught many kinds of handicraft so that they can make their own living when they have served their term.
“The Marine School is also well worth a visit. It lies about a mile and a half beyond Central Station. It is modeled on a similar institution in Japan. The Principal, a former Nan Kai student, proudly asserted there is no such school in America or England.” Both of Hersey’s parents taught at Nan Kai Middle School after they arrived in Tientsin in 1905. It became the Nankai University in 1919 when my mother was in her second year in Tientsin.
“There are at present seventy students,” my mother continued, “all of whom live there. There are good chemical and physical laboratories, well-fitted with apparatus. The museum, which is housed in different rooms, exhibits a very fine collection of marine products. There are specimens of sea plants, of shells, of corals, models of fish, or fishing boats, from primitive junks to modern steamers, of nets and baits of every description. Iodine is here manufactured from seaweed, and silver fish and other verities from the Gulf of Chihli are canned, the manufacturing of tins, soldering, and labeling being carried on at the factory where also buttons are made of shells. The school is also the proud possessor of a skeleton of a whale caught in the Gulf of Chihli. Navigation is also theoretically taught.”
In 1920, my mother’s three years of training came to a close and she sat for her Chinese language exams. Thanks to the YWCA Archives, which are housed at Smith College, I know she passed her exams with flying colors. Her examiners noted that she had a good sense of humor; she was an excellent organizer; she had the American “can-do” spirit, no matter the circumstances; she respected the dignity and humanity of every individual, male or female, Western or Eastern; she understood the importance of community; her political instincts were acute.
That same year, she was asked by the General Secretary to write the annual report for the Tientsin YWCA, based on her monthly reports. In May, she had noted that “during the month of March the Association [the Y] work centered about the Joint Finance Campaign with the National Committee. Over $6,500 was received in the allotted 14 days but ‘it was a work to the finish campaign this year since the governors’ $1,000 we counted on has not even as yet been received. $1,500 of this goes to the National Committee in Shanghai. I was privileged to work on the team which brought in the most money – or $1,342 of the total. That was because our team’s color was green and the campaign started March 17th. We had to win.
“One of the greatest joys this quarter has been the Bible class work. I have four classes each week: two in Chinese. The one at Fu Yin T’ian church (where I am the only foreigner who attends) has brought me very close to the needy, poor, little foot-bound women. Mrs. Ching, whom I mentioned before, has now joined the church, and her two daughters 14 and 15 years old are now in our YWCA Social Service School. But this summer, she says that they must be married because the heart-broken woman can no longer feed and clothe them. I am starting this week to concentrate on this case. Something must be done. Clothes are already started and a fund started. Another class started this quarter is my English Conversational class to which any girls (1st to 5th year students) may come and chat with a different English or American lady each week. To speak one English word means a fee of one copper.”
My mother sounded especially proud of the Y’s Social Service Committee. The Committee Chairwoman was Chinese, but I strongly suspect that she was the Association secretary. If so, she was the woman “who helped plan all the questionnaires and direct the work which entails Chinese and foreign women visiting and reporting about charities, recreational places, church work, and conditions in industries, health facilities, and education.”
According to her report, “Association Social Service has been carried on along new lines this term. Seeing the needs presented by the cases of the Ching girls who have never learned in any measure to support themselves, we have started an industrial or hand work class. Thirty poor girls are now being taught to embroider a simple pattern on Chinese linen, soon, I hope, to be available for luncheon sets.
“During May a Better Babies’ Welfare Campaign was carried on. The Exhibition Box for the week had arrived from Shanghai and twenty babies were examined. The Tientsin doctors and nurses found one three-year old girl was 99.8% perfect. Two babies were 99.4%, and one was 99.4%. Lectures were given different afternoons so that the mothers might learn just how to help strengthen their babies where defective lines were seen.
“My co-operation as club advisor of the Tientsin Women’s Social Service Club has meant keeping the Social Service Survey of the city ever progressing and helping the women to stick to the hard but worthwhile task. I visited the Beggar’s Home with a charming Chinese bride and later visited a Cotton Spinning Mill with the daughter of Ex-President Li. Our Club has grown far beyond our fondest hopes. The Club President, Mrs. Pian, and the wife of the Commissioner of Foreign Affairs and many other outstanding women are doing their first piece of community service together with British and American women. There are unlimited possibilities ahead. The Annual Meeting was held in Miss Grace Li’s family’s beautiful rose garden.”
Although my mother did not consider conversion to Christianity to be her primary mission, she was happy to convert the Chinese she met. Mrs. Chang, the woman with the two daughters, became a Christian convert. But my mother also realized that Chinese women needed to recognize their self-worth and that they could only realize themselves within the context of their filial and social environments. It was obvious to her that Americans could not be the primary mentors for a new generation of Chinese women; this would have to be done by Chinese women working on behalf of their sisters.
My mother put these beliefs into practice by accompanying Ms. Li to the Cotton Spinning Mill. She must also have suggested that Ms. Li host the Social Service Club’s Annual Meeting in the Li family rose garden.
General Li was the second President of the Chinese Republic. The General’s career illustrated the chaos that had befallen China in the wake of the October 11, 1911, Revolution. He was among the few men who held political and military positions during both the Qing Dynasty and the Republican era that followed it. In fact, when the Revolution broke out, the mutineers needed a widely known and respected man to be their figurehead. It was reported that he was dragged from hiding under his wife’s bed and forced at gunpoint to be the provisionary Military Governor of Hubei. But the new Premier of the Republic, Yuan Shih-k’ai, made sure to diminish General Li’s clout. When Yuan Shih-k’ai died in June 1916, political disorder only increased. Two more times, General Li was asked to be President, a role he assumed one more time, and only briefly. Other military generals who became leaders of provinces across China transformed themselves into warlords. By contrast, General Li retired to a lovely rose garden.
“In North China this summer,” my mother continued in her report, “folks couldn’t all advance or all retreat. Even the Chinese generals keep busy. So busy in fact that they busted railroads and bridges, limiting travel. While some were waiting to be able to take their vacations, we had war relief committee meetings and some bandage rolling and other war relief refugee work to be done.”
When travel became possible, my mother managed to reach the mountain retreat of Kuling for a vacation: “I am so grateful for the restfulness of it all. Fellowship with other missionaries, reading, writing, hiking, swimming, climbing the mountains, the glorious sunsets and moonlight o’er hill and dale, the misty clouds – everything was purely delightful. From the mountain top, we returned to the cities on the plain. There is much to be done.”
She found Tientsin “believing in trying new things! Sometimes New Things are Lantern festivals when 200 flock to the courtyard for Lantern slides slid up on the side of a neighbor’s house. Heaps of fun these slides are, too, as well as the music and ice cream and eats included. We also started a Playground in this same courtyard. Our Chinese secretaries show their untiring faithfulness in planning these new activities. And this fall before the raising of money and making winter garments, we helped in the Famine Relief Parade. We furnished three cartloads of women refugees with their babies, each cart labelled with inscriptions showing what they represented and explaining that if all the refugees were thus distributed in carts and placed single file, they would make a line reaching from Tientsin to London and a thousand miles beyond. In front and back of these carts were YWCA autos with distinguishing blue triangles.
“The following week, there was a big drive for funds. The Social Service Club secretary [this must have been my mother] was called upon to organize the eight teams of women workers – Chinese ladies, French, Italian, American, and British ladies. In one week we collected $22,000 for famine relief. Hard work but we were more than paid for the labor. Next week was the Club’s Jumble Sale of curios, toys, store goods, books, bags, sweet meat, and what not. On another day, an Old Clothes Sale netted $470 more. This last sum is to be given for a workshop where famine women are making winter garments to be given to some of the 36,000 poor encamped at the city’s south gate. These women work for ten coppers per half day.”
My mother’s concluding comment in these official reports provides a wonderful insight into her years in Tientsin and into her character as a missionary and as a person: “Surely in one and every department the keynote has been ‘sharing’ this year! Many have shared until it hurts. Never since I have been in China have there been more needs; never has there been more joy in the sharing.”