Frederick - The Life of My Missionary Grandfather in Manchuria

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 June, 2012, 12:00am

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Frederick - The Life of My Missionary Grandfather in Manchuria
by Mark O'Neill
Joint Publishing (HK)

Like the Opium wars and the Macartney mission to Qianlong's court, Westerners have mostly forgotten the massive missionary enterprises they sponsored in China for roughly a century before 1949's communist revolution.

This is unfortunate, because the Chinese have most certainly not forgotten. Missionaries might have felt their intentions were pure; Chinese were acutely aware that without their countrymen's drugs and navy, these barbarians would never have been permitted such a free hand on Chinese soil. The experience has tainted the perception of Westerners and Western religion to this day.

This gap in perception is what makes Mark O'Neill's engaging missionary micro-history a worthwhile read. In telling the story of his grandfather Frederick - a Presbyterian missionary to Manchuria whose career spanned the first half of the 20th century - O'Neill provides a snapshot of a pivotal period in Chinese history.

Consider Manchuria, homeland of the ethnically Manchu Qing dynasty ruling China when Frederick arrives in 1897, but also contested terrain between aspiring imperialists Russia and Japan, and initially lightly settled by Han Chinese. Manchuria's complexities are sensitively explicated in O'Neill's easily readable prose. The savage murders of the Boxer Rebellion, collapse of the Qing dynasty and rise of warlords, Russian control of the railroads and Japanese encroachment all touched upon the small town of Faku where Frederick spent four decades of his life.

Or consider Belfast: the institutions and attitudes that launched the missionary enterprise from an unlikely corner of Britain will sound familiar to some readers today. The desire to 'change' China, or 'win' Chinese souls - or market share - persists today.

Familiar, too, will be the endless compromises needed to accommodate two systems of belief and practice whose principles do not easily correspond. Consider ancestor worship: is it necessarily idolatrous to honour one's ancestors by lighting incense? If the Chinese way of honouring one's mother and father is producing a male heir no matter how many wives it takes, can the church credibly forbid concubines? (In the former case, no; in the latter, yes.)

Likewise, the view from Manchuria gives perspective on intense struggles back home: while Catholics and Protestants fought in Belfast, they had to collaborate in Manchuria. For many Chinese, there was no difference between Western medicine and religion, as the same institution propagated both.

Another important narrative details the slow transfer of control from foreign missionaries to local believers, and the counter-intuitive effects of the communist expulsion of missionaries in 1949: it strengthened the church. O'Neill recounts visiting China in the 1980s and finding a church that, due to its exclusively local composition, was less susceptible to charges of foreign influence.

Although the authorities still keep religion on a tight leash, the economic boom has left a spiritual void that is pushing more Chinese towards official and unofficial churches alike. O'Neill's book provides a valuable exposition of this phenomenon's complex roots.