To Change China: Western Advisers in China

In this fast-paced volume, China history expert Jonathan Spence studies the lives of sixteen Western advisors of various sorts who went to China to make a difference in that great nation.Four missionaries receive careful treatment: The Jesuits Schall and Verbiest in the 1600s, and Protestants Peter Parker and W.A. P. Martin. John Fryer, who taught at a missionary school, belongs on the fringes of missionary history, but his early career as an English teacher makes him of interest to others like him in our day.Other members of this colorful cast are two mercenaries (Ward and Gordon); an educator (Edward Hume of Yale for China); a Russian revolutionary (Mikhail Borodin); a civil engineer ( Todd); a physician ( Bethune); and three American generals (Chennault, Stilwell, Wedemeyer).To Change China holds at least three kinds of value: History - The biographies include ample information about the times of each person, making the book a very readable primer of Chinese history from the 17th through the mid-20th centuries. Biography - Spence describes both actions and attitudes. Instruction - It contains both explicit and implicit principles for effective service among Chinese.Along the way, we find subtle and nuanced discussions of the best methods of evangelism (though Spence cannot understand the Evangelical point of view) and of the complex relationship between Western culture and the long-term welfare of China.This review will concentrate upon the relevance of these brief personal sketches for foreigners working among Chinese. The careers of these men demonstrate that success or failure depended upon several key qualities, including:


Like Ricci before him, the Jesuits Adam Schall and Ferdinand Verbiest excelled in their mastery of Chinese language and literary culture. They could speak, read, and write on a par with the learned Mandarins whose conversion they sought. Verbiest became the official interpreter for the Chinese government in dealing with foreigners, and eventually became tutor to the Emperor, having learned the Manchu language for this purpose.Likewise, Peter Parker, W.A. P. Martin, and John Fryer attained fluency in spoken and written Chinese. Martin learned the Chinese Classics and could compose hymns in Chinese even before he began composing works in that language. Horatio N. Lay studied Chinese under “Dr Gutzlaff, a celebrated language teacher and missionary,” and “made such rapid progress with the Chinese written and spoken language” that he was appointed as an interpreter over others senior to him. Both he and Hart insisted that their staff in the Customs Service “acquire fluency in Chinese.”And so it goes. The men who could win the trust and respect of the Chinese first spent years of hard study of that difficult language.But their competence extended further. The Jesuits excelled in astronomy and mathematics; Parker possessed extraordinary skills as a surgeon; Martin had a wide knowledge of several branches of learning; Ward and Gordon shone on the battlefield; Todd was a brilliant engineer; Hume commanded respect as a medical school administrator; Borodin knew how to make a revolution; Stilwell’s generalship earned the admiration of his troops.John Fryer concluded, “If I could have my way, not a single missionary should say one word in public till he had lived with the people and studied the local dialect…at least five years, and passed an examination. Just imagine the ridicule which such people bring on Christianity.”


Competence is not enough, however. Interviewers for top corporations say that they assume that most applicants can do the job. The successful candidate must also possess what some call “style.” Spence’s book illustrates how much of a difference courtesy makes. “Though Schall was a forthright man, he was horrified by the brash tactics of two Franciscan friars who appeared in Peking in 1637.” Verbiest, even more tactful than Schall, attained the Emperor’s favor.Parker’s delicate handling of Chinese forms of courtesy won him the respect and affection of Commissioner Lin, but he later made enemies by his intransigence. Gordon refused a costly gift from the Emperor, committing “an incredible affront to the Chinese,” and thus prompting an attempt to have him removed.Spence, who seems almost to be imitating Plutarch’s Parallel Lives of the Greeks and Romans, paints other such contrasting portraits. Lay was an irritant to the Chinese, but Hart, who followed him, brought a welcome contrast: “He established a firm basis with his new [Chinese] employers by emphasizing – as did the Chinese themselves – cordial interpersonal relationships.”Stilwell squandered his diplomatic capital by privately, then openly, criticizing Generalissimo Chiang, while Wedemeyer “was cautious and conciliatory, punctilious to Chiang Kai-shek and courteous to Channault” (whom Stilwell had frankly despised).


Listen to Spence’s comments about some of these men:

Schall: “Never tolerant of human frailty.”Lay: “Hot-tempered, energetic and often arrogant with his Chinese opposites…Self-assured, most ambitious, and extremely capable… Immature, unable to accept criticism or delegate authority, and vindictive to those whom he considered a threat to his position.” ConsistencyFryer: “With no goad except personal ambition, life in China could fall into a wearisome pattern of drudgery and disappointment. Such as the case for John Fryer, who sought wealth and honor in China.”Borodin (the atheist revolutionary) was described by colleagues as “A wholesome kindly individual…; a very pleasing personality… [who gives the ] impression of sincerity and deep earnestness.” Spence adds, “Behind this courteous front Borodin was, of course, a tough and capable man, working carefully to consolidate his position.”Hume, the leader of Yale-in China, “was a sensitive man, genuinely fond of the Chinese, and eager to learn everything he could of Chinese medical techniques, which he frequently acknowledge were more effective than his own.”


Hume, said that “what were needed in Chinese were ‘foreigners who love the Chinese.’” Commitment to the Chinese as people, to China as a nation, enabled most of these men to contribute significantly to the well-being of her people. Commitment kept them going despite constant, often heartbreaking, setbacks.Commitment to “progress” fueled the fires of zeal for the Chinese to learn all that the West had to offer, especially science. Martin, like many others, believed that “Westernization must precede, and would inevitably lead to, Christian conversion.” Borodin came to China committed to worldwide revolution as the only solution to the plight of the masses. Stilwell and Wedemeyer were committed to victory in the war against Japan, and to the welfare of the Chinese soldiers whose fighting skills they increasingly respected.But what about commitment to Christ and his kingdom? Here Spence traces a recurring theme among the missionaries. Each one discovered that competence in “worldly” knowledge and skill led to greater and greater concentration on “secular” activities. In the end, they were all frustrated that there was so little time for direct Christian work.Another, and sometimes deeper, frustration, gripped almost each one whose careers this book relates: “It took Fryer twenty-eight years to find out that the Chinese were using him, not he them.” They went to China to “make a difference,” and expected to be appreciated, admired, and imitated. When the Chinese failed to do as they suggested, or even turned on them in bitterness, the sadness was profound.Spence concludes that their story “is more a cautionary tale than an inspirational tract,” and not only because “negative personal attributes offset the positive ones – such as arrogance, impatience, intolerance, tactlessness, or stupidity.”Inevitably, we must ask about motives: “One… was to help bring either spiritual or material improvement to China… Help meant making China more like the West… But [there was] a more complex motive, a desire not so much to help China as to help themselves… [They sought] a chance to influence history… and thus to prove their own significance.”Though I cannot recommend this book highly enough, it should be balanced by biographies of “satisfied servants” such as Hudson Taylor, Jonathan Goforth, Pauline Hamilton, and David Adeney, who show us how foreign efforts “to change China” can and should be done!

ReviewsJason Truell