One of my favorite books on China portrays Chinese history in the past 120 years through the experiences of a remarkable family. The book, China Mission: A Personal History from the Last Imperial Dynasty to the People’s Republic (Louisiana State Univ. Press, 2013) begins and primarily focuses on the life and work of Reverend Halvor Ronning, a Norwegian immigrant to the United States who was inspired to become a missionary in the interior of China. In 1891, the tall minister, his sister Thea, and fellow missionary Hannah Rorem boldly enter a land of sorrow and tragedy coupled with charm and wonder, where their work of service, faith, and love is sorely needed. They found a Lutheran mission and school in Hubei province and put their lives at risk in many ways to serve God and bless China.
The story of their lives and the lives of their descendants reveals much about China and the role it now plays in the world. Many will benefit from the account of the Ronning clan, though toward the end of the book when the rise of Mao is described, some may be offended by the author’s biases which result in a not-very nuanced account with Communists being described as rather saintly while the Nationalists are nothing but villains. But regardless of where you stand on such matters, the personal experiences of the Ronnings around the turn of the century present an amazingly gritty and touching portrayal of a life of faith in China during some of its most pivotal moments.
The book has much to say on matters of faith and the cause of Christianity in China. I will have more to say about that later. For now, I wish to focus on the remarkable example of Halvor Ronning in his life of faith, seeking to love the people of China even when they made life difficult for him. An account that especially touched and surprised me happened as he and his family had to flee China during the Boxer rebellion that began in 1898.
The Boxers were a secret society, or a coalition of many secret societies that had spread across China. A key theme of the Boxers was blaming the ills of China on foreigners. They were certainly right in some ways. The great evil of opium and the many concessions forced upon China by the British and other nations were outrages. Unfortunately, the Boxers were not interested in distinguishing between helpful and vile foreign elements. Their approach ultimately became rather one-dimensional: “Kill the foreign devils.” The source of so much of China’s troubles, the Empress Dowager, a concubine of the former emperor who through murder, conspiracy, and brutality had seized power of China, exploited the Boxers to maintain power and echoed the Boxers’ call with an official government decree: “Kill the foreign devils.” It was an extermination order, China style.
Many foreigners would be killed. The Lutheran missionary and his family had to flee their home and mission in Fancheng, China. Friends apparently bribed members of a related secret society, the Red Spears, who brought a boat to bring the family down the river on the way to Hankou, from whence they would reach Shanghai and then return to Norway and then the U.S., before coming back to China when it seemed safe again.
As the family was getting into the boat during the night, a group of Boxers came running to attack. Halvor had the women and children go below deck to hide while he and two other missionary men tried to ward off the Boxers. About ten of them swarmed onto the tiny boat. Halvor wielded an oar and used all his might to defend his family. His wife, Hannah, grabbed a stool and came up swinging to defend her family also. But there was little hope of surviving this mob. Halvor was then hit in the chest with a stone thrown from the shore and was knocked on his back. Then a Boxer jumped on him, but Halvor intercepted the Boxer with his feet, suspending the Boxer in the air, and then with a swift kick threw the Boxer off him, tossing him overboard into the river.
Very few Chinese people could swim then or now. The man in the water let out a scream of terror as he began drowning and then went underwater. The fighting stopped as everyone looked at the hopeless scene.
At this moment, I thought, “Ah, there’s the key! Knock them all into the water!” God bless him, that wonderful saint, Halvor Ronning, had a different idea that shows me who he really was. He was not a Viking seeking to fight his enemies, but a man of God who loved even those who wanted to ill him. Instead of pushing more Chinese men into the river as the turned to watch, he dived into the him and went below, seeking for the dying man who moments earlier had tried to kill him. Eventually he came up, dragging the unconscious Boxer with him.
He brought the man to shore, and his fellow missionary, Dr. Thorstein Himle, jumped to shore to help resuscitate the man. There was no response. The Boxers all gathered around. As resuscitation efforts were applied, the Boxers cried out that the foreigners were trying to kill the man. But they waited and watched. They began talking about the best ways to kill these foreigners. Should they roast them? Flay them? Halvor knew that if the man died, they would all be killed. Appealing to God for help, they continued doing all they could. Suddenly the man revived. For Halvor and the missionaries, it was a miracle from God, and they gave thanks. The Boxers claimed it was proof of their invulnerability, not recognizing the source of the miracle they had witnessed.
But with the distraction created by the revival, the missionaries were able to jump back on board and cast off, their lives spared.
What a remarkable man. Having just finished this book, I feel that Halvor and Hannah Ronning are family members. How I admire them and look forward to meeting them someday. God bless them for their service to China. They understood that every soul matters, that every human being is a son and daughter of God, not a statistic.