Supporting Article

“Kiwis” in the Middle Kingdom

New Zealanders Serving God’s Mission in China from 1877 to 1953 and Beyond


When researchers think about missionaries, they think of Brits and Americans, the workers from the two biggest sending countries. However, there have been various “subaltern members” of the international missionary community, including Kiwis. “Kiwi” is the Māori name of a native bird and is also the colloquial name for New Zealanders. The word “kiwi” perhaps also signals smallness and naivety. “Middle Kingdom” is one of the common names for China. Without doubt, this self-appointed name contains a sense of Sinocentrism. The icon of “kiwi” and the notion of “Middle Kingdom” form an interesting contrast. It is equivalent in saying “small birds in a big forest.” This is the picture of New Zealand missionaries in China.

The First and Last Kiwi Missionaries to China (1877–1953)

It is traditionally believed that the first New Zealander who sailed for China in 1891 was Annie Harrison (杭秀珍), a CIM (China Inland Mission) missionary. Since a category of separate New Zealand citizenship was only created in 1947, almost every missionary sent by New Zealand churches was holding a British passport.

One interesting discovery of my research was to find out that one British missionary spent 15 years in New Zealand before being accepted to serve in China. He was Samuel Dyer Jr. (台慕尔), the surviving son of Rev. Samuel and Mrs. Maria Dyer, the London Missionary Society couple serving among the Chinese in Malaysia prior to the opening of China. Samuel Jr.’s sister, Maria Dyer, married the founder of the CIM, Hudson Taylor, and kept asking Samuel to come to China to be Taylor’s secretary. Maria died in 1870 but Hudson Taylor kept contact with his brother-in-law. In 1877, Samuel Dyer Jr. was accepted by the British and Foreign Bible Society to work in China as an “agent.” He worked closely with the CIM during his 21 years of service in China.

The last New Zealand missionary of this era left China in 1953 (Mary Milner/毛愛華 of the CIM) but did this spell the end of New Zealand’s China mission? One missionary that I interviewed suggested that the date should include the years her mission was relocated in Hong Kong. China has been alive in the minds and thoughts of her ex-missionaries and their children. Many revisited China particularly following China’s “opening” in the late seventies and early eighties. Despite the fact China had closed its doors to foreign missionaries, many New Zealand Christians continued to pray for China and the church in China. While missionaries were no longer welcome, Kiwi Christians have, since the 1980s, made significant contributions in education, medicine, agriculture, social services, relief and development work, as well as in business.

The Numbers and Stages of Kiwi Missionaries to China

Missionaries were one of the earliest links in Sino-NZ relations. While Chinese arrived in New Zealand as goldminers much earlier than New Zealanders arrived in China as missionaries, the latter played a more significant role and left a lot more records. A distinctive feature of mission in this historical period was that New Zealand was simultaneously sending and receiving missionaries while Britain and the US were largely considered as sending countries only. Today it has become widely acceptable to regard mission as being “from everywhere to everywhere” but this was not the case at the beginning of the twentieth century. Although New Zealanders did not develop or articulate the concept, they practiced it.

By the 1930s, New Zealand had built its reputation as a high per capita sending country. Based on the statistics provided by Hugh Morrison’s thesis,1 among the 45 countries, China was the second most important “field” for New Zealanders after India, absorbing almost twenty percent of the missionary force from the 1890s to 1930s.

Table 1 shows the top five mission societies sending New Zealanders to China. Over the years, New Zealand sent at least 255 missionaries to China. The CIM was the biggest and earliest recruiter of all, followed by the Presbyterian Church.

Table 1: Number and percentage of China missionaries from NZ of the top five mission organizations2

 Year of the first China missionaryTotal number of China missionaries% of the total China missionaries
CIM189110139%
Presbyterian19016425%
Anglican missions19063413%
Brethren1904146%
FAU (Quakerism)1945124%
Other—-3012%
Total 2553 

Note: FAU stands for Friends Ambulance Unit. This Quaker background organization practiced humanitarian ambulance and relief work in China without preaching a Bible-based pacifist ideology.

The second table shows the number of missionaries who left for China during different periods. The decade 1900–1909 saw the largest increase. More New Zealanders left for China during the 1930s than during any other periods.

Table 2: Number and percentage of missionaries departing for China at different periods.4

PeriodNumber of China missionariesRatio of increase% of China missionaries of the period to the total number of NZ missionaries
1850–188910.4%
1890–1899197.5%
1900–19093479%13.4%
1910–19194224%16.5%
1920–19294814%18.9%
1930–1939516%20%
1940–194948-8%18.5%
Sailing time unknown124.7%
Total/Average25512.5%

The next table shows some interesting gender patterns. When we think of missionaries, we often think of men. However, women made up the majority of the missionary force. Usually only about one-third of missionaries were men, including both married and single. Another one-third were missionary wives, and the final one-third were single women. This seems to be the “golden ratio” of missionary communities, regardless of where they were sent or in which field they were serving. However, it needs to be borne in mind that many of these women were classified as missionaries only retrospectively. It is quite intriguing to think that New Zealand sent more women than men to a country that was considered heathen, mysterious, and dangerous.

Table 3: Number and Percentage of China Missionaries from NZ of the Top Five Mission Organizations by Gender.5

 MaleFemale
CIM  41(40%)  60(60%)
Presbyterian  23 (34%)  41(64%)
Anglican    3   (9%)  31(91%)
Brethren    6 (43%)    8(57%)
FAU  10(83%)    2(17%)
Total  87(34%)168(65%)

Groundbreaking Kiwi Ingenuity in Mission

Despite being from a small, isolated society in Oceania, New Zealanders broke a lot of new ground. Perhaps being small and being new were part of the reason why Kiwi mission leaders tended to be flexible in decision-making. For example, the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand (hereafter PCNZ) was the first independent mission to China from the “down-under” world, beating Australians in this regard by over forty years.

Moreover, the mechanism by which PCNZ’s China Mission was established was also unique. Most China-related North American missions started off as foreign mission to China, followed by home mission to Chinese immigrants, initiated by missionaries returned home on furlough or retirement. However, PCNZ’s China Mission reversed this common pattern: a missioner working among Chinese goldminers in the Otago region, Alexander Don, discovered that four out of every five Chinese in New Zealand came from a few villages near Canton. According to the American Presbyterians working in the area, these villages were notoriously anti-foreign. Nonetheless, Don helped with setting up the Canton Village Mission in 1900 and introduced its first missionary, George McNeur (麥沾恩), to the Chinese in Otago. Based on the trust that Don had built among Chinese goldminers, McNeur was entrusted with a collection of photos, home letters, and gold nuggets, which opened many doors to the village families during his first term in China. It was said that his way to the Canton villages was “paved with gold.”

The PCNZ Mission also sent an ethnically Chinese woman as a missionary doctor to China with all the formalities that were given to Pākehā6 missionaries. Adopted by a CIM single lady missionary, this Chinese woman had been known as Kathleen Pih(畢振華). This was a very unusual practice at the time. Another interesting example would be Kathleen Hall (何明清).7 Because of her association with the Canadian communist doctor Norman Bethune, she was perhaps the only missionary that revisited China in the 1960s, had her biography published in Beijing in the early 1990s, a marble statue built, a school named, and a scholarship established in her honor.8

As a generalization, Britain sent more doctors and America sent more educationalists to China through the missionary channel. A fair number of British and American missionaries returned home as sinologists. None of the Kiwi returnees became university professors. Two missionaries (James Huston Edgar, 叶长清or叶长青, and Reginald Sturt,司德) were Fellows of the Royal Geographical Society, but both died in China, and thus did not bring their wealth of knowledge back home. By and large, New Zealanders were more of the jack-of-all-trades type. The “number-eight-wire” mentality (a no-fuss, resourceful attitude towards getting things done) was a strong feature of Kiwi missionaries—a very useful skill set in any mission field. By the 1930s and 1940s, a distinctive Kiwi reputation did emerge. For example, when the Kiwi recruits arrived at the Quaker’s hostel in China, they were greeted with this kind of comment: “The New Zealanders are here—and do not they look tough!”9

New Zealanders were latecomers to the missionary community in the China field, when diplomatic terms, extraterritorial rights, and jurisdiction precedence had been negotiated on their behalf without their consent. Ironic as it may sound, it was also true that coming from a small colonial society, New Zealanders were more likely to identify with the Chinese people at the grass-roots level.

At one point, the Chinese communists regarded New Zealand as an oppressed society. When the Kiwi missionary, Arnolis Hayman (成邦慶), was released by the Red Army, a journalist speculated that he was released because the army leaders considered him “a victim of imperialism” rather than an active imperialist himself because he came from the colony of New Zealand.10

At times, New Zealanders could be subject to the ridicule of their British and American colleagues. For example, when Amy Carter(高雅琴)wanted to tell her fellow missionaries about her homeland, she could not even find New Zealand on the world map supplied by the mission home. By that time, the CIM had been recruiting Kiwis for over 40 years.11

J. O. Sanders(孫德生)was another interesting example. When he was appointed the General Director of OMF12 in 1954, there were two marks against him: one, he had not had any field experience; two, he was a “colonial.” His biographer points out that both “weaknesses” turned out to be his strengths: coming from a small country, he posed no threat; and lacking China experience enabled him to look forward rather than look backward in his leadership.13 This is exactly what CIM needed in a post-China era.

When we think of missionaries, we think of people who go overseas to bring change and transformation. However, it is little realized how much missionaries themselves are changed and transformed in the process. To an even lesser degree, perhaps, do we realize just how much the home scene in New Zealand has been changed through missionary movement to the Far East. Sino-NZ connections through church organizations were formed earlier than any diplomatic representation was established between the two countries. The PCNZ is an interesting example. From the early 1900s, it introduced a missionary supporting scheme called “own missionary,” in which a local church could adopt one or more overseas missionaries. Over the years, at least 22 China missionaries were adopted or owned by a local Presbyterian organization—thus strengthening the links between New Zealand and China.

Tangible links could also be found between mission assets in China and particular Christian organizations in the Dominion. In the mid-1930s, a fund-raising campaign was initiated by the missionary midwife Annie James (謝美安)14 for the purchase of a motor vehicle. “Busy Bees” was a mission-minded children’s group that had many sub-groups called “hives.” Table 4 shows how each part of the car was itemized by different hives. Children who belonged to these “hives” would remember providing “honey” (a small sum of money) to this overseas project in China.

Table 4: Itemized Contribution Made by Different PCNZ’s Busy Bee Groups towards A. James’s Car.15

HivesParts of the carAmount
KelburnHorn£3
NapierSeat£3
Lower HuttScreen£1
St. Paul’s WanganuiWiper on screen5/-
RoseneathLight10/-
Knox, DunedinWheel£1
OtakiRepair kit£3
DunedinHood£2/18/6
Māori HillPetrol£1
NightcapsMirror10/-
OhaiElectric wiring5/-
OtautauAccelerator£1

The Reverse Effects of Kiwi Missionaries’ China Experiences

Back in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, the primary channel through which New Zealanders could access information on Asian affairs was through Christian missionary literature. Our forebears were fed with missionary reports as their only source of up-to-date information about the Far East. Missionary deputation was also very influential, especially in small towns. For example, Rev. George McNeur’s furlough in 1907–1908 touched an accumulated audience of 15,000 people in 122 meetings.16

When all the missionaries had to withdraw from China, the PCNZ made a statement regarding its China mission, in which it said that China has been “deeply engraved on the hearts of our people.”17 What other New Zealand organization could have possibly made such a statement in 1950 in relation to things Chinese? Over the years, the missionary presentation of the Far East was instrumental in forming popular understanding of China and Asia.

Having looked at the past, let us look at its connection with the present.

Connecting the Past with the Present

Back in 2001, I entitled my MA thesis as “From Chinese Gooseberry to Kiwi Fruit— Construction and Reconstruction of Chinesehood in Aotearoa/New Zealand.” When I gave this title to my thesis, I did not know that the story of kiwifruit is connected with a missionary. After Kate Fraser’s sister visited her in her mission station, she brought back with her some seeds of the Chinese gooseberry and gave it to a neighbor. Most commercial kiwifruit that we have in the market today can be traced back to those original seeds.18 Kiwifruit is just one of the by-products of the missionary movements from New Zealand to China. Kate Fraser’s colleague, Mary Emelia Moore (穆秉謙),19 another single woman who worked in China for over half a century, brought back a hundred artefacts which became the foundation of the Chinese collection at the Otago Museum.

Few of us realize how much the returnee missionaries from Asian fields have contributed to the young nation’s medical practice and public health. The most prominent example would be Harold Bertram Turbott,20 the “radio doctor.” The reviewer of New Zealand’s health system commented that it was hard to attract good staff other than those possessing “missionary fanaticism.” He could be thinking of Turbott. Turbott’s biographer points out that “the seeds of his interest in tropical medicine had been sown during his years in China, when he gained experience in the treatment of malaria, hookworm, and leprosy.” Likewise, veteran nurses who had worked in the capacity of superintendent under the extreme conditions in China became competent matrons back home.

Missionary influence does not cease when missionaries die. It often carries on to the next generation or other spiritual descendants. In at least two cases, the “China factor” ran through four generations. A more familiar example would be Dr. Andrew Butcher, former director of Asia New Zealand Foundation. His grandparents were missionaries in China, and he grew up in an atmosphere where family gatherings were centered upon Chinese banquets.21

The mission-inspired China story never ends and continues today, seven decades after the last missionaries physically left China in 1953. Many average New Zealanders have been inspired, directly or indirectly, by the life stories of China missionaries. It is an incredible part of Sino-NZ relations that should never be overlooked.

This paper is based on the author’s thesis “‘Kiwis’ in the Middle Kingdom: A Sociological Interpretation of the History of New Zealand Missionaries in China from 1877 to 1953 and Beyond,” Massey University (2013). The full thesis can be accessed online: https://mro.massey.ac.nz/handle/10179/4869.

Endnotes

  1. Hugh Morrison, “It is Our Bounden Duty: The Emergence of the New Zealand Protestant Missionary Movement, 1868–1926.” PhD thesis, Massey University, 2004.
  2. Sylvia Yuan, “‘Kiwis’ in the Middle Kingdom: A Sociological Interpretation of the History of New Zealand Missionaries in China from 1877 to 1953 and Beyond” (PhD Thesis, Massey University, 2013), Table 2, p. 21.
  3. One person (i.e., Lindsay Crozier) joined FAU and CVM subsequently. Therefore, the total figure is one less than the sum of the subtotals.
  4. Extracted from Sylvia Yuan, “‘Kiwis’ in the Middle Kingdom,” Table 13, p. 125.
  5. Yuan, “‘Kiwis’ in the Middle Kingdom,” Table 10, p.70.
  6. Pākehā is a Māori word that generally refers to white people of European lineages.
  7. Hall’s life story can be found in the online Dictionary of NZ Biography: https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5h3/hall-kathleen-anne-baird, accessed March 17, 2022.
  8. Yuan, “‘Kiwis’ in the Middle Kingdom,” 323.
  9. Caitriona Cameron, Go Anywhere, Do Anything: New Zealanders in the Friends Ambulance Unit in China, 1945–1951 (Wellington: The Beechtree Press, 1996), 43.
  10. Cited in Yuan, “‘Kiwis’ in the Middle Kingdom,” 145.
  11. Linnet Hinton, Never Say Can’t—The “Tibet” Vision Comes True (Singapore: OMF, 1987), 40-41.
  12. The CIM renamed itself OMF after it left the China field.
  13. Ron Roberts and Gwen Roberts, To Fight Better: A Biography of J. Oswald Sanders, (Highland: OMF, 1989), 112, 122.
  14. James’ life story can be found in the Encyclopaedia of New Zealandhttps://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3j4/james-annie-isabella, accessed March 17, 2022.
  15. “Busy Bee Notes,” compiled in Yuan, “‘Kiwis’ in the Middle Kingdom,” 296.
  16. Cited in Yuan, “‘Kiwis’ in the Middle Kingdom,” 228–229.
  17. Yuan, “‘Kiwis’ in the Middle Kingdom,” 293.
  18. The Fraser sisters’ life story can be found in the Encyclopaedia of New Zealandhttps://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2f23/fraser-mary-isabel, accessed April 10, 2022.
  19. Moore’s life story can be found in the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand: https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3m59/moore-mary-emelia, accessed March 17, 2022.
  20. Dr. Turbott’s life story can be found in the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand: https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5t21/turbott-harold-bertram, accessed March 17, 2022.
  21. Andrew Butcher, “In Pleasant Places: A Story of a New Zealand Missionary Family in China in the 1940s,” New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies 16, no. 2 (2014): 195–218, accessed April 10, 2022,https://www.nzasia.org.nz/uploads/1/3/2/1/132180707/jas_dec2014_butcher.pdf.

Sylvia Yuan

Sylvia Yuan, PhD, is a researcher and mobilizer for OMF International as well as a liaison among the Chinese churches for the Bible Society of New Zealand. As the author of four books and mother of three, Sylvia encourages people to think cross-culturally through her writings and talks, both in …View Full Bio