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To Change China: Western Advisers in China 1620-1960 by Jonathan Spence. Little Brown, Boston, 1969. Reissued with a new introduction and conclusion by Penguin Books, 1980, xvi, 335 pp. Currently out of print, used copies may be purchased via the web through or Prices range from $8.99 to $50.24. Many university and college libraries will have this classic as well as some public libraries.

Reviewed by Daniel Bays

Some who are enthusiastic about engaging in China ministry today should probably do a little homework and discover the historical record of their predecessors. This is a story that goes back to 1583 and the arrival of the talented Matteo Ricci in China. To Change China is a classic in the field of Sino-Western relations, and still makes profitable reading today.

It was written by Jonathan Spence, Professor of Chinese history at Yale (and in my opinion today’s most eminent China scholar) early in his career in the late 1960s, in the midst of the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. Spence framed a new introduction and conclusion for its reissue in 1980, just as China’s reform programs accelerated social and intellectual change in China and, not coincidentally, created a whole new set of opportunities for Christians to live and work in China.

Although it is not a comprehensive history or specific analysis of missions alone, Spence’s ability to tell a compelling story, and the strong personalities of most of the characters described in this work, make for a memorable read. Unfortunately, the book is now out of print, although it can still be found in many libraries and used bookshops.1 It is well worth searching for.

The sixteen individuals profiled by Spence in this work were in China at various times between the early 1600s and the late 1940s. Only six of them were, technically speaking, Christian missionaries, but they were all convinced they had some body of truth, or skills, that they were eager to offer the Chinese. The religious missionaries included Adam Schall von Bell and Ferdinand Verbiest, 17th century Jesuit astronomers; Peter Parker, the first modern medical missionary to China in the 1830s; W.A.P. Martin and John Fryer, intellectuals who worked with China’s scholars and were employed by Chinese government agencies as teachers and translators in the late 1800s; and Edward Hume, distinguished missionary educator and head of Yale-in-China during the first three decades of the 20th century. Some of the secular “missionaries” were Mikhail Borodin, brilliant carrier of the gospel of Marxism in the 1920s, O.J. Todd, dedicated civil engineer who was eager to save China from the scourge of floods and natural disasters, and Norman Bethune, a Canadian M.D. who literally poured out his life healing sick and wounded Chinese during the war with Japan.

The lives of these individuals and the role they played in China constitute, in Spence’s words, “more a cautionary tale than an inspirational tract” (p. 291). Some showed, at times, commendable attributes: tenacity, energy, sensitivity, organizational genius, personal courage, and dedication. But most also showed, more frequently than we are comfortable in reading, arrogance, impatience, intolerance, and tactlessness—qualities which often turned their Chinese colleagues and associates against them and resulted in their own disappointment, bitterness or cynicism.

One of the recurring themes of this work is the complexity of motives of these historical figures. While they wanted to bring the gospel to Chinese people, at the same time they wanted to bring social improvement (to “uplift” Chinese civilization) and help China reform and modernize. They were also often looking for a place in which to make their distinctive personal mark or imprint—to make a difference. Sooner or later, most were disappointed when the Chinese they dealt with ignored, rejected or distorted the message they were offering. Then they tended to throw themselves even more into “The Work” (whether evangelism, teaching, medicine, or whatever), or withdraw into bitterness. One of the most poignant stories is that of Peter Parker, who as a medical missionary did vast amounts of human good, but converted almost no one, and in the last part of his life ended up very frustrated with China—in Spence’s words, “incontinently angered by those he had meant to love” (p. 56).

For Christian teachers working in China, the examples of Martin and Fryer are perhaps relevant. Both ended up working for decades in China, doing important educational and translation work. In the end, however, being reminded that they were just employees, their Chinese employer would pick and choose what seemed useful, rejecting the rest and always keeping the foreigner in the position of outsider. Edward Hume is an example of the tensions between expectations of the home constituency (the Yale-in-China board in the U.S.) and what his conscience and personal experience told him to do on the ground in China. Unable to reconcile the two, he ended up resigning and leaving China.

There is a certain amount of glorified missions “history” written about China, for example, on Hudson Taylor, Griffith John, or other heroes or martyrs such as the victims of the Boxers in 1900 or, later, John and Betty Stam. That has its place. But sometimes the analytical eye of the secular scholar can also be a valuable resource to the Christian who feels called to go to China. This old but still-relevant book by Jonathan Spence, full of examples of those whose hubris or presumption led to disappointment, can remind that person that she or he needs to go to China not to solve problems, nor to advise, much less “To Change China,” but to serve.

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Daniel Bays

Daniel H. Bays, Ph.D., is Professor of History and Director of the Asian Studies Program at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan.View Full Bio