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7 Women Who Braved a Chaotic China

Through the Valley of the Shadow: Australian Women in War-torn China

A Book Review

Through the Valley of the Shadow: Australian Women in War-torn China by Linda and Robert Banks. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2019, 144 pages. ISBN-10 1532686714, ISBN-13 978-1532686719. Available from Wipf and Stock and Amazon.

In Through the Valley of the Shadow: Australian Women in War-torn China, Linda and Robert Banks chronicle seven courageous women’s lives. They served with the Church Missionary Association (CMA)1 during tumultuous times in China. The specific conflicts the women lived through included country-side bandit raids in the Qing Dynasty’s declining decades, local and provincial warlords fighting each other for supremacy, the Nationalist regime’s emergence and struggle to defeat imperialism, intermittent student demonstrations, the Communist movement, the Japanese Manchurian occupation in 1933, Japan’s full invasion in 1937 leading to WWII involvement, the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, and finally the Communist victory that resulted in the cessation of foreign missionary activity and establishment of government-controlled churches. Throughout the women’s time in China, there were very few peaceful periods.

The women were among the bravest missionaries to serve in China. This claim is validated again and again as the Bankses recount the women’s stories. The authors describe not one, but multiple crises that occurred in each of their lives. I cannot imagine enduring the trauma the women did—fending off bandits, experiencing bombing, walking miles and miles to get food, enduring flea bombs dropped on their city, hiding in the woods from violent mobs, and more. As soon as one crisis was over, there was another up ahead.

The Bankses accessed diaries, personal correspondence, official annual letters, missionary publications and archives, newspaper articles, and family reminiscences. The combined resources tell a fuller story since the women’s personal letters may not have told the whole story for fear of “creating anxiety among family and friends” (p. xxi).

Chapter 1

Elizabeth and Eleanor Saunders were CMA’s first missionaries to China and the youngest ever accepted. As a result of meeting Hudson Taylor, they were inspired to meet the needs of Chinese women and children in Kucheng. They studied the local dialect and worked in outlying villages. Between the two of them, they taught boys who would one day become teachers, ministered to women, had a day school, and regularly visited villages.

Outside of Kucheng and 1,500 feet higher than the city, there was a summer home where missionaries could rest and fellowship, but it became the scene of a nightmare. It was here that the sisters and co-workers faced one of the most tragic events to date in Chinese mission history. A vegetarian group called the Ch-ih-t-sai Ti began wresting control in the area in the wake of the crumbling Qing dynasty.2 Their power grab was further fueled by their hatred of foreigners. Early one summer morning they brutally attacked the missionaries staying at the summer home, spearing to death most of them, including Robert and Louisa Stewart and two of their children (two children survived) and seven female missionaries including the Saunders sisters.3 The summer house martyrs became well-known by name as overseas newspaper headlines reported the “appalling atrocities” where “missionaries were butchered” (p. 20). The murdered missionaries are all buried in Kucheng. In the years that followed, the church in this area thrived despite the brutal history. Over time, Kucheng became a strong center of Christianity.

The other women covered in the book had heard about the Saunders sisters and were impacted by their sacrifice.

Chapter 2

Victoria Mannett was a university teacher in Mianyang and Chengdu, Szechwan Province. She encountered protests against the Qing Dynasty from the time she arrived. The protests soon resulted in the viceroy closing Mianyang’s city gate. In addition, warlords vied for power in this western province. As a result, all missionaries were eventually moved to Chungking and then to Shanghai. Mannett was in Shanghai when Sun Yat Sen passed through enroute to Nanking to be inaugurated as the New Republic’s president. She was inspired by Sun’s educational reforms, advancing them once she returned to Szechwan.

Mannett was a teacher throughout her years of service rising through the ranks to principal and then the first Australian faculty appointed to West China Union University’s faculty. She taught subjects across the curriculum and focused on women who were newly permitted to attend the university. She was able to see the first group of them graduate.

Mannett endured almost constant threat—at one point she negotiated with bandit bands “brandishing knives and guns” near the women’s school, successfully deterring them (p. 28). The frequent trials took a physical and emotional toll on her, yet she never wavered from her intended purpose to improve education and demonstrate faith to the Chinese. When the Japanese invaded in 1937, she returned to Australia. There, she was an effective mobilizer, encouraging others to seize the opportunity to bring about real change despite China’s political uncertainties.

Chapter 3

Identical twins Martha and Eliza Clark served in Ningbo and Shanghai. Eliza became St. Catherine’s acting principal, then the boarding house mistress, and finally principal. Both sisters strove to improve the condition of Chinese women in part by teaching hygiene and medical care and opposing child marriage and foot binding.4

Anti-foreign sentiment was high in 1925. Students from a nearby government school tried to recruit St. Catherine’s students to protest. Though Eliza held off the agitators at first, the leader vowed to return the next day, break down the gate, and take the girls with them. The sisters and Chinese staff immediately devised a plan to sneak every student out a back way under cover of night. When the government students arrived the next day to commandeer the women, no students were to be found at St Catherine’s.

In 1940 Japanese troops closed in on St Catherine’s. The Clarks told the girls not to be afraid but to kneel in prayer. Eliza stood with arms crossed in between the troops and the students announcing to the leader, “You have come this far, but shall go no further.” Even though they expected to be robbed, murdered, and worse, amazingly the men left them alone. She concluded that they must have been surrounded by prayer (p. 58–59).

Chapter 4

Rhoda Watkins felt led to become a medical missionary. Following her call, she broke up with her boyfriend. She arrived in Guilin and studied the local dialect and became a matron in the Way of Life Hospital. As with the other women, she dealt with the anti-Christian movement and the Japanese invasion which included bombing in Guilin, and then the war between the Nationalists and Communists. In each conflict, she cared for the sick and wounded. She often visited the outlying areas to render aid. She carried on various types of mercy ministry for over 27 years. She took several furloughs to recover from her work’s emotional and physical rigors. As with other missionaries, she was forced to leave in 1950 as the Communist government took control. By this time, she was exhausted but still tried to serve in a CMA hospital in Malaya.5

Chapter 5

Nora Dillon dreamed of starting an orphanage and once visit Amy Carmichael’s orphanage in India. Dillon’s work began in Canton doing outreach with Chinese Bible women, leading a gospel choir, and visiting church members. Due to political upheavals, she was relocated to Hong Kong to work with refugees from Canton. Then she was assigned to the prestigious Stephen College in Stanley where the Stewarts’ (the martyrs of Kucheng) son was principal. She became matron in the preparatory school.

When the Japanese army occupied Hong Kong, from 1941 to 1942, she worked at a co-educational boarding school and orphanage in Taipo. While there she made a risky four-hour walk from Taipo orphanage into Hong Kong past Japanese soldiers to get food for the orphans. She often saw malnourished and dying Hong Kong residents along the way but amazingly none of the orphanage children died.

Her last assignment was in Shaohsing, Chekiang. She went there at the local Christians’ request who asked for help rebuilding after the Japanese onslaught. However, another challenge was approaching. The new Communist government began to restrict Christian work and foreigners in general, making it hard for them to get travel documents. The churches were brought under government control. Ultimately all missionaries left China with Dillon among the last Australians to leave China.


In just over 100 pages the authors cover more than 50 years of China’s political history. Overall, the writing is clear and compelling. However, if a reader is not familiar with Chinese history, the historical narrative will be challenging to follow. Still, the women’s lives are not lost amid the historical detail but rather spotlighted against an often-horrifying backdrop. The only thing that interrupted the books’ flow is the use of untranslated Chinese subheadings. It would be helpful for these to be translated to orient the reader about each section’s contents. Instead, the non-Chinese reader must wonder what purpose they serve.

The Saunders sisters’ story is the first in the book and it sets a hopeful and courageous tone to missionary work’s early days in China. By chapter one’s end, I sat in emotional silence trying to take in their devotion’s cost. Their mother refused to feel bitter because of their martyrdom stating that if she had two more daughters, she would send them to China. Poignantly, their mother went to China some years later to serve as a housekeeper. She died in China and was buried near her daughters.

The book is an important contribution to Chinese mission history.6 It is also an eye-opening read for today’s would-be missionaries and supporters of mission efforts. The stories are not mere stories of political unrest but of undeterred service by women caught up in China’s unrest. The Bankses have honored seven brave women who left an enduring gospel impact in China. Their lives still speak and inspire us to follow Christ’s call no matter the cost.

Our thanks to Wipf and Stock for providing a copy of Through the Valley of the Shadow: Australian Women in War-torn China by Linda and Robert Banks for this review.


  1. They were sent by the Church Missionary Association (CMA), the semi-autonomous branch of the Church Missionary Society in Australia.
  2. The group practiced vegetarianism and fasting. They took advantage of the weakened Qing Dynasty and began to govern on their own accord. They were also against foreign influence of any kind.
  3. You can read a review of the book the Bankses wrote about the Stewart family in Andrea Klopper, “Book Review: Children of the Massacre: The Extra-ordinary Story of the Stewart Family in Hong Kong and West China,” ChinaSource Blog, April 13, 2022, The Bankses have written two other books on Australian women missionaries, View from the Faraway Pagoda (2013), and They Shall See His Face (2018).
  4. Both practices were no longer legal but still widespread in the countryside. They partnered with Chinese co-workers in reaching women.
  5. Malaysia, then British Malaya.
  6. It should be noted that the book mentioned many other missionaries, expatriates, and Chinese Christians who also endured the turbulent periods. The Bankses have notably honored many unnamed Chinese by dedicating the book to “The generations of Chinese Christians who suffered during periods of armed conflict in their own land.”
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Hope Bentley

Hope Bentley (pseudonym) served in East Asia for thirty years. She has been involved in teaching and training throughout her cross-cultural career.View Full Bio

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