A Foot Wide on the Edge of Nowhere: Olive and Theo Simpkin—sharing Good News in China by Helen Joynt. Published by H. Joynt, 2019, 400 pages. ISBN-10: 064838490X ; ISBN-13: 978-0648384908. Paperback available on Amazon.
The author of A Foot Wide on the Edge of Nowhere was born during WW II in an ethnic minority village in southwest China where her parents Theo and Olive Simpkin were working. This book is the extended biography of her parents and the family. Theo and Olive Simpkin served with the China Inland Mission in Yunnan Province during the period 1925-1951 with a focus on the ethnic minority peoples. Their service in China spanned years of civil war, WW II, and the war of liberation that led to the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
Having access to decades of family correspondence and discussions with other family members Helen Joynt has reconstructed the life, beliefs, and spiritual journeys of her parents. The book carries the reader back to the early colonization of Australia. The author’s great-grandparents on her father’s side emigrated from England to Australia in 1853 to what was then the newly formed Colony of Victoria (now Victoria). Her maternal great-grandparents were also new immigrants to Australia. The author traces both the adjustments to life on a new continent along with the spiritual background of the family of both her father’s and mother’s sides of the family. This personal journey through the early decades of Australian formation and history is an interesting and unique bonus in reading this book. She also highlights how Christian faith was lived out in these families, in churches, and in communities at that time.
Theo Simpkin left Australia to serve with the China Inland Mission (CIM) in 1925. At this time over 10% of the CIM workers in China were from Australia and New Zealand. The Australian workers were concentrated in the five provinces along the western border of China where there were many ethnic minority groups. One of the challenges Theo faced was leaving behind the woman he would later marry, Olive Kettle.
In today’s world where international plane travel and high speed trains can take you almost anywhere in the world within 24 hours, it is hard to imagine travel in China almost 100 years ago. Theo’s journey from Australia to Shanghai, China was a multi-stop, multi-week journey by ship. To get to the area he was assigned, he then had to take a ship to Haiphong in northern Vietnam followed by a two-day train ride from Haiphong to Kunming in southwest China. From Kunming, he had a three-day, 100 km (60 miles) hike to his destination in Wuding County. Today there are international air connections to Kunming and you can make the same trip from Kunming northwest to Wuding County by car in about one and a half hours.
In addition to learning Chinese without access to organized language schools or trained teachers, Theo also tried to learn some Miao, Lisu, Nosu, and Laka—languages spoken in the Wuding County area. For anyone who has learned some Chinese as a second language or tried to learn any regional dialects or minority languages, what Theo was attempting to do is amazing.
After arriving in China, Theo wrote letters to Olive. Initially she wrote back two or three times a year. Over several years their relationship deepened. In late 1933 Olive sailed to China to serve with the CIM and with the intention of marrying Theo. They did not see each other until May 1934 and were married in late 1934.
During their work in China, Theo and Olive faced many uncertainties. In addition to the normal challenges of work in ethnic areas where travel conditions were primitive and roads generally non-existent, several times they were on the fringes of armed conflict. In the spring of 1935, units of the Red Army passed through on the Long March. This forced Olive and Theo to evacuate to Kunming with the loss of all their wedding presents.
After nine years of work (five for Olive) in Yunnan, Theo and Olive returned to Australia for a home assignment. After the birth of their second child they made preparations to return to China, this time to a war-torn China. Earlier that month in September 1939 Australia had declared war after Germany had invaded Poland. They left a nation at war to go to China which was under siege from Japan.
While Theo and Olive had prayed and prepared to work with minority peoples, the CIM leadership asked them to head up the new workers’ language program and set it up in Dali in Yunnan Province far from the Chinese-Japanese conflicts along the eastern part of China. Based on their own language study experiences, it seems Theo and Olive did well in this challenging wartime situation. Their students seem to have thrived and several went on to service in mission and other types of ministry. Their students referred to this language school as the “Simpkin School of Oriental Studies.”
After the language school, Theo and Olive returned to their work with the various ethnic minority groups. The ethnic minority Christians had started a series of Short-Term Bible Schools to train believers at Salaowu and Sapushan. In 1937 at the encouragement of J.O. Fraser (famous for his work with the Lisu church), a Bible school was established in Salaowu. The annual United Tribes Conference discussed the location of the Bible school and moved it around from time to time. Theo taught in Bible schools in Gebu, Guizhou and most of his time at Taogu Bible School. He also took part in other Short-Term Bible Schools being held by the minority churches.
One aspect of Theo’s work that has taken on new meaning with the Covid-19 pandemic is the practical help he provided for minority people by providing simple immunizations. At the time Theo left Australia, community immunizations against smallpox and diphtheria had not yet been introduced (not until 1932). As part of his preparation Theo had been vaccinated and trained to give vaccinations to others. Over the years he would vaccinate thousands of Chinese and minority people to help provide practical help and protection against epidemic diseases. For example, during the 1942 cholera outbreak in Yunnan, Theo traveled to 11 villages over 17 days to inoculate over 1,300 people.
After leaving China in the early 1950s the family had time in Australia. After the children were off to university, Theo and Olive also spent a couple years in the early 1960s working in Hong Kong in a Chinese literature ministry. Theo and Olive finished their ministry career in Australia serving in various roles within OMF as well as their local church.
If you have traveled in southwest China you will enjoy the maps and photographs that the author has included. One of Theo’s hobbies was photography and he seemed to have captured many significant moments in his family’s life and ministry. Theo and Olive had three children (two born in Yunnan). The author was their youngest and was born in Yunnan.
Both Theo and Olive were good letter writers and have left a historian’s gold mine of letters for their children and relatives. These letters also chart their spiritual journey as they faced the challenges and ups and downs of work among the peoples of southwestern China. The author records many excerpts from their letters and writing as they struggled with decisions, difficult situations, and separation. This book is a realistic portrait of a couple in their walk with God and how he provided for them despite huge uncertainties.
The author had a chance to travel back to places where her family had been including Shanghai, Lushan (in Jiangxi Province; a MK school was located there in the late 1940s), Kunming, Dali and Wuding County (the last three all in Yunnan Province). A highlight was seeing places her parents had worked in Dali and Wuding and being thanked for the work her parents had done. She also was able to see a summer training camp for Miao Christians.
She finishes the book with
The fruit that is born out of the selfless sacrifices of those who give up a comfortable life in order to follow where they believe their Master is leading them may not be seen at once. It may not be seen for decades or more. But God’s Word is powerful. There are indeed difficulties facing the church in China, but God is not defeated by human power and philosophy. The forces antagonistic to the Gospel do not have the last word. In spite of persecution and hardship, God’s Word continues to bear fruit. (p. 385)
This is a good book for anyone interested in the outreach to and growth of the ethnic minority churches of southwest China, anyone interested in the history of missions in China during the tumultuous years leading to the founding of the People’s Republic of China, as well as for anyone interested in how God has worked in one Australian multi-generational family to lead people to know and serve him.
Image credit: ys Jiang via Flickr.
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