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From the Middle East to the Middle Kingdom (Part 9)

The First Missionaries to China’s Hui

From the series From the Middle East to the Middle Kingdom

This article is drawn from lesson five of “Know Thy Hui Neighbor”—the leading ethnographic course helping Christians better understand China’s Hui Muslims. It is deeply indebted to the work of Dr. Gene Ng in her book The Minority in the Cracks.1

We started our series on Hui history saying, “memory produces hope in the same way that amnesia produces despair.” I have met despairing gospel workers. At one time, I almost became one. The soil is dry. The methods don’t work. The friendships don’t last. I even doubted the gospel could change Hui lives. God overcame my doubt by placing Hui believers in my life and their testimonies in my heart. He took me to people, books, and meetings where I learned what God’s people have suffered to reach the Hui and the fruit that has sprouted because of their faithful service.

Before Christians could get to the Hui, they had to get to China. China’s first protestant missionary, Robert Morrison, arrived in 1807. Faced with numerous obstacles, his Bible translation and Chinese dictionaries were finished at night, in secret, while he held down a day job with the East India Company. He set a precedent for creative access, identity management, and even working remotely, over 200 years ago.

The incubation period of Hui missions began with CIM survey trips in 1876. The first mission station was built in Tianshui, Gansu in 1879. Mission stations have had some bad press in recent years, but at that time they were vital to the work. They provided relative safety during violent unrest (see part 5), rudimentary health care, and the possibility of educating missionary children. Station locations were chosen after extensive field research. They should be near target people groups and facilitate travel to even less reached communities. Itinerant, public preaching with literature distribution was CIM’s initial strategy. We have records of evangelism circuits taken by CIM missionary George Parker, which typically lasted two months and exceeded 1300 km (800 miles). The vast majority of that time was spent traversing rugged terrain on dusty roads. Each stop lasted just one to four days. He preached in busy open spaces and sold Bibles in Chinese, Arabic, Turkic, Persian, Tibetan, and Mongolian languages. The message reached many ears, but his methods favored the tiny literate population and there was little chance for deep, long-term relationships. Very few Muslims purchased Bibles and hardly any believed.

Mercy ministries were CIM’s second strategy in the late 1800s—a strategy which grew and bore fruit well into the twentieth century. They focused on medical care, especially opium rehabilitation, along with drought relief. I have yet to meet a Christian who has visited Gansu’s capital of Lanzhou without being moved by the legacy of William Borden:2 his determination, his untimely death, and the hospital that bears his name. Practical help in Christ’s name opened doors, but also attracted “rice Christians.” That is, people would profess Christ while in need, but once their needs were met (or the missionary’s supplies dried up), the supposed Christians disappeared.

From 1899 to 1901, the Boxer Rebellion spread across China with the slogan: “Support the Qing, exterminate the foreigners.” Chinese Christians—deemed guilty by association with a “foreign religion”—were killed by the thousands. Since most foreign missionaries were in large, coastal cities, they were able to evacuate by sea or took refuge in fortified compounds. But missionaries serving in isolated, inland regions did not all escape. About 200 missionary men, women, and children were murdered—a heartbreaking toll, but relatively small compared to the Chinese causalities.

CIM was hit hardest. Work among the Hui was devastated—but not for long. Moved by news of the suffering in China, new applicants poured in to CIM. The Boxer Protocol3 forced China into a new era of openness to the West, and western missionaries, aware of the risks, entered a new era of innovation in their service to China.

George Harris4 arrived with CIM in 1916. He was an innovator who persisted in the face of suffering but did not persist with unfruitful strategies. He abandoned street preaching in favor of personalized evangelism in the context of relationships. He pioneered the use of Arabic alongside Chinese calligraphy in evangelistic materials, as shown in the posters he designed. His study of specialized Hui vocabulary (回话, huihua) laid the foundation for a contextualized Hui translation of the Bible in Chinese, more than half a century later. Yet, despite Harris’s significant contributions to mission strategy, his greatest legacy was his life of suffering. George and Winnifred Harris buried two children in China. During the Japanese invasion, resources were so tight that George had to travel alone and on foot to reach distant Muslim villages. When the Communists took power, there was violence and looting, a freeze on money and mail, and almost two years of intense surveillance, but the Harrises’ upright character and lifestyle meant that not a single accusation stuck. Such testimonies of suffering should speak to all of us who consider ourselves servants of the gospel, no matter where we call home.

Today, distances seem shorter, but we face the same challenges in balancing our ministries. Boldness or safety? Sales or charity? Speak God’s Word or give practical help? How much time to spend? There are no simple answers, but neither do we have to figure it out on our own. God has sent before us a multitude of pioneering saints.

The 19th century CIM pioneers teach us about patience, the need to focus on one people group and the role of suffering. Later innovators like Harris teach us the value of contextualizing our language and lifestyle. Read their records. Learn from their examples. Don’t reinvent the wheel.

  • They did field research.
  • They identified target groups based on place, language, religion, literacy, and needs.
  • They used more than one method.
  • They persevered through the spilling of sweat, tears, and even blood.

Through all this, and not instead of it, they waited on God to bring fruit.


  1. Ng, Gene K. (吳劍麗)《夾縫中的少數派: 基督新教在甘青地區的穆宣事業(1878-1951)》Alliance Bible Seminary, Hong Kong, 2013. (Chinese edition available for purchase online. A PDF English translation titled “The Minority in the Cracks—the Protestant M2M Cause in the Gansu-Qinghai Area (1878–1951)” is available on request and free of charge.)
  2. Taylor, Howard. Borden of Yale (Men of Faith). Bethany House, 1988. (Available on Kindle).
  3. The Boxer Protocol refers to the treaty the Eight Nations Alliance forced China to sign in 1901. See “Boxer Protocol, 1901,” USC US-China Institute. (accessed November 10, 2021).
  4. Bradshaw, Malcolm R. Torch for Islam: A Biography of George K. Harris, Missionary to Muslims. China Inland Mission (Overseas Missionary Fellowship), 1965. (PDF available on request.)
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Julie Ma

Julie Ma

Julie Ma (pseudonym) is a graduate of Sydney Missionary and Bible College (SMBC) and a member of the Angelina Noble Centre for women in cross-cultural missions research. She left her home in Australia over a decade ago to serve Hui Chinese Muslims alongside her Chinese husband. After all these years overseas, …View Full Bio

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