After reading City of Tranquil Light, I was inspired to track down other books about missionaries in China.
First, I read The Small Woman, a compelling and utterly fascinating biography of Gladys Aylward. Aylward was a 26 year old parlormaid in England when she felt called to become a missionary to China. Told by a mission board that she didn’t know enough theology and was too old to learn Chinese properly, she saved up her own money, took a train overland to China through Russia, escaped a bad situation in Russia by boat to Japan, and finally wound up in a remote area, helping an elderly widow missionary in a town that hated foreigners. In spite of her total lack of official preparation, Aylward not only learned Chinese, but became a Chinese citizen and had an astounding and profound impact on the area of China where she served.
I loved reading about how Aylward became like the Chinese–eating what they ate, living how they lived, and so forth–taking the culture on its own terms, but bringing the hope of the Gospel. She had an especially deep impact in the lives of women and children. At one point, she saved over 100 children from the advancing Japanese army, by single-handedly taking the entire group over mountains and across a major river. I will never again complain about traveling in a van with four kids! I enjoyed this book so much and talked about it as I read that Hannah got interested and asked to read it too. I’m looking forward to a good discussion with her about it.
Beyond the Stone Arches: An American Missionary Doctor in China, 1892-1932 is a bit different in style than The Small Woman, but likewise fascinating. Beyond the Stone Arches was written by a son about his father, who was a missionary doctor in China in the years before Gladys Aylward arrived. I thought the fact that the book was written by Bliss’s son really brought the man to life–you get so many glimpses of his humor and personality as well as insight from his letters and writings.
Like Aylward, Bliss loved the Chinese people and was determined to bring them help without trying to Westernize them or treat them like lesser humans as did many Western privateers in that era. Bliss served in a region that had no modern medicine prior to his arrival, and people were dying of totally preventable diseases. Bliss not only saw a staggering number of patients per day, but also trained Chinese students to practice medicine. The team he worked with also helped boys and girls (unusual at that time) get educations, and prioritized helping people with food production and clean water.
I loved how both of these books emphasized caring for the whole person, because there is so much more to the Gospel than Sunday Schools. Nothing wrong with Sunday Schools, but these missionaries gave their lives to serving the physical needs of the people, and in so doing really maximized the spiritual impact they had as well. The impact that both missionaries had was really amazing from every standpoint. I also enjoyed learning about Chinese culture and seeing China through the eyes of people who had such a deep love for the country and the people.
While I don’t, at this point, feel called to serve in China personally, I found both of these books inspiring as they really brought home to me how much of an impact even one person can have when they obey God’s calling and selflessly love and serve others.
If you have any favorite missionary biographies, please let me know in the comments!
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