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Chapter 11 — A LULL IN WORK
3. Missionaries

Of course I came in contact with the missionary question.

Regarding it I was neither antagonistic nor generally critical, nor greatly sympathetic, nor uninterested — a neutral sort of attitude. With the present situation I am not concerned, but only with the past. One thing seems plain. The main factor in the question was not what was best for China; it was freedom for a force that is impossible to control — the force of religious impulse with all the goodness and all the evil of which history shows it is possessed.

Christ said ` Go teach all nations.' In effect He said ` Go teach mankind that progress lies in altruism,' and thus laid down a law of evolution. For the purpose of the safekeeping of that teaching He placed the picture of it in a simple frame of ceremony and utterances suitable to and in the language of the time.

Now I do not say that missionaries in China have failed to teach the lesson of that picture; but undoubtedly it has been largely hidden by the details with which their churches have bedecked its frame, each in a different way and each claiming that their way was right and, of course, the others wrong. There is, or was, a gamut of some forty of them from Roman Catholics to Holy Shakers, teaching as many different tenets.

A highly educated Chinese said to me: ` What Christ taught is beneficially applicable to all mankind and that places him as the greatest Sage the world has known; but the manmade dogmas of your churches, while presumably serving a purpose for the people for whom they were intended, are to us worse than useless. We view them as superstitions at least as wild and foolish as those in any Eastern faith; and we take it as an insult to our intelligence to be asked to believe in such ideas as transubstantiation or the virgin birth.'

Diversity and antagonism of creeds, dogmas as varied as they are unintelligible, are factors in the general attempt to propagate the Christian faith which inhibit its success among a cultured Eastern people. Missionary enterprise should not, however, be judged by the standards that are applicable to other activities of man. It is a reaction to deep-seated forces.

Religion, as a means to altruism, is an essential factor in man's evolutionary track. We could not shed it if we would; it is as much a part of us as are, say, to the reindeer its spreading antlers. Here is not the place to enlarge upon this subject; the little that is said is only to indicate my attitude towards the missionaries and their work.

They have done good. They have spread Christ's teaching at all events to some extent, and by their hospitals they have touched healingly the fringe of suffering. They have done evil also. There has been in the past unwise influence in Chinese litigation, for example; and it has been inevitable that, in a country where family unity is a first principle, they have done harm by setting members of it against each other. To attempt to put the good and evil in the balance would be futile. Whichever way it tipped would make no difference. There is one thing only that can affect them, and that is the degree of Chinese toleration. It is affecting them just now.

It can be assumed that all have been earnest men and women acting according to their lights and to the tenets and instructions of their missions. That some have been unwise, some hard in nature and some with insufficient culture for their work, goes without saying. It could not, among the mass of them, be otherwise; and that is all I have to say about the subject in a general way. Of my personal experiences with missionaries there are many stories I could tell. Here are but four of them.

A little Chinese island — Guiechow — lies in the Gulf of Tonking. Perhaps it is five miles long and wide. Cliffs surround it cut here and there by combes ending in beaches on which are crowded boats and nets and fishermen.

There are no hills of any size; the surface is an undulating tableland.

I knew the island well by sight, for it lay in the track of steamers on the way to Pakhoi, the southernmost treaty port of China. There came a time when it was convenient for the Customs cruiser — in which I was making an inspection trip — to anchor off the island for the night. A party of us went on shore. We were received by the fishermen with grins of more than usual welcome, and then occurred a series of astonishments. The pathway up the gully, later seen winding among the undulating land, was wide and cared for a thing I had never seen before in such a place. Round a corner of that path came some women, and, when they saw us, they lined up on the roadside, kneeling with their hands across their breasts.

Usually a Chinese country-woman would merely look the other way when she passed a foreigner, and a girl might flee, owing to stories told her by her mother; but here this attitude of reverence. What could it mean? It embarrassed us, and we passed on. Glancing back I saw them standing in a group, seemingly with an air of astonished disappointment.

We reached the summit of a rise and looked down in a dell, where lay a village clustered round something we had never seen before in China — a little Norman church, cruciform, with square tower and aisles and transepts, for all the world like a village church in England. On descending to the village we found the priest, a Frenchman, some sixty years of age, who welcomed us with obvious pleasure and fine courtesy and took us to his presbytère and gave us wine — good burgundy. In answer to our questions he told us of his life, and his life had been Guiechow and nothing else.

He had landed there some forty years before as its first missionary. He explained the advantage of an isolated little island for mission work — no officials, no gentry with their philosophic views of Chinese culture, no competition from the protestants, no interference of any kind. In the course of years he had converted every man and woman on the island, and now Christianity was accepted as the normal thing. Their reverence for his priesthood had become unsuitably great, and in their isolation from the outer world they thought every foreigner a kind of priest and rendered him obeisance. They took the ' Bonjour, Madame ' from the French naval officers — on their rare visits — as a form of benediction. ' They knelt to you too, did they, and you took no notice of them? Well, I'll have to make some sort of explanation.'

With great modesty he disclaimed any credit for his great success. It had been just a miraculous ending to his early struggles. He had designed and built the church himself with voluntary labour — a copy of his native village church in Normandy. Once or twice a year he might get a visit from a French man-of-war — this explained his wine — but otherwise he never saw a foreigner. How often did he go on leave? I went home to France some twenty years ago; since then I have never left the island. Desire to go? Perhaps, but no intention; I mean my bones to rest under the shadow of my church and among my people.'

We were steaming down the Yangtsze in a large paddle-boat.

She was Chinese-owned, so on either bow was a large eye to help her see the way. It was summer time and hot, and we lay in long cane chairs beneath the awning, and read and dozed and sometimes talked. Next to me was an American missionary lady of uncertain age with whom I had thought I ought to hold some conversation but so far had not done so. We were now leaving the alluvial plain with the broad expanse of river and were entering a narrow hill-girt passage — a strategic place with modern forts. It was a spot where something very sad had happened a little time before.

There was a Norwegian gunner, a shipmate with me in a Customs cruiser, who, in his younger days, had been a hard drinker. And then he got religion — got it very thoroughly — became most extraordinarily reformed, and for years had been a model character. In the Japanese war he had got appointed to the fort and camp; later became, in effect, its commandant with charge of a regiment of soldiers; and he married a Chinese girl from a neighbouring mission station. A year or so later he found her flagrante delicto with a Chinese sergeant. The discovery so upset him that he took to drink once more. When he recovered from the bout he was mad with remorse and shame at his relapse; he fell in the regiment and formed a square, and from the centre he lectured the men on sin and expiation, and then he shot himself.

So here I found a topic for my neighbour. ` A very pathetic tragedy happened in that fort a little time ago. Would you care to hear about it ? ' This remark served to start a flow of unpunctuated breathless speech, the purpose of the close continuity of which was to avoid a loss of innings; but I punctuate to make the reading easier.

Well, I guess there is no need to tell me about that. I guess that there is nothing about it I don't know; but you call it pathetic and I don't. I call it disgusting to get drunk like that and then to shoot himself in public; most disgusting, and we thought he was a real nice man. That makes it all the worse.

And that girl was such a nice little thing, and we expected from them such an uplifting influence in the camp.' There was ever so much more; that is but a sample.

When she had finished I told the story as I knew it. ` Well, I guess you seem to know quite a lot about it. Perhaps you are right. When I come to think about it we did not like the way she left us after the shooting and did not come back. But in any case, for that man to give way to temptation in that way was a very, very disgusting thing.'

My dear lady, in the kind of life you lead, it seems to me doubtful if you can know what real temptation is and how irresistible it may be.'

Well, if it 's irresistible I guess I don't know about it, but I think that is the excuse you men make for doing what you want to.' And the lady snorted.

The subject is rather a delicate one, involved as it is liable to be with primitive instincts and passions, but, if you will allow me, I could present my view in a manner you would not object to.'

Go right straight ahead. There is nothing you can say will hurt me. Let's have that view of yours.'

I will put it this way. Suppose it was a deadly sin to scratch your nose, and if you did it you would surely go to hell; and suppose that having got you in my power I tickled it with a feather. You would wriggle and squirm your nose about and so withstand the temptation for a time, but in the end you'd scratch it and go to hell quite cheerfully.'

And we never spoke again.

Once more I was travelling on the Yangtsze in a Chinese steamer. The accommodation for foreigners was in a house upon the bridge deck. Beneath that deck was one long unpartitioned space in which many hundreds of native passengers were carried. Some had bunks; others lay on the deck surrounded by their bundles, and that deck was completely covered by them. The air in that space was thick with human fug and the reek of opium. Now I have always been an early riser, so when, on the first morning of our journey, I found I had slept until nine o'clock, I was very much astonished. I opened the door and looked in the saloon. Facing me quite close was a black-bearded priest. And here another puzzle.

He was looking at me with utmost sternness, and — a curious combination — his nostrils were expanded and he stood sniffing at the air. Then he spoke. ` Are not you — a foreigner — ashamed to do such a thing ? I cannot avoid expressing my disgust.' Of course I was flabbergasted at this wild and unprovoked attack, but obviously he was labouring under some strange delusion, and my feeling was one of interest rather than resentment. So I asked him what he meant; and he explained. There was a smell of opium in the saloon; he had traced it to my door just before I opened it; then from my cabin poured a volume of the smell, so he assumed I had been smoking opium. Now with the contrast of fresh air I realized the extent to which my cabin reeked; I sought the reason and found it — a defective ventilator from the deck below, which explained my oversleeping.

The priest, of course, was apologetic. He was more; he was remorse-stricken at having thought evil on unfounded grounds; and he was full of gratitude for the way in which I had met his wild attack. It was doubtless under the joint influence of these emotions that he later told the story of his tragedy.

He had meant, he said, to lock that story up for good within his breast. As there were degrees of physical disfigurement that were indecent to expose, so there were mental anguishes which called for silence. But somehow he now felt an irresistible desire to impose — as he put it — the story of his troubles on me; and then he would really shut it up for ever.

He was a German and a Jesuit. His age was forty, and for ten years he had been in charge of a mission in the far interior.

In course of time he had come to see that mission work in China, as carried out, worked more for evil than for good.

There was the interference with and condemnation of Confucianism, a cult of ethics which formed the matrix of the Chinese state. This interference was a serious disintegrating factor; instead of condemning Confucianism, Christianity should have been grafted on to it as, indeed, had been the policy of that great missionary, Matteo Ricci, in the fifteenth century. Then there was the use which converts made of the status their religion gave them; it influenced the magistrates in litigation; and so on. So he had found his conscience and his reason opposed to the Order's policy as to mission work in China. He had sworn obedience to that Order; that oath was absolutely sacred to him though no oath could bind the intellect or conscience. What then could he do except confess the opinion forced on him, even though the certainty of grave condemnation stared him in the face — they would condemn him as a traitor and a heretic; what else could he do than make his confession and then obediently take whatever might be coming, and his willingness to do so had been clearly stated.

And now he had had his answer, brief and stern. He was ordered to Italy, where in some institution he would be for the rest of his life employed in a menial capacity.

On a journey up the Middle Yangtsze the only other passengers on board were a young Quaker missionary and his bride — a slim young thing and pretty, and so demure with her downcast eyes and her neat grey frock. I labelled her at once the Mouse-girl; and with my appreciation of her came anxiety.

My anxiety was about my friend the Captain, his reputation, and what I feared would happen.

There is a book of travels by a lady, in which Captain Mutter (1) is mentioned in some such words as these: ' He had a unique affluence of bad language brought out with thrilling and damnatory emphasis; and which the presence of neither clergy nor ladies deterred.' It was a fact that Captain Mutter had made of profanity an art; and this advertisement of his ability so pleased him that he framed the extract and hung it in a prominent position in the saloon.
1 — I feel confident, from my memory of him, that Captain Mutter, whose address I have been unable to obtain, will forgive me for telling this story without his leave.

But the accomplishment he took the greater pride in was the telling of his stock of stories — pink stories and very funny, and, when the audience was suitable, the vulgarity was redeemed by the keenness of their humour. But how very unsuitable as an audience would that Mouse-girl be; and I dreaded the first dinner when the Captain would surely try to tell me of his latest.

I did my best; I told him I had already heard it; but he understood my object and it but spurred him on his evil way, and of course he had another story and he told it, and made me most unhappy for a time. But only for a time; for when the climax came — a quite indecent one, but very witty — I saw a snigger forming in the corners of the Mouse-girl's mouth, her hand beneath the table dug her husband in the leg, and soon both were laughing heartily. They could not help it.

It was the Captain's art to play a tune on strings of varied interests, so now he changed his mode and spoke of memory — of how he knew the Prayer Book word-perfect from cover to cover, and he gave an exhibition of the fact. Then, dinner finished, we went outside; the Captain and the missionary walked the deck, while the girl and I stood leaning on the rail. There was a full moon, a bright planet nearly in conjunction, and the mystery of the river in the dark; so we were silent for a time. I wondered what was passing in her mind, and then the Mouse-girl spoke. ` I have learnt something this evening. I have learnt what a humorous side there may be to vice.'

I want a place to mention Father Froc, and, although he was not a missionary, I will put him here. He was a Jesuit, a scientist of world repute, and Director of the Siccawei Observatory near Shanghai. We were associated in typhoon warnings, and I claim that we produced the best system for that purpose that exists. I say ` we,' but it was he who was usually the leader. He told the seaman where the typhoon was and gave him isobars for a quarter round the world; he traced for him day by day the storm's position from its inception in the distant regions of the Pacific Ocean, and he taught him its probabilities of movement; then left him to exercise his judgment. We fought the Hongkong Observatory on the subject, and Japan; and in the end we got our code accepted on the whole Far Eastern coast. That was one side of our association. He — the Jesuit — and we — Church of England people — became great friends; the family has a sort of reverent affection for him, and we have kept in contact with him to this day.