What a story! It tells about an overwhelmed young doctor from Kansas trying to be of some minimal assistance in an area of the world just devastated by the various calamities surrounding China's war with Japan. The biggest disaster was caused by the forces of the corrupt and incompetent Chiang Kai-Shek who had the "bright" idea that he could destroy the Japanese who were pursuing him if he would blow up the levees on the Yellow River. The Japanese forces barely noticed this act of wanton stupidity but the poor peasants in the way were destroyed. In fact, some sources list this as one of the greatest disasters of all time--a million killed in the flooding, 4 million made homeless, and a large and important swath of agricultural land made unfit for farming for years which lead to massive famine and starvation.
This disaster is rarely mentioned in USA--mostly because it was caused by our esteemed ally. But you can be sure that it is mentioned when Chinese students learn history. And it was incidents like these that color the relationships between China and the rest of the world to this day. It behooves the rest of us to remember this is but one of many catastrophes suffered by the Chinese in the 20th century.
An Augustana missionary family’s story of service and survival in China
In War and Famine: Missionaries in China’s Honan (Henan) Province in the 1940s reviewed by Lois Carlson
Erleen Christensen was a tow-headed toddler when she traveled to China in 1940 with her Augustana Lutheran missionary parents, Dr. Emery and Elvera Carlson. Sixty- five years later she chronicled that ensuing decade in this meticulously researched and masterfully composed book. In simplest terms it is a story of her family‘s service and survival. In broader, more accurate terms, it is exactly what the title suggests—a story of missionary faithfulness, ingenuity and courage in the midst of horrendous famine, war and accompanying hardship. Christensen’s writing draws back the curtain on a missionary stage largely obscured by the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War II, and by the eventual departure of all Westerners from China.
Honan (Henan) Province, in east-central China, is currently the most populous province in the country with nearly 100 million people. It covers 65,000 square miles with flat lands in the east and mountains in the west. It was in the middle of this province that the Augustana Lutherans first established mission work in 1905 and to which the Carlsons were destined.
Christensen’s opening paragraph describes the Chinese Nationalist Army‘s intentional bursting of the levees holding back the Yellow River in an effort to stop the advancing Japanese Army in June 1938. The resultant flood waters inundated 21,000 square miles of land in Honan Province, wiped out 3500 villages and towns, destroyed crops and livelihood, and displaced four million people. Wanting to take the Japanese Army by surprise, the Chinese government gave its own people no warning, allowing up to 900,000 Chinese peasants to perish. Destruction of the levees initiated chronic flooding, creating a “no man’s land” dividing the province. When the Carlsons arrived two years later, the breached levees continued to account for wide-spread famine and displacement.
While Christensen’s no nonsense book may not be easy-reading, it is an imperative story needing to be told. It is an Augustana missionary story, even though Christensen has carefully included and balanced the contributions of many different missionary groups. Interwoven throughout the book are glimpses of the Augustana missionaries in China at that time: John L. and Lillie Benson, Dr. Arthur Colberg, Ethel Akins, .Sr. Astrid Erling, Alyce Anderson, Alice K. Anderson, Sr. Myrtle Anderson, John W. and Magda Lindbeck, Russell and Eleanor Nelson, Dr. Viola Fischer, Sr. Thyra Lawson, Anna Olson, Mauritz Hanson, Minnie Tack, Dr. Lillian Olson, Margaret Miller, Stella Carlson, Sr. Ingeborg Nystul, Victor and Evodia Swenson, Daniel, Margaret and Nelly Friberg, as well as the Carlson family.
Christensen could have put together a warm, fuzzy memoir featuring her parents—the dashing young doctor and his attractive nurse wife, both raised in Kansas by staunch Swedish Lutheran families. She could have filled her book with family adventure, drama and anecdotes. Or she could have made herself the central figure—an unusually precocious blue-eyed child, fluent in Chinese, immersed in a sea of dark-haired, dark-eyed peers, many of whom were literally starving. But Christensen resists such sentimentalism and personalization. An occasional lapse in this reserve, however, adds poignancy. For example, after referring to her mother’s careful journaling of “each day’s discoveries, disasters, and divine guidance,” Christensen shares, “I retain only a landscape on which the facts of war arranged themselves in a way both mythic and real. No bogeymen or nightmares disturbed my childhood dreams. Instead, by night, I was stalked by the Japanese lines, a caterpillar-like monster made up of thousands of soldiers. It roared in from the east, bringing the barren no man’s land where nothing grew and bandits killed in the night into our city, our compound, our house.” She continues, “With my own eyes, I could watch the gleam of a Japanese bomber flying overhead or see the gory separateness of a bandit’s head hung on the gate of a city.” This was a brutal world with which no young child should be so familiar.
Rather than contenting herself with family lore and personal memories, Christensen scoured letters, journals, reports, articles and books written by a wide variety of missionaries and also government and humanitarian personnel working in Honan Province during those years. And while the book’s title may smack of world history lessons and dusty church archives, it tells you exactly what the book is about. It is about a diverse group of some 250 missionaries who, no matter what their national background or denominational affiliation, needed each other. They were friends, colleagues, comrades in mission. They journeyed together on crowded Chinese junks and two-wheeled carts, they dodged bombs and fended off bandits, and sometimes died. They were resilient, resourceful people, seemingly unperturbed by the situation in which they found themselves. They did what they had to do and were forever conscious of the fact that during this time of starvation, warfare, persecution and the lack of the most basic necessities of life, their circumstances were infinitely more bearable than those of the Chinese people among whom they lived.
If there is a hero in this book it is Christensen’s father, Dr. Emery W. Carlson. A poor farm boy from Kansas, he had little medical experience prior to arriving in China. Claiming no special medical knowledge and struggling with the Chinese language, he was an unlikely hero. But armed with a strong sense of call to be a medical missionary in China and with a generous measure of grit and gumption, Emery served with great distinction. He provided medical care to countless persons wounded by warfare, to starving babies left to die on the streets, and to foreigners who contracted dreaded diseases. He kept hospitals open against all odds, helped with relief efforts, and provided care under the direst circumstances. Ultimately he was asked to serve behind enemy lines as an “Advance-base Chief” in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Documents promoting Emery for this position described him as “vigorous, intelligent, capable, and with a pleasing personality.” He was hero material indeed.
Christensen vividly remembers an evening in 1948 when her exhausted father, still in his 30s, sat at a table with two even younger missionary men eager for words of wisdom from their leader. She writes, “Emery put his head in his hands and said in a voice quiet and full of longing, ‘All I want is peace and tranquility.’” He was speaking for everyone caught up in the conflict and suffering of that time and place. Through her own deep personal interest and scholarly excellence, Christensen has opened a window on this most unusual and heroic time in missionary history.
Lois Carlson is a former missionary social worker in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and a daughter of pioneer Tanzania missionaries Elmer and Lillian Danielson. She is married to David Carlson, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Russellville, Missouri, and a first-cousin of the author of this book.
In War and Famine: Missionaries in China’s Honan Province in the 1940s by Erleen J. Christensen. Published in 2005 by McGill-Queen’s University Press., 3430 McTavish Street, Montreal, Quebec H3A 1X9, Canada. Canadian price $44.95; US price $37.95. Hardback, 292 pages. Distributed in Canada through Georgetown Terminal Warehouses Ltd (phone (905) 873-2750). Distributed in the United States by Cornell University Press Services (phone (607) 277-2211).