How often do we read a book that surprises us in with topics and content we didn't expect? That was the case with this book, A Many Splendored Thing by Han Suyin. I did not anticipate it would contain some insights related to religion. My twenty year old self was in mood to read something and this book was available. On picking it up in my hand, I thought it was a romance novel based on the hit song and movie it inspired, and it was. But the book is autobiographical and the romance cannot be understood with its highs, lows, and tensions without Suyin's history as a person living in multiple worlds, Traditional Chinese, Western, and the newly emerging modern East with the rising communist tide on the mainland and burgeoning commercial world of Hong Kong. In some sense all of these worlds are native to her. She is specially positioned to perceive people from all angles, intimate with them all. The following is from the second chapter titled "The Kingdom of God" The timeline is important and so each chapter is dated by year and month. The content of this chapter explains her experiences in Hong Kong shortly after moving there from med school in London. She lives in a half-way house for missionaries families who have had to leave China in that disruptive time.
*Chapter II The Kingdom of God March 1949
I had always thought of missionaries as “superior persons” in the Confucian sense; that their fund of goodness, benevolence and knowledge must be greater than the average person’s. It was with relief that I found they were just ordinary people. Well-meaning, earnest, hard working, not endowed with more wisdom, knowledge or virtue than anyone else. Not gifted with more vision and not always more tolerant. Teaching the Bible was their métier, just as medicine was mine, although I suppose both professions deluded themselves into calling it a vocation. They were concerned, as all normal, healthily self-centered people are, with family, children, home, security, life insurance, salaries, pension and furlough, all the mechanics of existence.When I was growing up, occasionally a missionary would visit our church and give a presentation/sermon. Usually it was a Sunday or Wednesday night so the lights could be turned off to enable a slide presentation. It was exciting to my young self. I would for a short time have a romantic desire to go to where ever it was they were living and working. Of course, with never a thought of the mechanics of existence and all that would be entailed. I heard few critiques of this. A great Uncle was a missionary in New Zealand then. Not long after, a cousin just older than me would move to Kenya where he lives as a missionary to this day.
In those early months of 1949, they seemed bewildered, confused and indignant. What was happening in China?
Some averred that it was only a passing phase of violence, similar to those previous eruptions of xenophobia which flare up from time to time in China. Some were inclined to think that the Kuomintang government would make a stand and win in the end “if only it would carry out reforms instead of just proclaiming them.” The fact that the Chiang Kai-sheks were Christians seemed to them a guarantee that the Kuomintang government might still turn over a new leaf and that all would be well again.
Perhaps those who understood the irreversible change which was taking place remained in China until they could do so no longer, but those I met in Church Guest House showed much bewilderment and hurt.
It was a little like unrequited love. “After all we’ve done for them,” they implied, “look at what they are doing to us.”
How difficult it must be to be a missionary! In order to convince others, one must be so completely indoctrinated with the superiority of one’s own brand of belief. To understand, to tolerate, to condone, is incompatible with the very idea of being in possession of a higher truth, a better explanation of the spiritual life.I don't remember having an immediate reaction when reading this last paragraph all those years ago but that question of the superiority of "our" brand of belief would soon haunt me. This book planted the seed which would grow into my consciousness and cause me to critique my inherited beliefs.
There were two types of missionaries in Hong Kong. The first, those that had not been long in China, were still under the spell of their narrow denominational fanaticism. They carried with them a sulphurous aroma of hell-fire and damnation to the heathen. They were spiritually intolerant and physically bigoted. They were inclined to gloat over the possibilities of martyrdom and to emphasize the persecutional element in the pressure against them. But they were very few. The larger group was eminently likable. They had been converted and mellowed to humanity, tolerance and a sense of humor. They had quietly jettisoned the belief in the infallibility of their own theme of salvation, together with the more wrathful aspects of the Deity they professed to love. They were far more interested in the social and practical aspects of Christianity. They were humanists, sociologists, and for them religion became the building of hospitals and schools, the creation of Christian Associations, and picking up abandoned waifs. But they were the ones most hurt, because they had loved their work, and they had been selfless in their devotion to it. “What is going to happen to our Christian communities? Many of our Christians seem to have gone over to the new regime, some have not. Will these be persecuted? What is going to happen to our churches, our schools, our hospitals?” They wanted to help China. And they found that their motives were suspected, and their efforts towards conciliation and understanding misunderstood. They were no longer wanted. China was throwing them out.* A Many Splendored Thing by Han Suyin An Atlantic Monthly Press Book, Little, Brown and Company, Boston. 1952