War and Occupation in China

The Letters of an American Missionary from Hangzhou, 1937-1938

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Charles Bright, Joseph W. Ho
Studies in Christianity in China
  • Lehigh University Press
    , October
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


American missionaries to China who stayed at their missionary posts during the turbulent decades of the 1920s-1940s were vital witnesses to the rise of Chinese nationalism and communism; Japanese occupation and Second World War, Chinese civil war and, finally, expulsion of all foreign missionaries from a newly-consolidated Chinese communist state.

Robert McMullen, a southern Presbyterian from Kentucky, was one of those missionaries who traveled with his wife Emma to Hangzhou, China in 1911. By 1937, when this yearlong anthology of letters begins, Emma and the McMullen children had been evacuated from the country, and McMullen was left to record the arrival of—and subsequent occupation by—Japanese troops in Hangzhou, where McMullen served as provost of Hangchow Christian College until being recalled to Shanghai in 1938.

At first glance, the letters are a window into a dramatic time in world history, a global precipice over which many Christians hoped their nations would not fall. McMullen was no different, espousing a complicated mixture of Christian internationalism, white superiority, American confidence, and collaborating pacifism. These additional primary sources should be published for students of history to easily access texts that offer such complexity.

The collection of letters in War and Occupation in China: The Letters of an American Missionary from Hangzhou, 1937-1938, are edited by Charles Bright—McMullen’s grandson—and Joseph W. Ho. While the editors provide excellent context both in the introduction and epilogue, they leave much to reader interpretation, providing options for consideration but not answers. In addition, some might feel the subject matter too narrowly defined within the context of American Presbyterian missions, theological debates over conservatism and liberalism, and ecumenical efforts to combine missionary-founded institutions of higher education in China. 

Perhaps there is a larger idea in this highly-focused description of McMullen’s residency in China: the most critical thing worth saving as the world descended into chaos was the mission itself. On the other hand, one American missionary out of the thousands living in China by the 1920s could hardly be expected to maintain a personal archive of experiences out of which we could fully comprehend the missionary period in China. This book moves a tremendously long way towards helping us achieve this understanding.

It is difficult to read—in hindsight—the lengths McMullen went to in collaborating with Japanese occupiers in Hangzhou to protect foreigners, Chinese refugees, and personal property. It is also awkward to see McMullen consider the resistance of Chinese soldiers—firing upon Japanese targets in Hangzhou from across the river—as much worse than the rape of Chinese civilians by Japanese soldiers. Of the latter, McMullen writes “It seems to be considered an essential part of their life for Japanese soldiers to rape. They think of it even before food” (168). Yet, McMullen’s efforts as the local wartime president of the Red Cross appear to have kept (at least for a short time) 20,000 refugee women from further rape once inside Red Cross camps (168-169).

While McMullen’s early letters were most likely censored (8), by June 1938, when other channels for mail probably existed, McMullen still deferred to Japanese leadership, opining the transfer of his “friend” Fujumaru—a Japanese lieutenant in charge of foreigners in Hangzhou (260). Deciphering McMullen’s reasons for justifying the murder of a Chinese college employee by Japanese soldiers as a “misunderstanding”, but condemning the Chinese nationalist army for attempting to regain the city (169-70), are problematic but important. What is one’s responsibility living under an occupied regime? Is it saving lives at the cost of justice? Pursuing peace above freedom? Does McMullen’s role as an American Christian missionary make him more or less able to represent the needs of Chinese civilians remaining in Hangzhou? Certainly his incredibly slow understanding of the aims and racial views of the Japanese military indicated he did not anticipate the eventual fall of Shanghai, nor the wartime concentration and expulsion of its foreigner residents. Yet, should that matter?

I found War and Occupation in China to be a fascinating case study of Christian service in the midst of wartime occupation. I find myself still contemplating the issues raised by Bright and Ho without coming to any easy conclusions. Although the editors maintain the letters show how the “conditions of war came to be engaged and understood by a believing individual fully embedded in Chinese conditions” (12), I believe some readers will disagree that McMullen was ever fully embedded in the Chinese wartime experience.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joy Schulz is Instructor of History at Metropolitan Community College.

Date of Review: 
January 14, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Charles C. Bright is Arthur J. Thurnau professor of History at the University of Michigan.

Joseph W. Ho is Assistant Professor of History at Albion College.


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