Praying the “Hail Mary”: Examining the Relationship Between Chinese Female Christian Converts and Christian Missionaries at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

The earliest recorded arrival of Christianity in China is during the Tang Dynasty, although legends exist that claim Christianity existed there from an earlier point (Latourette 49-51).  Missionary writings never discussed Chinese female Christian converts at length (Lutz “Introduction” 13-16). Still, these women gained greater social mobility in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries due to institutions created by Christian missionaries. For instance, they became educated in missionary schools, travelled widely throughout the country preaching the Christian word, and entered into careers created by missionary institutions, such as teachers, nurses, missionary aides, and so on (Gewurtz). However, some scholars argue that this increased social mobility was ultimately inconsequential, since it was never widespread and only lasted a short time. It is important to remember also, they argue, that the Christian missionary movement in China was not one of empowerment for Chinese women, but rather that it simply promoted in its teachings a different kind of patriarchal system from the Chinese one, namely the American one.[1]

While this is certainly true, to dismiss these female Christian converts as simply victims of another patriarchal regime, passive recipients of another form of patriarchal knowledge, is to underestimate the ways in which they actively interacted with Christian ideas. Together with the missionaries who taught them, they engaged in dialogues that ultimately re-shaped Christian hierarchies and re-interpreted Christian beliefs in a way that enabled them to re-conceive of themselves as equals within their society. As such, even if one were to consider the social mobility Chinese female Christian converts experienced at this time inconsequential, it should at the very least be viewed as an important process that contributed to this re-conceptualization of self.[2] The main assumption underlying this hypothesis—that Chinese women were agents in their process of conversion, rather than passive receivers of Christian doctrine—owes itself largely to the theoretical work of Gayatri Spivak and Judith Butler. Both of them address the problem in scholarship of obscuring the voices of the very subjects academics seek to study, and have thus contributed to a burgeoning dialogue on this issue[3]. This essay, as well, strives to find a way of bridging the gap between Chinese Christian women as they exist in documentation and as they may have actually experienced their conversion to Christianity.

Before examining in precisely what way Chinese women converts achieved this reshaping and reinterpretation, however, it is important to draw out in detail the multiple ways in which the Christian missionary movement was not explicitly an empowering one for women. This fact that has led many scholars to argue that despite the limited social mobility some women may have experienced as a result of the missionary movement, they overall remained oppressed victims. First, the attitude of most western missionaries, both male and female, toward Chinese women remained firmly entrenched in notions of white, Western superiority. Scholar Marjorie King characterizes this as a lack of “sisterhood” or empathy between female missionaries and Chinese women; in other words, the lack of a shared sense of male oppression (117-132). The implications of this are that missionaries in general did not view Chinese women as subjects to be empowered, but rather as tools they could use in their own quest to make China into a Christian nation. This is clear from the fact that missionaries only selectively aided Chinese women who came to them seeking protection from unwanted arranged marriages and so on, only helping women if they felt certain their interventions would not offend the woman’s family and larger community, which the missionaries hoped to eventually convert (123).

In addition, missionaries often wrote of a dualistic conception of how Chinese women fit into their scheme of converting China to Christianity. On the one hand, in the then-current Chinese way of thought, at least according to the observations of missionaries, women belonged to the “inner” world, or the household, and men to the “outer.” Because religion and spirituality were components of the “inner” world, women were seen as the keepers of “heathen” practices in China, the instigators who perpetuated customs such as Chinese ancestor worship through the centuries. Although they were villainized in this way, missionaries at the same time saw them as the key to China’s “salvation.” This was because Chinese men were reticent to even listen to the missionaries’ ideas, never mind adapt them. Therefore, missionaries turned to Chinese women, whom they hoped would then go on to convert their husbands and sons (Ki 250).

In addition to the fact that missionaries essentially viewed Chinese women only as tools to help them achieve their mission, they also taught that Chinese women should learn to read and write only enough to become “enlightened housewives” who would enter gladly into lives of faithful subservience to their husbands and sons, all while through their noble and virtuous actions and behaviors convincing the men of their family to convert to Christianity like them (King 118). Thus, missionaries clearly did not intend to evoke a feminist consciousness in Chinese women. Despite their encouragement that women should be subservient to their husbands and sons, missionaries did appoint a number of women to leadership positions, such as teachers and “Bible women,” laywomen who traveled throughout different villages proclaiming the Christian faith (Ki).  However, Bible women were specifically instructed not to preach to men, but only to other women, since it would have been deemed improper for a woman to act in  a position of authority to a man (254-259). Scholars have furthermore pointed out that the leadership positions given Chinese women were never all that high; for instance, Chinese women were not generally appointed to posts that, in the eyes of Christians, would have endowed them with sacred abilities, such as reverends[4] (Lee 183). In the mid-1920s, female leadership all but disappeared within the Christian missionary system, for reasons that still have not been satisfactorily explained. Scholars often highlight this disappointing conclusion to the period of social mobility that Chinese female converts experienced in the early twentieth century as proof that said social mobility was ultimately inconsequential (Wu 98).

Immediately after the end of the Mao era and the beginning of renewed tolerance in China for some religious traditions, Chinese Christians began once more to practice their faith, which seemed to indicate that families had been continuing to practice the religion in secret. Because many of the Chinese converts in the early twentieth century were women, it is not unreasonable to conclude that it was women who perpetuated the observance of Christianity in many of these families. Furthermore, women make up seventy percent of Christians in contemporary China (Lutz “Beyond Missions” 427). This suggests that the relationship between Christianity and Chinese women may be more complex than the oppressor-oppressed model above. It is true that missionaries mostly portrayed Chinese women as a group that needed to be saved, and also that missionaries spoke most often of what they had done for Chinese women, rather than what Chinese women had done themselves (Kwok “Mothers” 27). However, it is unfair to Chinese women to conclude from these biased texts that they could not have played more active roles within the missionary system that, because of the agenda to represent China as a powerless victim of “heathen” religion, would not have been mentioned in missionary texts. Enough research has been done to suggest that, in fact, Chinese women did play an active role within the missionary system, participating in dialogues with missionaries that led to a re-shaping of Christian practice and a re-interpretation of Christian faith that enabled them to reconceptualize of themselves as equals in their society.

An important part of the context of missionaries in China that contributed to the reinterpretation of Christian faith among Chinese women was the fact that the missionaries needed these women far more than the women needed them. As mentioned above, because Chinese men were in general reluctant to listen to the missionaries, the latter group saw the conversion of Chinese women as the key to the eventual conversion of the country. However, because of the extremely segregated nature of Chinese society at the turn of the twentieth century, Chinese women were largely confined to the inner realm of the household, not to be seen by any male except for their closest relatives. Because many missionaries were not just males but foreign males, for that matter, they stood little chance of gaining an audience with the women with whom they so dearly wished to speak. As a result, it became a matter of urgency for them to recruit female missionaries in order to reach out to more women. Furthermore, it was important that these female missionaries be Chinese, rather than white. Not only did they have easier access to the inner branches of networks of Chinese communities, but they also possessed the necessary language ability in Mandarin and other, local dialects to communicate with the women whom the missionaries wanted to reach (Ki 250-251). Because of their desire to attract Chinese women to the missionary lifestyle, preachers and priests tended in their sermons and homilies to under-emphasize, or not mention at all, more chauvinistic aspects of the Christian faith, such as the Adam and Eve story (Kwok “Chinese Women” 30). As a result, Chinese women were from the beginning exposed to a form of Christianity not as overtly patriarchal as that often proclaimed in the West.

Due to their need for female Chinese aides, many women Chinese converts obtained various leadership roles in the church. While it is true that the social mobility Chinese women gained as a result of the missionary movement was limited, and never widespread, this does not diminish its importance to those women who did experience it. First, it is important not to underestimate the freedom given women who traveled throughout different Chinese cities preaching Christianity—this ability to travel was rare for both men and women at the time, who often never left the city or village in which they had been born (Ki). Furthermore, even if women never received roles that carried sacred functions with them, the very fact that women were invested with the power to convey to others what they believed was the word of the highest authority, God, is fairly remarkable in itself.

Besides, because the reverends of the missionaries were understaffed and because it was difficult for them to be everywhere at once, many Bible women carried out the functions that under other circumstances would have been reserved for these reverends, such as carrying out baptisms and other sacraments (Tiedemann 91-92). In addition, though Bible women were instructed not to preach to men, as mentioned above, there was no feasible way to monitor this regulation, since the missionaries could not physically follow the Bible women around to ensure that they were obeying instructions (if they had been able to, there would have been no need for Bible women). Thus, Bible women frequently ignored such warnings and welcomed male students, who would come listen to them as they preached in public spaces (Ki). Thus, Chinese women took advantage of the lack of direct authority in the missionary system to re-shape how they carried out missionary practice in ways that increased their power in relation to men.

As for the guiding philosophy of the missionaries that Chinese women should learn from them in order to become “enlightened housewives,” these women by no means universally heeded this dictum. As has been mentioned above, many women found opportunities through missionary-created institutions to take on careers such as teachers and nurses, which enabled them with the means by which to support themselves and remain single, if they so chose.[5] This is thus one way in which Chinese women did not passively accept all of the teachings of the Christian missionaries; clearly, the women students of the missionaries who went on to lead independent lives absorbed in their teachings that this was a possibility for them, whereas this conclusion was actually at odds with what the missionaries were trying to convey. This discrepancy thus indicates that Chinese women  did not passively absorb the message of the missionaries, but rather actively engaged with and reinterpreted this message in a way that contributed to their reconceptualization of themselves. In fact, at the very least, because women were able to use their leadership roles to preach sacred texts, perform sacred functions, and live independent lives, this social mobility should be seen as contributing to womens’ reconceptualization of themselves as equal subjects under the Christian God.

The root of this reconceptualization, however, occurred in the ways in which missionaries and Chinese women together reinterpreted Christian theology, to different ends. For missionaries, it was necessary to teach some aspects of Christian theology in a different manner than they would have been taught to Western audiences, in order for the precepts as a whole to be more comprehensible to a Chinese audience steeped in a very different religious background. For instance, scholar Pui-Lan Kwok has examined in detail what she calls the “feminization of Christian symbolism,” which refers to the process by which Christian symbolism became less patriarchal and more encompassing of the female as it was introduced to the Chinese. She explains that, after a long controversy regarding how to translate the word “God” into Mandarin, a term was chosen that “incorporated the doctrine of God into their [Chinese] wholistic and cosmological religiosity,” which because of its non-dualistic nature meant that the term allowed Chinese Christians to “not absolutely reject the female representation of the divine, seeing God the creator dwelling in all things, including the sun and the moon, the heaven and the earth” (“Chinese Women” 37). The English word “God,” on the other hand, because of a long history of emphasis on his maleness, is generally associated exclusively with the masculine.

There were also issues with trying to express God as a father figure to Chinese people, as is often done in the West. Kwok points out that to identify God as the common father of all mankind could potentially challenge the authority of fathers in the family. Furthermore, missionaries did not feel that the stereotypical father image in China of a stern man adequately represented the love and compassion of God that they wanted to emphasize. Finally, she explains that to speak of God as a single parent disrupted Chinese familial symbolism, which emphasized symmetry and harmony. For all of these reasons, many missionaries chose to emphasize a “father-mother God,” rather than purely a father God (42).

Chinese women also contributed to the reinterpretation of Christian theology. Kwok argues that “salvation offered by Jesus was seen in the context of a pluralistic belief, in which both male and female could be salvific figures” (46). In other words, because of their background in a pluralistic belief system, Chinese women never assumed, as eras of Western Christian believers did, that only males could be saviors because Jesus was a male. The fact that they did not see his maleness as requisite for his savior status is emphasized by the fact that those few women converts who did write, such as Zeng Baosun, discussed that there is no distinction between sexes “in” Christ (qtd. in Kwok “Chinese Women” 46). This focus on the preposition “in,” as opposed to “before” or “under,” indicates that the lack of distinction Zeng had in mind was centered within Christ himself, as well as outside of him. Anecdotes that have been passed down from the initial female Chinese Christian converts also exist to demonstrate that in their approach to Christian theology, these women de-emphasized those portions of Biblical texts concerning the subservience of women to men.[6] This is further evidence that they chose not to accept the classical Christian notion of male spiritual superiority.

Additionally, the missionaries inadvertently stressed the role of women in Jesus’ life, which Chinese women in turn picked up on and employed in their reconceptualization of themselves. A missionary named Gützlaff decided to put together a simpler version of the Gospel for students, so that they would not have to sift through the somewhat confusing four separate books of the Gospel in order to put together a cohesive portrait of Jesus’ life. Throughout the four gospels, sometimes different variants of the same stories are repeated. [7] Because Gützlaff did not consolidate these stories in his summarized verson, but rather included all of them, the number of times women appeared in the life of Jesus increased (47). Another missionary who completed a similar project of consolidating the gospels, named Holcomb, made the decision in his narrative to leave out many incidents of Jesus’ life where women were not present, and by contrast emphasized the roles they did play. For instance, they were the first to witness his resurrection and the only ones to stand by him on the cross (48).

In addition to Kwok’s observances on the feminization of Christian symbolism in Chinese Christianity, it is important to realize that even the very act of deep religious contemplation among Chinese Christian women was in a sense empowering. For those women who did not simply absorb what the missionaries taught them for their future lives as “enlightened housewives,” but rather used the misisonaries’ knowledge to delve headfirst into explorations of the complexities of Christian theology, this thought process was important because it reflected them considering themselves in terms of their relation to God and the cosmos and their spiritual salvation, rather than only in terms of how they were useful to a male-dominated society, both Chinese and missionary-style. Chinese Christian women who have recorded their spiritual journeys seem not to be thinking of themselves as gendered individuals with specific roles in society, but rather as simply subjects, to whom salvation and its concepts were as accessible as to anybody else.

This is exemplified by Chinese Christian Dora Yu’s account of her life, in which her spiritual development, not her physical life, is the centerpiece. Every event in her life is structured around the intense spiritual dialogues and conflicts she perceives to exist between herself and God (Yu). It is true that Dora Yu is only one person, and cannot be said to represent the experience of every Chinese Christian woman. However, though cases like Dora Yu’s may or may not be representative, they still demonstrate that some Chinese women did look beyond what missionaries taught them to seek their own understanding of Christian theology and their relationship to the Christian God

Much research remains to be conducted to examine the extent to which this reshaping and reinterpretation occurred, and continues to occur today. First, more primary-source documents, mainly the writings of the missionaries and any surviving documentation of the converts, need to be consulted, beginning with the extensive body of English-language missionary writings available in the libraries of American universities, seminaries, and religious organizations. Furthermore, more Chinese-language source materials should be incorporated. Although they often do not focus on women specifically, which is also a problem with English-language missionary writings, they might still provide new clues to ways in which Christianity was reinterpreted during its reception in China. Certain universities in Taiwan have released a number of collections of missionary documents to the public; these would be an ideal starting-point in this endeavor.

Second, a certain amount of anthropological research needs to be conducted on how Chinese Christianity is carried out today, since this might also provide clues to ways in which Christian belief was reinterpreted. For instance, during Catholic services in China and in Catholic Christian communities in general, Jesus’ mother Mary tends to receive particular emphasis; it is possible that Chinese Christian women have underscored her in their faith and study of Catholicism even more than she is underscored in the West. Furthermore, at the end of at least a number of Chinese Catholic services, after the priest has left the vicinity and the space has thus become, in a sense, de-masculinized, many churchgoers listen attentively to a group of elderlyt Chinese women who chant for a fairly long period, about fifteen minutes. This component of Catholic devotion, which to my knowledge is not practiced in the West, may also represent another way in which Christian women reinterpreted Christian doctrine in a way that allowed them to reconceive of themselves as equals, but as I said, more research is needed.

In any case, the interactions of Chinese women and Christianity should not be viewed as inconsequential or irrelevant to the greater picture of Chinese history. This effectively prevents from ever being heard the voices of those women who used the faith as a tool with which to construct a new way of conceiving of themselves and their relation to their societies. It is true that the social mobility that women experienced as a result of the Christian missionary movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in China was not extensive, nor was it widespread or long-lasting. Furthermore, the explicit aims of the missionary churches were not to empower women, but rather to instill in them adherence to their own system of patriarchy, as opposed to the Chinese one. However, Chinese Christian converts in their practices re-shaped Christian missionary practice and re-interpreted Christian belief in ways that caused them to reconceptualize of themselves as equal subjects under the Christian God, as entitled to salvation and as capable of fulfilling sacred and salvific roles as men were. At the very least, the leadership roles they experienced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries should be viewed as important in that the empowerment they provided the women who were given them reinforced this new way of conceiving themselves. This period could perhaps be seen as contributing to the growth of a feminist consciousness in China. At the very least, it marks an important time in which many women defied the call from all directions to enter into lives of subservience to men, choosing rather to conceive of themselves as equal subjects capable of independent thought and action.





Works Cited

Butler, Judith. “Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire.” Gender Trouble. London: Routledge, 1999.

Gewurtz, Margo S. “Women and Christianity in Rural North Henan, 1890-1912.” Pioneer
Chinese Christian Women: Gender, Christianity, and Social Mobility.
Ed. Jessie G. Lutz.
Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press, 2010. pp. 199-213.

Ki, Ling Oi. “Bible Women.” Pioneer Chinese Christian Women: Gender, Christianity, and
Social Mobility.
Ed. Jessie G. Lutz. Bethelem: Lehigh University Press, 2010.
pp. 246-264. Print.

King, Marjorie. “Exporting Femininity, not Feminism: Nineteenth-Century U.S. Missionary
Women’s Efforts to Emancipate Chinese Women.” Women’s Work for Women:
Missionaries and Social Change in Asia.
Ed. Leslie A. Flemming. Boulder, San
Francisco, London: Westview Press, 1989. pp. 117-135. Print.

Kwok, Pui-Lan. Chinese Women and Christianity 1860-1927. Atlanta, Georgia: Scholar’s
Press, 1992. Print.

Kwok, Pui-Lan. “Mothers and Daughters, Writers and Fighters.” Inheriting Our Mothers’
Gardens: Feminist Theology in Third World Perspective.
Philadelphia: Westminster
Press, 1988. Print.

Latourette, Kenneth Scott. A History of Christian Missions in China. New York: the Macmillan
Company, 1929. Print.

Lee, Joseph Tse-Hei. “Gospel and Gender: Female Christians in Chaozhou, South China.”
Pioneer Chinese Christian Women: Gender, Christianity, and Social Mobility.
Jessie G. Lutz. Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press, 2010. pp. 182-198. Print.

Lutz, Jessie G. “Beyond Missions: Christianity as a Chinese Religion in a Changing China.”
Pioneer Chinese Christian Women: Gender, Christianity, and Social Mobility.

Ed. Jessie G. Lutz. Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press, 2010. pp. 423-437. Print.

Lutz, Jessie G. “Introduction.” Pioneer Chinese Christian Women: Gender, Christianity, and
Social Mobility.
Ed. Jessie G. Lutz. Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press, 2010. pp. 13-25.

Spivak, Gayatri. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Ed. C.
Nelson and L. Grossberg. Macmillan Education: Basingstoke, 1988. pp. 271-313. Print.

Tiedemann, R.G. “A Necessary Evil: The Contribution of Chinese ‘Virgins’ to the Growth of the
Catholic Church in Late Qing China.” Pioneer Chinese Christian Women: Gender,
Christianity, and Social Mobility.
Ed. Jessie G. Lutz. Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press,
2010. pp. 87-107. Print.

Wang, Peter Chen-main. “Models of Female Christians in Early Twentieth-Century China: A
Historiographical Study.” Pioneer Chinese Christian Women: Gender, Christianity,
and Social Mobility.
Ed. Jessie G. Lutz. Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press, 2010.
pp. 165-178. Print.

Wu, Silas H.L. “Dora Yu: Foremost Female Evangelist in Twentieth-Century Chinese
Revivalism.” Gospel Bearers, Gender Barriers: Missionary Women in the Twentieth
Ed. Dana L. Robert. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2002. pp. 85-98.

Yu, Dora. God’s Dealings With Dora Yu. London: Morgan & Scott, Ltd., 1927 (have to check the publication year on this one)


[1] Marjorie King’s essay “Exporting Femininity, not Feminism” contains one example of such an argument (118).

[2] I feel that an important clarification is needed here, for fear that if it remains unstated, this paper will be easily misinterpreted. The ultimate source of Chinese women’s reconceptualization of themselves was themselves, not Christianity, which was only a tool they used in this process. Note the emphasis in my argument on their active engagement with Christianity; it was not that their reconceptualization of themselves occurred as a result of their passive reception of Christian precepts, but rather that they actively engaged with and re-interpreted these precepts to aid them in re-conceiving themselves as equals in society. Note also that because the teachings of the missionaries were indeed not female-empowering, but rather emphasized women’s subservient roles to men in society, it does not make sense to argue that Chinese women could have come to re-conceptualize of themselves as equals in society simply by passively absorbing the teachings of the missionaries.

[3] See Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” and Chapter One of Butler’s Gender Trouble.

[4] I encountered some difficulty in terms of what word to use to describe people endowed with sacred functions in Christianity. The first problem is that different branches of Christianity have different terms (e.g. “priest” is most common in Catholicism, while Protestantism seems to use fairly interchangeably “pastor,” “minister,” and “preacher,” among other terms).The second problem is that I am not sure whether in some branches of Christianity in some parts of the world, readers would not associate certain of the terms of above with sacred functions. For the purposes of this paper, I will use the term “reverend,” which seems to be a term generally recognized by most Christians as indicative of those who carry a sacred function within the church.

[5] This phenomenon is discussed at length in most English-language sources on Chinese women and Christian missionaries. Several good examples are mentioned throughout Pioneer Chinese Christian Women, edited by Jessie Lutz and of which some specific articles are included in the works cited page.

[6] For instance, Kwok details a story in which a Christian woman was told by her husband to obey the Christian maxim that women should be subservient to their husbands. This woman subsequently cut out the passage that explicitly states this in the Book of Paul, afterwards bringing the thus-altered Bible to her husband to prove to him that it contained no such teaching (“Mothers” 28).

[7] One example Kwok gives is of the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet (qtd. in 47).