The clouds, which had been gathering for years, thickened at the beginning of 1927. Chinese who had been abroad were convinced that the white races in general, and Britain in particular, were the oppressors of mankind. Christian missionaries were said to be always the forerunners of foreign invaders. Britain was the great imperial power trampling under foot the weaker races. She had crushed India and Africa, and was now proceeding to do the same with China. The presence in Chinese waters of British gunboats, which had on more than one occasion proved that their machine guns were not there for show, seemed to confirm this view. Missionaries and merchants were but inserting the thin end of the wedge. These sentiments resolved themselves into two definite slogans: "Down with Imperialism" and "Down with Christianity."
So tense did the atmosphere become that the British consuls stationed in various ports, fearing a general massacre, strongly urged all their nationals to withdraw to the coast. The embarrassment and danger in which Chinese Christians were involved by the presence of foreign friends, finally brought mission boards to a decision to evacuate. For the Church was being regarded not only as the agent of a foreign religion but as the upholder of imperialism, and this was a definite hindrance to the propagation of the Gospel. Strangers would sometimes slip into church during a Communion or confirmation service, and being entirely ignorant of the meaning of what they saw, would go out and warn the general public against listening to these "dogs" who had sunk so low that they could kneel before the imperialists who represented the oppressors of their people.
Sick at heart and somewhat puzzled by this apparent triumph of the enemy, missionaries said good-bye to the friends they had learned to love in Szechwan, not knowing whether they would ever see them again. Then for nearly eighteen months a young and inexperienced Church, which had scarcely reached the first stage of self-government, was left to face new difficulties without the help of its missionary friends. Moreover, it was confronted with the problem of protecting mission property now left vacant. In some instances this latter task proved to be impossible. House-hunting military officials and their families found mission houses and compounds admirably suited to their needs, and lost no time in occupying them. Some of these houses have never been recovered. There were striking examples of courageous effort on the part of Chinese workers to save what they could for the friends whom they hoped to see again. In Mienchow the women's school building was saved by the determination of women workers who stoutly faced the soldiers and refused to let them in. There is still a fairly widespread sense of li (propriety) in China, even among the rabble, and women are usually safe behind a door curtain which marks the women's quarters. This little band of plucky women rescued all the furniture in the C.M.S. ladies' house, and stored it in their crowded apartments, leaving themselves very little room to use. All other mission property in Mienchow-the spacious girls' and boys' boarding schools, preaching halls, guest halls, residences, etc., were commandeered. The church was spared, and one other house and the girls' school have since been recovered.
Such incidents are typical of what happened all over the province. In certain places Christians were called upon to suffer more than the loss of property. Some were dragged through the streets and publicly beaten; others were attacked and killed. The night seemed long, especially to those who waited at the coast or at home in England for the first opportunity to return. British consuls were adamant. A party of men, led by Bishop Mowll, were given a very reluctant permission to return in December, 1927, and still more reluctant permission was obtained for Mrs. Mowll to accompany her husband. The spring of 1928 was nearly over before the first party of women missionaries were able to get back to their work.
The most critical situation in the C.M.S. area was at Mienchow. At the first opportunity Miss Wells proceeded thither, not knowing whether she would be permitted to enter the house where she had lived and toiled for so many years. A messenger was sent on ahead to request the immediate evacuation of at least two rooms. The occupants evidently intended to hold on at all costs, but when Miss Wells arrived and they faced this dainty little lady, whose hair had grown grey in the service of their country and whose cheerful good temper seemed equal to anything, their courage failed them. Even they could not tell her that she must stay at an inn. One room therefore, was speedily cleared, and Miss Wells took up her residence there. Later she was joined by Miss Cooper, a missionary of ten years' standing, and the two carried on a daily struggle for possession of the rest of the house. This was an unpleasant task, for every other room was occupied by a whole Chinese family, but eventually after some months the last of the unwelcome tenants took their departure. A general who is living in one of the other C.M.S. houses in the city, has from the first been on the friendliest terms with his missionary neighbours, and his small daughter attends the mission school. It is a curious experience to be invited to dine in your own home and to be entertained with lavish eastern hospitality by an uninvited guest in occupation. Truly, as one of the Chinese women workers aptly remarked: "The skin of some people's faces is as thick as the city wall!"
The recovery of property, however, was perhaps the least of the problems that faced us on our return from that long enforced holiday. Up to that time the missionary society through its local governing body, had been directing most of the work. Missionaries in conference located Chinese workers and decided the amount of their salaries. Missionaries were in charge of stations, all payments to Chinese workers being made through them. In these circumstances it was inevitable that the missionaries, however cordial their relations with their Chinese colleagues, should come to be regarded by the latter as the representatives of their employers. Thus a subtle barrier, intangible but real, had grown up between them. The new spirit of Nationalism, which affected even some of our Christian workers, made a change of policy absolutely necessary. If the Church was to make any headway in this province, everything savouring of foreign authority must be put away.
The greatest problem to be faced therefore was that of the necessity for a large measure of self-government although self-support was still a long way off. Bishop Mowll, who had foreseen these conditions, was ready with plans for dividing the diocese into three sub-synod areas, united by one diocesan standing committee, and the appointment of two Chinese assistant bishops to take a large share of the oversight. These plans were quickly put into effect. Bishop Ku and Bishop Song were consecrated in the summer of 1929, the former to have the oversight of the eastern or C.I.M. side of the diocese, and the latter that of the western or C.M.S. side. Evangelistic, educational, and medical committees, each with a very small foreign representation, were then appointed by the synod to be responsible for the work. Funds which previously had been administered by the missionary body were handed to the sub-synod in the form of an annual block grant, to be supplemented by Chinese contributions. The administration of these funds was undertaken by the finance committee, under the sub-synod.
There were perhaps some people at home who thought that this step was being taken too soon, and that the young Church was being unduly burdened with responsibility. Our only reply to this objection is that it was an absolutely necessary step. There was nothing else to be done in the circumstances. The period we have reached is a natural stage of development. Missionaries are not being set aside by an overconfident native Church. They are watching eagerly for signs of growth which warrant the transfer of more and more responsibility.
Thus has begun an entirely new chapter in the life of the Church. Diocesanization is a dull sounding word, but the movement which it represents is aglow with life and interest. A new Church consciousness is coming into being. Friends at home who desire to get an intelligent grasp of the work in this country must have a clear idea of what diocesanization means for China, for it does not necessarily mean quite the same thing for China as for India and Africa. It means first, a definite policy on the part of all missionaries in China to think in terms of the Chinese Church rather than in terms of their respective societies. It means, moreover, a determination on the part of the missionaries in any one district to regard themselves not so much as agents of a missionary society, but as a part of the diocese, and to see things from the point of view of the diocese as a whole rather than from that of their own portion of it. Dioces-anization has, of course, its parallel movements in the non-episcopal Churches, some of which indeed were before us in the working out of such policies.
The apparent defeat which deprived the Church in Szechwan of missionary help at such a critical period, has thus proved to be one more step forward.