Project Canterbury

Forward in Western China

By Deaconess Emily Lily Stewart
C.M.S. Missionary in Szechwan

Foreword by the Archbishop of Sydney

London: Church Missionary Society, 1934.

Chapter V. General Conditions

To all outward appearances the Church in Szechwan is still a small and insignificant body. The Christian message has barely touched the fringe of this enormous population. Among the more thoughtful scholars the teaching of Christ is being seriously studied, but there is little inclination as yet to apply it to the problems of life. It is almost impossible for a Christian to hold any high official position in this province and to remain a Christian. Sooner or later either his office or his Christianity has to go.

It is becoming almost a byword with certain people that England is not a Christian but a pagan land. Those who talk thus do not realize what we owe to the influence of Christianity on our social system. That English society has proved itself grievously unworthy of its high privileges none of us would deny, and it is true that a very small proportion of our people are sincere followers of Christ. Nevertheless, even in a nominal Christianity there is a very real value of which we do not become conscious until we have lived where no such nominal Christianity exists. Leaving out of account the definitely criminal classes, every Englishman, whether he is a Christian or not, is the product of a centuries-old Christian civilization which has left its mark upon his character and general outlook. The man in the street may give very little heed to the claims of Christ, but he has some idea of playing the game, and a sense of the value of human life. Human life is very cheap in China, and if at any time there appears as a light in the darkness such a nine days' wonder as an upright official who does not enrich himself by robbing the poor, it usually transpires that he has been under some kind of Christian influence.

If somebody should fall into the Thames near London Bridge, it is more than likely that the bridge would be cleared in two minutes of all those able to swim. Why? Because it is a natural instinct to save life? Is it? There is no such instinct in China, only a shrug of the shoulders and a muttered: "It's not my business." No, our sense of the value of human life is the result of the gradual permeation of society by Christian thought.

Civil war has been the curse of China for centuries. Petty rulers seeking to increase their power make endless demands on the helpless people under their sway. Thousands of dollars earned by the toiling masses are squandered every year by despotic war lords for purely selfish ends. Human life is poured out like water in the ceaseless struggle. The hope of freedom and democracy, so attractively dangled before the people as a certain result of the Revolution, has so far not been realized. There is no democracy in China in anything more than name. The Chinese masses have found to their cost that there are no more tyrannical oppressors than those who have risen up from among the oppressed. The common people, instead of being slaves of a Manchu ruler, are now slaves of the local war lord whose unreasonable demands for more and yet more taxes keep them in the most abject poverty. The cost of living for the working classes in Szechwan is reckoned to be about $2.00 per head per month. At the present rate of exchange a dollar is worth 1s. 4d. sterling, and in Szechwan realizes 26,000 "cash." The most common copper coin is the 200 cash piece, and two of these coins roughly represent the price of an egg. A capable farm labourer earns his food and from 2000 to 3000 cash per day, i.e. less than 2d. This is approximately the cost of a peck of rice. A woman servant in a Chinese family earns her board, plus about 15,000 cash per month, i.e. under 9d. The women of the working classes make most of the clothes and shoes for the family. Clothes are expected to last in Szechwan. A winter padded garment may be worn for four or five seasons, and even then the material can be utilized for something else. Nothing is wasted. Scraps of old rag are saved to be pasted on boards and put in the sun to dry, forming a hard substance which is used for shoe-soles. Women and children go out to gather fuel-scraps of wood, dead leaves, pea-nut shells, orange peel, corn cobs--anything in fact that will burn. Food consists chiefly of rice and bean curd, with a little sauce or vegetable to help the appetite. Meat is a luxury not to be enjoyed more than once a week. Firing for mere warmth is seldom indulged in by the poor. The vast majority have little chance to save money against a time of special need, and there are no insurance companies or benefit clubs. Therefore when they are overtaken by famine or flood their sufferings are indescribable. In comparison there is no poverty in England. Government doles and social service organizations make such privation almost impossible.

In spite of their many trials the Chinese working classes are naturally industrious, law-abiding, cheerful, and kindly folk, who ask no more from life than to be left in peace to get on with their work. It is from this class of people that the greater part of the Church in Western China is made up. The common people still hear our Lord gladly. Christianity has, however, one powerful rival here. Communism, with its promise of deliverance from military oppression, makes a special appeal to these downtrodden masses. They have endured so long and so patiently. How much longer will they endure? There are dangerous stirrings in some quarters, and occasionally a band of farmers, armed with all kinds of farm implements, form themselves into an avenging army and make a surprise attack on the local militia.

AH this unrest cannot fail to have its effect upon the Church. The Communist party has its trained propagandists who know some psychology. They travel all over the country, not lecturing so much as making friends and spreading their ideas by the conversational method. They know how to find a point of contact, real or imaginary, between Christianity and Communism and thus to appeal to the Christian. Few Christians so far have been ensnared by these tactics, for the ghastly atrocities of the Red armies in the north of the province have enabled most thinking people to form an estimate of Communism. These horrors seem to be perpetrated as a deliberate policy, the theory being that the present generation is poisoned with imperialistic ideas, and that the only way to build a new world is first to destroy all who have not embraced Communism. The soldiers who carry out these orders are drawn from the rank and file of the down-trodden people. They are a striking reminder of Z. K. Zia's warning. Writing in 1924, and referring to the fatalism of the Chinese, he said: "Let us not exploit the rank and file and take advantage of their fatalism. The same people may prove to be the most reckless, since they may take a notion that Fate destines them to destroy and kill." [The Confucian Civilisation, p. 82.]

We have said that it is almost impossible in this province for a Chinese Christian to hold a position of authority and to remain a Christian. Almost, but thank God, not quite. Nothing is impossible with Christ. There is a Christian military official, a general, in Szechwan at this moment who has taken a fearless stand for several years. Whenever possible he employs a chaplain for his troops and sets apart a regular time each day for the instruction of such men as are willing to receive it. Numbers of his soldiers have been brought to Christ, and the whole army has heard regularly the story of God's love. The fame and influence of this officer have gone far beyond the limits of his troops. "Look at General T'ao," the people say. "There is a man who has power but does not oppress the poor. His soldiers do not loot. It is because he is a Christian."

At one of the Chinese military dressing stations in the C.M.S. district, a simple Christian man with very little medical knowledge is employed as a nurse. Visitors on being shown over the station remarked on the number of patients gathered round this man. "Oh yes," was the casual reply, "we give him all the worst wounds to dress. He is a Christian and has a love for men." This disinterested testimony by a non-Christian observer is very significant. Many are learning that the hope of China does not lie in governments but in the power of Christ to change men's hearts. This seems at present to be the form of the Christian message which above all others has power to grip the Chinese.

Often a crowd of men in a preaching hall, who have strolled in casually from the market place, will listen with the greatest apathy to all that is said until some one begins to talk about Christ's power to change men, to give them liberty from the chains of sin which they lack the strength to break. Then there is interest and intelligent response. Do not misunderstand. There is very little desire, in the early stages of this awakening, for freedom from sin as sin, but for deliverance from something harmful. A man knows, for instance, that the opium habit is making him a useless wreck, yet he has no power to break away from the thing that is slowly killing him. He turns to Christ sometimes with a purely self-centred motive--to be healed of his plague. The more spiritual idea of sin is a later development. Was not the first motive of the returning prodigal a very similar one? "How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger?" Yet in this immortal story our Lord says nothing about the motive for coming--the important thing seems to be that the boy came. It was perhaps not until he was broken down by the father's welcoming love that self-pity gave place to real repentance.

So, as the banner of the Cross moves slowly on, many toil-worn, anxious faces are lifted up, and many despairing hearts are finding hope. The conflict with the powers of evil seems to grow more fierce, and every step of the way is dearly won. But He Who bears in His body the deepest marks of that conflict is still in the midst of the fight. The greatest suffering of all is His. Every casualty costs Him another Calvary. But there can be no retreat. At times when the night is specially dark we seem to see Him kneeling in Gethsemane. Let us go and kneel beside Him there, putting the weight of our whole personalities into His side of the struggle, and ready at a moment's notice for His word of command.

Project Canterbury