Missionary Knowledge and the Writing of Chinese Life
W.K. Cheng

Interest in missionaries to China is too often directed at their role as “agents of change” introducing facets of modernity into the Chinese historical landscape. China in God’s Eyes brings into focus the “cultural brokerage” of the missionaries, which, with some notable exceptions (e.g., Jonathan Spence), has largely been overlooked. Many missionaries were also “purveyors of knowledge” about China and the Chinese for the Western homeland audience. As relations between China and the West changed precipitately in the mid-nineteenth century, China represented a new and expanding frontier where Western missionaries became in effect the West’s quintessential “frontiersmen” who ventured into uncharted waters, battled native hostility, and extended the reach of Western civilization.
Central to this collective enterprise was the missionaries expository writing on Chinese life, in all its social and cultural manifestations, through which the Western reader could experience vicariously the missionizing encounter. The portrayal of Chinese life — their social behavior and habits of thought, their relation with the living environment, the religious and cultural values by which they ordered their lives, etc. — was arguably the most popular genre of missionary writing in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
China in God’s Eyes examines the China writings of five influential missionary authors–– S. Wells Williams, John L. Nevius, W.A.P. Martin, Arthur H. Smith, and John Macgowan — to detail how the realities of Chinese life were variously employed to lend credence to the nobility, necessity, and viability of the Christianizing project.

W. K. Cheng is Associate Professor of History at Mills College. Born in Hong Kong, Professor Cheng holds a B.A. from the University of Hong Kong, an M.A. from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.

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