Thursday, April 10, 2008

Women of the China Inland Mission: Mary Ann Nicol, Fanny Clarke

Here's another glimpse from the lives of pioneering missionary women, based on Valerie Griffiths' excellent book Not Less Than Everything. More postings like this here. I'm planning to write another one about Emily Blatchley and Jennie Faulding. We'll see what others rise to the surface.

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In September 1879, a year after the two women had arrived in China, Mary Ann and Fanny married their husbands, George Nicol and George Clarke, in a double ceremony. Both couples were members of the China Inland Mission, founded in 1865. The two men had arrived in China in 1875. In November of 1879, two months into their marriages, the four set off on a ten-week journey up the Yangtze River.

After a difficult voyage (which included two shipwrecks in the icy river) they reached their destination, where the Nicols were to stay, during Chinese New Year’s. Local women were busy with preparations for the festivities, but their curiosity was greater than their busy-ness; they wanted to see the foreign women.

Every day about 200 Chinese women would make their way down the narrow street in the heart of the city, through the courtyard and into the house to catch a glimpse of the foreign women. When the holiday was over, the numbers rose to 500! The lane outside the house was jammed with their sedan chairs and bearers, reports Valerie Griffiths; the room full of smoke from the women’s pipes.

“Mary Ann’s language skills improved by leaps and bounds, but as the crowds continued month after month, and the summer heat increased, she became more and more exhausted. She would snatch moments during the day to write letters home in the midst of the crowds, or else she would write late at night. Often she was called out to the opium suicide victims, sometimes two or three times in a night.

“After Fanny Clark moved on, Mary Ann did not see another European woman for two years, but the local women gave her their friendship and support. One elderly lady saw her plight in the summer head and would take her back to her own home to rest and relax, and sit and fan her while she slept. Mary Ann had open access into the upper-class homes of the Mandarins, and women confined to their homes welcomed her and listened to the Bible stories she told them.”

(Not Less Than Everything, pp. 90-91)

I don’t like to hold up one example of what life was like then – or is like today – for missionary women, and imply that that’s how it was.

Consider how different things turned out for Fanny than they had for Mary Ann. The Clarkes kept going several weeks further inland, over slippery mountain trails made slick by winter rains. Fanny was the first Western woman to reach Guizhou. Within a few months were joined by Jane Kidd, the first single woman to go so far inland, and the recently widowed Ellen McCarthy, who had only arrived in China the previous year. (Can you imagine being in the shoes of any of these women?)

But building relationships among the local people was much more difficult for the Clarkes than it had been for the George and Mary Ann. George Clarke tried to start a school, but only one boy came. The Clarkes planned to stay in Guizhou only a short time; they were waiting for their baby son to be old enough to travel. When died at the age of five weeks, there was nothing to keep them. They continued their journey on into Yunnan Province. Their nearest coworkers were now 500 miles away, and mail now took five months to reach or come from the coast.

“Their surroundings at Tali were incredibly beautiful, with snow covered mountains rising 15,000 feet around the great lake. The town was quite a different matter. A house had been rented for them, but the other occupants refused to move out and they had to share it for six months. Further attempts to rent a house were blocked, and the whole atmosphere was one of rumor and suspicion.”

Moreover, the community was marked by addiction, violence, abuse, and mistrust.

“Fanny was mobbed if she went out, so she received women at home. At first she could get no house help. She felt as if she were up against a brick wall, and achieving nothing.”

Kunming was harder, if anything. The women there were fearful and withdrawn, and would not go near Fanny or invite her to their homes.”

(Not Less Than Everything, pp. 92-93)

Fanny never recovered from the birth of her second son, but died six weeks after he was born. Her husband buried her, conducting a short service at her graveside, and walked home alone carrying their six-week-old baby.

As Fanny Clarke lay dying she felt she had accomplished very little, but she said, “Others will come after us.”

Tough stuff, huh? Was Mary Ann doing things right and Fanny doing things wrong, than one had so much more of a positive experience than the other? I don't think so. And when we go out today, should we expect to be overwhelmed by opportunities and relationships, or isolated and alone, unable to make a friend? Either may easily be the case. When put ourselves forward to be used for God’s purposes, we can be confident that we will be used, but we don’t know what part we will play. This is nothing new.

"All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them." (Hebrews 11:13-16, NIV)

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I met a woman at the conference in Thailand who said something that really got my attention.
I don't even know who it was, so I can't follow up with her. "Are you going to write another book?" she said. Um, should I? "You should! You should write about expectations. We have so many people who come out to our field who have unrealistic expectations. Especially Americans. We need some tools to help people set appropriate expectations."

Well, I have tremendous struggles on that front, myself; everything to learn, nothing to teach. But that's the beauty of being a researcher/writer. I could actually do this. All I'd need to do is put myself in a position to learn from those who have something to say, faithfully listen to them and write down what they say. I'd get so much out of it. Just one of those sneaky ways I could do a master's (well, the functional equivalent) without paying for it. [Though, on that front, a major Christian U. is offering members of our organization a 50% discount on tuition, which might make doing things the formal way a possibility for me.]

Of course that's just one of many research projects I could pursue in years to come. Who knows what will rise to the surface? It's fun to have lots of ideas and opportunities. I'm trying to avoid making any promises I cannot keep.

1 comment:

shantijoy said...

Wow. that is an intense story.
I think expectations can be killers... but hard not to have. I have had to reconcil within my heart what my expectations were - in being a US Churchplanter, and in my dreams of foreign missions. When this current gig (US Churchplanting) didn't seem ideal, I would cling to my dreams that going overseas would be better.
I finally had to let that go and be honest:
If it's hard to minister here, where I have my entire lifestyle intact (culture, family, etc), it would have been/will be TONS harder, not easier or more glamorous (as I like to imagine it!).