The role of women missionaries in China at the time of the Open Door Policy
By 1900, some one thousand American Protestant missionaries wanted to convert the Chinese population to Christianity, but were frustrated because of the growing Chinese hostility towards strangers and because of the cultural gap, which seemed to be too great to overcome. Missionaries also pointed out Chinese backwardness by stressing typical traditions and customs like the superiority of men over women. A political circumstance for the missionaries` work was the then ongoing decline of the Qing Dynasty, the defeat in the Sino-Japanese War at the end of the nineteenth century, and the growing influence of the imperial powers that followed.
To protect U.S. commerce in China and to preserve that nation`s independence, the then Secretary of State John Hay sent the imperial powers two notes which became known as the Open Door Policy. That policy is said to have been established because of the pressure of both economic and religious interest groups. But how did American missionaries interact with the Chinese people in daily life? How strong were the cultural ties between the two peoples? And finally, to what extend did the women missionaries help to westernize the Chinese value system? The question that overall arouses is about women missionaries, who turned out to be quite effective. In my eyes, their success is based on their female idiosyncracies, in connection with the circumstances under which they worked, namely the situation in America and the one in China.
The situation back in the US was rather lucky: In contrast to the difficulties the missionaries had to face in China, missionary women were supported by feminists back home: Female supporters caused interest by stressing the courage and heroism of missionary women. American women also played a role since “[…] societies gathered housewives` extra pennies to add women`s subsidies to the support of the foreign missionary movement.“ (Hunter, 445) Therefore the starting feminist women`s movement and the housewives` financial aid played a very important role for women missionaries in China.
Finally, by 1890, 60 percent of the mission force were female, either married women of the general missionary boards or single women of the women`s boards. After the Civil War, women founded even agencies of their own to send unmarried female missionaries to the heathen in foreign lands. Among the women fraction, the Protestants made up the greatest part. But why did women join the mission after all? They chose that courageous service for many reasons. Possible were for example a death in the family or their state of being unmarried. The service offered them accomodation.
In the United States missionaries undertook a propaganda effort by depicting the Chinese people as inferior and in great need of mission. They were said to be backward, their religion was supposed to have no life in it, and many traditions like the binding of women`s feet were considered to be not only heathen but cruel. What caused the most heavy criticism was the treatment of women and their inferiority to men in every respect.
As for the political situation at home, one can say that American national leaders supported the shift from reliance on military forces to one on the broad appeals of their culture. They sought cultural rather than political empire in China. In general, “[t]he open door policy, as reflected in [Hay`s] requests, did not mean that the United States was opposed to aggression in China.“ (Jiang, 441) Instead of that, they wanted to keep up Chinese independence and only secure China as a market. Their uppermost goal was to get China under their influence by cultural means.
In contrast to the situation at home, the situation in China was quite different and not so positive. Despite having often been disappointed in the past, from 1860 onwards American missionaries continued bravely with their work. They even extended their efforts to the interior of the country, although Chinese nativism arose and angrily called for diplomatic protection. “The resulting interaction among determined missionaries, aroused nativists, and uncertain diplomats was to define the history of the mission through the balance of the century.“ (Hunt, 433) One must not forget the threat that missionaries and their converts had to face from the population and even from local officials. The anger partly arose because the missionaries were perceived as superior, as teachers of their own, partly because converts destroyed the unity and harmony of the community. But “[…] the most crucial factor in the situation was the anti-imperialist spirit of the Chinese people.“ (Jiang, 443)
- Quote paper
- Daniel Eckert (Author), 2002, The role of women missionaries in China at the the time of the Open Door Policy, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/115469