Pioneer Chinese Christian Women: Gender, Christianity, and Social Mobility

Pioneer Chinese Christian Women: Gender, Christianity, and Social Mobility

Pioneer Chinese Christian Women: Gender, Christianity, and Social Mobility

Pioneer Chinese Christian Women: Gender, Christianity, and Social Mobility


Chinese Christian women before 1919 have been largely invisible in the records of China missions and Chinese Christianity. With few exceptions we have known little about them either as individuals or as a group. In this volume the contributors’ goal is to bring to light the life and work of these pioneer Chinese Christian women. The contributors have scoured a variety of sources in order to recreate the role of early Chinese women Christians in the church and in Chinese society and also to illustrate how gender affected their under-standing of Christianity and their career choices. How did the Chinese context alter their relations with the church and with both Christian and non-Christian communities? What was the legacy of pioneer Chinese Christian women?

To provide context for this study, the work opens with an essay on women in imperial China, examining the ideal, the stereotypes, and the reality. Essays on Chinese Christian educators, doctors, nurses, and evangelists indicate the role of the missionaries and the church in making mobility and broadened horizons possible for women. They reveal also the contributions of these women and homemakers to a changing China.

Chinese women before 1919, though a minority of church membership, were in many ways the mainstay of the church: the most faithful in attendance at worship services and Mass, responsible for teaching Sunday School, leading the choir, and organizing Bible study classes. They visited the sick, engaged in charity work, prepared the altar for services, and performed various other services. Many women followed their husbands in joining the church, but Roman Catholic Virgins, Protestant Bible women, and church workers were primarily responsible for evangelizing among women and children since Western male missionaries found it almost impossible to proselytize among women in Chinese society.

Missionaries soon realized that establishing Chinese Christian families was essential to the stability and continuity of congregations, and Christian wives and mothers were vital to creating Christian homes and rearing children in the faith. Particularly during periods of persecution, such as the years from 1724 to 1846 and the recent era of the Anti-Rightist Campaigns and the Cultural Revolution, the Catholic Virgins and Christian families can be credited with the survival of Chinese Christianity. With liberalization during the 1980s many of these Christian families emerged as the basis for a growing Chinese church.

The Christian church and Christian missions provided avenues for women’s social mobility as well. Missionary wives founded girls schools and eventually most central stations included a primary and secondary school for girls. Virgins and Bible women memorized or learned to read religious texts. Thus, a significant proportion of female converts attained literacy and, with this, new self-esteem. The first women's colleges prepared women for new careers and economic independence, while the establishment of hospitals opened up careers for women as doctors and nurses.


Jessie G. Lutz

IN RECENT DECADES WOMEN’S ORGANIZATIONS AND WOMEN’S STUDY PROgrams have tried to bring women into the mainstream of history. These pioneers have insisted that the life, activities, and achievements of half the world’s population are a legitimate part of our heritage and should be included in the story of our past and present. In fact, they have asserted, women must be included if we are to understand gender entanglements with politics, social structures and values, nation building, and even the economies of agricultural and industrial societies. Much of the scholarship was initially what Gail Hershatter has called recuperative, saying that “women were there too.” Attention to gender, she maintains, can reconfigure our most basic assumptions about what counts. Thus, numerous studies of prominent individuals, of groups of women such as American Southern women, Afro-American women, prostitutes, etc., and of women’s status and pursuits have appeared since the middle of the twentieth century. Slowly this information is becoming a part of mainstream history.

Women’s studies, though originating in the West, have gradually moved East, and during the past quarter century, research on Chinese women by both Chinese and Western scholars has flourished. Availability of sources and opportunities for research and fieldwork in China have expanded for Chinese scholars as well as foreigners. As a matter of fact, Chinese intellectuals more than a century ago had begun to insist on the connection between the status of women and national strength. Ever since the 1898 Reform Movement, Chinese have viewed women’s ignorance and oppression as intertwined with national weakness and disunity. Educated mothers were deemed essential to a strong, modern China. Interest in altering the traditional position of women has been energized by China’s revolutionary history during the twentieth century. Every revolutionary movement from the 1911 overthrow of the Qing dynasty to the Guomindang drive for control of China in the late 1920s to the 1949 accession of the Chinese Communist Party to power has promised the liberation of women. Always, however, the needs of the state had priority.

Academic study of women in Chinese history, however, began later. Today, women’s studies programs have been established in several universi-

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