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While China Faced West

January 29, 2010

James C. Thomson. While China Faced West: American Reformers in Nationalist China, 1928-1937. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969.

Sigrid Schmalzer (2000)

James C. Thomson was the son of missionary parents active in China during the 1930s. In this book, he analyzes the rural reconstruction efforts of American Christian reformers. Using a clear and often pretty prose style, Thomson skillfully blends his own deep and personal interest in the fate of these projects with a willingness to examine the political contradictions the work entailed. The book focuses on the Nanjing Decade. At this time, American work in China was dominated by private citizens, with the U.S. government playing a relatively inactive role. These reformers negotiated a complex set of political and practical variables engendered by the newly Christian-influenced Guomindang, the communist challenge, the rise of Japanese imperialism, and their own institutional priorities and resources.

Thomson makes no claim that his book offers a general account of American Christians in 1930s China. Rather, he continually points to the diversity of attitudes and approaches that characterized their work and selects two important figures for a more in-depth exploration. These are George Shepherd, the GMD-supported leader of reform work in Lizhuan, Jiangxi and Selskar Gunn, founder of the Rockefeller-funded North China Council for Rural Reconstruction. Reformers were generally resistant to alliances with political groups, preferring instead a people-to-people approach to reform. Nonetheless, some, like Shepherd, did decide that the difficulties in operating without state involvement, coupled with the Guomindang’s own increasingly Christian leadership, warranted cooperation. Others faced with this dilemma, like Gunn, remained more independent from the state. Tragically, neither approach offered a successful solution in the politically unstable context of 1930s China.

What does unite the reformers is their commitment to gradualist reform, specifically in contrast with the communist activists who were their contemporaries. However, this commitment and this contrast lie at the heart of the second dilemma reformers faced. While allied for political and ideological reasons to the GMD, reformers realized that Chiang Kai-shek’s policies were not attacking the injustices of tenancy, taxation, and lack of credit that plagued China’s rural people. The Communists, on the other hand, pursued all of these problems openly and vigorously. The result was that the “communist challenge” served to sharpen the reformers’ sense of their own goals and strategies. Many began to see their functions as accomplishing essentially the same goals as the communists’, but through peaceful, gradual means rather than through violent revolution.

The most unmitigable obstacle to the reformers’ efforts was time, a necessary ingredient made scarce by both Japanese imperialists and communist revolutionaries. However, the blame did not rest entirely on the shoulders of “external aggressor and internal rebel” (p. 150). Equally responsible was the GMD, which refused to engage in the necessary but politically hazardous work of social reform. The American missionaries and later, stemming largely from their influence, the United States government also shared in the failure: both maintained “a ready willingness to recall only one side of the Nanking record… [and] a continuing blindness to the polarization of the Chinese revolution” (p. 241).

While China Faced West received high praise from two contemporary reviewers, Dorothy Borg (Journal of Asian Studies, 29.4:922-3) and Warren Cohen (The American Historical Review, 75.6:1701-2). Neither reviewer offered a single criticism. Borg focused on the “objectivity” and “sensitivity” Thomson brought to the previously neglected subject of nongovernmental American participation in pre-1949 China. Cohen found the book illuminating on a broad range of issues related to the effectiveness of missionary reform and international assistance in general. The clarity and tight focus of Thomson’s work clearly has not prevented readers from gaining a broad and nuanced understanding of the subject.

© Copyright 2000. All rights reserved.

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