A Western Family’s China Saga

By Sheila K. JohnsonFebruary 23, 2014

China Mission by Audrey Ronning Topping

WHILE WE ALL like to think we come from interesting families, journalist Audrey Ronning Topping can say this of herself with some certainty, and she has now turned her kin’s experiences into a truly fascinating book. Covering the 1860s to the present, China Mission traces her family’s three generations of involvement with China, including her own engagement with the place. This amounts to an engrossing group biography and a valuable overview of a country’s turbulent transformations.

The story begins with her grandfather, Halvor Ronning, who was born in Norway in 1862, immigrated to the United States in 1883, and in 1891, accompanied by his sister and wife, became the first Lutheran missionary in the interior of China. He was a vigorous man who lived to be 88, while many of his contemporaries in China — including his sister and wife — died of then-prevalent diseases: typhoid, typhus, malaria, smallpox, cholera, scarlet fever, diphtheria. His family established a mission in Fancheng, Hubei Province, after a 700-mile trip up the Yangtze from Shanghai to Hankow, and then a further 600-mile trip up the Han River.

The missionaries learned Chinese, studied Chinese customs, and soon set up a boys’ school and a girls’ school, as well as a small clinic that survived to become, 90 years later, the main hospital in Fancheng. The only requirement to attend the girls’ school was that they not have bound feet. By 1903 the boys’ school, which had started with only a handful of students, had grown to 240. Today it caters to 4,000 students.

The Ronnings had seven children, among them Chester, the author’s father, who was born in Fancheng in 1894. Halvor and his children left China in 1908 after the death of his wife the previous year and homesteaded in northwestern Alberta in Canada. (As an anthropologist I cannot help but note one error: the Indians encountered by the Ronnings as they were homesteading near Sturgeon Lake were surely not Navajo, who are sheepherders in the arid US Southwest, but probably Cree.) Chester Ronning, who had learned Chinese as a child in his father’s school, returned to Fancheng from 1923 until 1927 to serve as headmaster of the school. The family was forced to leave China because of the heavy fighting at the start of the Chinese Revolution, and Chester became president of Camrose Lutheran College in Alberta.

Chester’s younger brother Talbert returned to China as a missionary in 1931, and though he evacuated his wife and child in 1938 because of heavy fighting between the Chinese and Japanese, he returned and remained as a missionary from 1940 until the end of the war. Meanwhile Chester served as the director of Canadian air force intelligence during World War II and used his knowledge of Chinese characters to help break the Japanese military code. In 1945, when his brother was finally able to come home, Chester returned to China as a diplomat and participated in the Marshall Mission that was trying to broker peace between the Chinese Communists and Nationalists. He traveled to Yenan and met Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, the latter becoming a lifelong personal friend. 

When the peace talks failed, Chester served as Canadian Chargé d’Affaires to the Chiang Kai-shek government in Nanking from 1946 until 1949. When the Communists took over in 1949, he was slated to become Canada’s first ambassador to the People’s Republic of China. However, with the outbreak of the Korean War, Canada closed its embassy in China. Chester instead was named ambassador to Norway, then Iceland, eventually becoming high commissioner to India, Ceylon, and Nepal. In 1966, he was sent on the first of several secret missions to North Vietnam, in an effort to broker a peace agreement in the Vietnam War.

Meanwhile daughter Audrey, born in 1928, joined her parents when they were in Nanking and began to study Chinese at Nanking University. In 1947 she met Seymour “Top” Topping, who was then a promising young journalist covering the civil war between the Communists and Nationalists. Topping and his future father-in-law, Chester, remained in China to witness the fall of Nanking, while Audrey and her mother and sisters returned to Canada. After their marriage in 1949, the Toppings were often stationed in Asia; they were in Vietnam during the French Indochina War from 1950 until 1952, and in Hong Kong from 1963 until 1966, during the early days of the Cultural Revolution. Audrey herself had become a photojournalist by then, and in 1966, she used her Canadian passport to get a visa to visit China. (No American civilians could do so until Nixon’s 1972 recognition of the Communist government.) 

In 1971, Chester was invited by Zhou Enlai to visit China, and Audrey and one of her sisters went along. Her husband had also applied for a journalist’s visa and was able to join them there. Audrey made numerous trips to China in the years that followed, on journalistic assignments, and one final trip with her father in 1983, shortly before his death at the age of 90.

Audrey Topping recounts her family’s triumphs and tragedies using numerous letters that they sent home from China, as well as 47 wonderful photos from her family’s archive. She interweaves her account of these lives with cogent summaries of what was happening in China. She uses many standard historical sources and enlivens them greatly with her family’s personal letters.

What shines through in all of these letters, beginning with those of Halvor, written in the late 1890s, is how open to Chinese culture and society these missionaries were, even when they encountered much suspicion and hostility. In 1892, Halvor writes to his brother Nils:

The problem of the missionaries in China is not only how to save the souls but also how to save their bodies from perishing from hunger and disease. If China could receive the light of education, science and technology it could become one of the most powerful nations on earth. But alas, this will not happen in my life time. We missionaries can only sow the seeds and pray for Heavenly rain.

Chester was less religious than his father, but no less devoted to education and the reform of Chinese politics. In 1922 he wrote his father:

The whole country has fallen prey to the private armies of hundreds of warlords. The super warlords are swallowing the smaller ones. The Peking Government has been reduced to a ridiculous sham. [...] The warlords and foreign powers cannot suppress Chinese nationalism forever. The handwriting is on the wall. The revolution is beginning.

And Audrey writes about herself, age 19, in Nanking in 1947:

I [was] offered a ride home [from an embassy party] by a Nationalist government official in his limousine. The streets were crowded with refugees, some of whom had green mouths from eating grass. I exclaimed to the official, “Oh, it must be terrible for you to see the suffering of your people.” He replied haughtily, “What people? We don’t consider them people!” It was enough to convince me that the revolution was inevitable.

The Ronnings were always compassionate as well as opinionated about what they saw and experienced in China. In 1906, Halvor attended a convention of the Mission Society in Peking, and was deeply shocked when he was criticized for associating with non-Christian Chinese and for “tolerating ancestor worship” and attending “heathen ceremonies” such as Chinese weddings and funerals. But he also regarded the government of China at the time — especially The Empress Cixi, whom the family, like many others, called “The Old Buddha,” and who ended up supporting the anti-Christian insurgents known as the Boxers when they laid siege to Beijing’s foreign legations in 1900 — as responsible for China’s humiliation and decline that would follow over the next four decades. Halvor died in 1951 and thus lived to see Mao’s rise to power.

No one in the Ronning family, including Audrey, would give much credence to the idea that the Empress Cixi was actually a reformer (as she was portrayed recently in Jung Chang’s Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China). Instead, readers of Audrey Topping’s book will learn much about the complex forces at work in China during the time when her own family and the rest of the world first came into contact with it. As she wisely comments: “true changes in the cyclical evolution of the ancient civilization of the Middle Kingdom can never be imposed from the outside. In the end, eternal China will always go her own way.”


Sheila K. Johnson is an anthropologist, gerontologist, and freelance writer.

LARB Contributor

Sheila K. Johnson is an anthropologist, gerontologist, and freelance writer. She’s the author of Idle Haven: Community-Building Among the Working-class Retired (University of California Press, 1971) and The Japanese Through American Eyes (Stanford University Press, 1988). She is currently working on a memoir about her long marriage to scholar and writer Chalmers Johnson.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!