The Domestic Life of a Young American Missionary Couple in Early 20th Century China

Judy Hogan author photoRelevant History welcomes Judy Hogan, who founded Carolina Wren Press and has been active in North Carolina over forty years as publisher, teacher, and writing consultant. In April 2017 Grace: A China Diary, 1910-16, which she edited and annotated, was released by Wipf and Stock, and Political Peaches came out 1 June 2017. Six other mystery novels, are in print. Two volumes of poetry came out in 2013 and 2014: Beaver Soul and This River: An Epic Love Poem. Her papers and diaries are in the Sallie Bingham Center, Duke University. She has taught creative writing since 1974. She lives and farms in Moncure, N.C. For more information about her and her books, visit her web site and blog, and follow her on Goodreads.


Until I read my grandmother Grace Roys’s diary kept in China, I thought missionaries were always serious and staid. In 2004 I decided to annotate and publish it. They were not staid. My grandfather Harvey, who went to China in 1910, sponsored by the YMCA to teach physics at Kiang Nan government college, got into pillow fights. Grace who was teaching at a Methodist School for Chinese girls, enjoyed riding horses and chasing wild pigs. He met her shortly after he arrived. They belonged to a close-knit community of American Protestant missionaries. The young people met often to play tennis, swim, sing around the piano, or play dominoes.

As the weather got hot—the climate being like South Carolina—the missionary families went to Kuling, a mountain resort for missionaries. There were lovely places to picnic, swim, and, in the evenings, read a book aloud. A Girl of the Limberlost was a favorite. The heroine had a difficult mother, but she became able to support herself by catching rare moths for a collector. Harvey caught a few moths himself. He went every morning to the swimming pool for a “dunk” and helped clean the pool.

Harvey and Grace fall in love
Harvey and Grace in 1912 at KulingIn the summer of 1910, they came to an “understanding” that they would marry. Unfortunately, Grace’s father thought Harvey wasn’t good enough. This made Grace very sad. She had a nervous breakdown and had to go to a mission hospital in Soochow. Then they let her marry Harvey in December 1910. The doctors and the parents were quite worried, but Harvey could never abandon his “little lady” and risked the marriage on 19 December 1910. He writes on 23 December, “Grace’s birthday. Grace is 21—of age but ‘not her own boss,’ as she says. I think she is boss of two.” A year later he writes on 23 December: “Grace is 22 and happy…No days like these.”

By December 1911, they had lived through the Sun Yat-sen Revolution, the first successful revolution in China, which caused the downfall of the Manchu emperors. The last big battle took place near Nanking. The American consul ordered all women and children to come to the consulate or evacuate on 8 November. Grace decided to go to Shanghai where her parents lived. On 14 November, Harvey went to Shanghai, too. My mother was conceived during this revolution. When Grace and Harvey returned, they learned that three hundred soldiers had camped in his college building, but his physics lab was safe. Grace, fluent in Chinese, helped him speak to those in charge, and Harvey went back to teaching.

My mother is born in Kuling
Margaret, age 3, on Kuling steps 1915On 17 July 1912, Grace gave birth to Margaret Elizabeth Roys. Her baby adventures are told. She was toilet trained early, and one year later went from Monday, 5 p.m. to Tuesday, 4 p.m. without wetting her diaper. Later she learned to request the pot, but Grace wanted her to say: “Hi, hi.” not “Want er sit on er pot.” Baby Richard (Dick) came 5 October 1913. On 14 November Harvey writes: “Bath tub with Richard in it fell off the board into the big tub. Richard was ducked in cold water but did not receive any apparent injuries.” Margaret had mixed feelings about baby brother. Grace found her pounding on Richard with her fist. saying, “Bore hole dere.”

Missionary mothers, Hillcrest, Grace holding Margaret 2nd from left, 1913I also inherited two yearbooks of the Hillcrest School the missionary mothers began, and which Margaret and Dick attended. The mothers with small children worked together to teach the primary grades. Eventually they taught high school, too. Hillcrest emphasized science and had a Watch Guard branch of the Agassiz Society organized in Nanking in October 1895. They encouraged their members to “watch and guard—thus studying mother nature.” Its motto, was “Little by little the bird builds its nest and the child learns.” They sponsored debates, e.g., in December 1903: “Resolved, that we learn more from observation than by books.” The founder of the society was Alexander Agassiz, 1835–1910, a U.S. zoologist. He emphasized careful observation. Grace’s maternal grandfather, James Woodrow, studied at Harvard with Agassiz.

In the 1920 yearbook, Hillcrest student Julia Wilson describes the trip to Kuling. They traveled first by boat up the Yangtze River, later by carriage, then by sedan chair up the mountain.

Among the many things which we saw on our way, the most common…was the many house boats. Some of them had families of beggars on them, others had people who were a good deal better off, some were larger, some smaller, some with sails on, some without them, all sailing up and down the river in a way that seemed aimless…All along the banks of the river and inland for miles around, we could see the rice fields with little villages dotted here and there, each with their groups of dogs and children…On the bank of the river so near you could almost say on the river were numerous little huts barely high enough for a man to stand in. These were often surrounded by miles of very tall reed grass which the Chinese burn instead of wood or coal…When we were nearing towns, large or small, we would meet a man in a sampan, with a long stick driving a very large group of ducks which seemed too many for one man to drive…This was the way in which he drives his pigs to market, only they…were ducks…As we drew near to Kiukiang we saw…several ranges of mountains in the distance looking more like mirage than a range of mountains and the ones that we were traveling to in order to get away from the heat of the plains.


Grace book coverA big thanks to Judy Hogan. She’ll give away a paperback copy of Grace: A China Diary, 1910-16 to someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winner from among those who comment by Friday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery is available in the U.S. only.


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Justice and Law in Ancient China

P.A. De Voe author photoRelevant History welcomes P.A. De Voe, an anthropologist, Asian specialist, and incorrigible magpie for collecting seemingly irrelevant information. Her first published mystery, A Tangled Yarn, is a contemporary cozy. In her current writing, however, she has jumped back in time and place, immersing her stories in the Ming Dynasty. She’s published several historical short stories, From Judge Lu’s Ming Dynasty Case Files, in anthologies and online. Her newly published adventure/mystery YA trilogy (Hidden, Warned, and Trapped) takes place in 1380 A.D. China. To learn more about P.A. De Voe and her books and to get a free short story, visit her web site.


It was ancient China’s inherently different approach to law—based on morality and collective responsibility—compared to our contemporary approach—based on written law and individual rights—that has interested me for a long time. This interest led to my writing crime novels and short stories set in 14th- and 15th-century China. In my Ming Dynasty trilogy and Judge Lu short stories, I often highlight different parts of how the traditional Chinese judicial system worked as well as its implications for the entire family and community.

Justice and law
Traditionally, people believed a criminal’s behavior threw the world into a moral imbalance. And this imbalance had to be righted by not only bringing the criminal to task for his crime—and thereby bringing justice to the victim—but also by that criminal taking moral responsibility for his crime.

We can think of this view of crime as each individual being a brick upon which the health and well-being of the community and even the nation was built. As a result, it was not the individual but the community, the society, which was important.

The role of the magistrate
The magistrate was the centerpiece of the Ming Dynasty’s legal system. A magistrate was chosen among the best and brightest in the country. He had passed the all-important national examinations at the highest level. Once assigned to the office of magistrate, he remained in any one location for only three years at a time. This limited time frame was designed to keep him from becoming too close to the local power structure and thereby subverting his ability to do his law-enforcing job fairly.

And his job was formidable and multifaceted: he was the investigator, prosecutor, and judge all rolled into one. Because of his position’s tremendous power, the government required full documentation of the cases that came before the court. During the investigation, every detail had to be recorded. Examinations of witnesses were open and transparent, taking place in public and written up by the court secretary. The law mandated a timetable for bringing each case to a successful resolution—that is, to getting an admission of guilt by the alleged criminal.

Admission of guilt
It was critical for the criminal to admit his guilt. Simply finding rock hard evidence against him was not enough. An accused could not be legally found guilty and given a sentence if he did not admit to having committed the crime. This was because by admitting guilt he took responsibility for the crime and thereby restored moral order in the community and the universe.

Collective responsibility
Once found guilty, the criminal was not the only person who could and would be punished. Because of the notion of collective responsibility, members of his family could also be punished—or at least held accountable at some level. If a man, for example, committed a crime, his family was considered partly responsible for his behavior and, therefore, the crime. If his father was alive, the father could receive an even more severe punishment than his son because the father was ultimately responsible for his son’s behavior.

The legal use of torture
This, of course, raised the problem of how to get a criminal to admit guilt, which in the case of serious crimes, could lead to the death penalty, exile, or military service—which was at the borders of the country and often meant a life of severe hardship. Because, as I said, even unquestionable evidence against the criminal was not enough, the answer to how to get a man to admit guilt was the use of moderated torture. The court applied various levels of torture. The law strictly defined the type and degree of torture not only allowed, but often expected. While the use of torture could be used in bringing about a confession, a magistrate’s use and potential abuse of torture was closely monitored by the government. How was this done?

Monitoring judicial practices
Whenever a serious crime was committed—with the penalty, therefore, being equally serious—all of the court documents had to be sent up through the various levels of the judicial process until it reached the emperor’s office. If any impropriety was found—in the investigation, in the treatment of the alleged criminal, or in the punishment assigned—the magistrate was held culpable. This resulted in an investigation of the magistrate and his handling the case. If found guilty of maleficence, the magistrate could receive the punishment he had given the alleged criminal—including the death penalty! Plus, he and his family could lose all of their property. Again, under the concept of collective responsibility, his family was punished along with him—at a lesser level but still punished.

Such a system may seem overly harsh; however, its objectives were to 1) bring justice to victims of crimes; 2) make the criminal (and his relevant family members) take responsibility for his crime; and 3) return moral order to the community and, thus, the universe. How this all played out in the lives of people is what fascinates me and what I hope intrigues my readers.


Hidden book cover imageA big thanks to P.A. DeVoe. She will give away a paperback copy of Hidden to someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winner from among those who comment by Friday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery is available worldwide.


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Asia After the Meddling British, French and Americans Arrived

Lloyd Lofthouse author photo

Relevant History welcomes Lloyd Lofthouse, award-winning historical fiction author of My Splendid Concubine, the love story of Sir Robert Hart and a Chinese woman. For more information, check out Lloyd’s web site and author blog, and read the first chapter of his latest novel, multi-award winner Running with the Enemy.


It could be argued that the British Empire and the United States are responsible for World War II in the Pacific and Mao Zedong winning China’s Civil War in 1949.

Before my wife told me in 1999 about Sir Robert Hart, I knew little about Japan and China. My knowledge of Japan, for instance, was the bombing of Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941), the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo (April 18, 1942) and the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945.

My Splendid Concubine cover image

I knew less about China, but that changed after my wife introduced me to Robert Hart. First, I read his journals and letters that had been published by Harvard. It was while researching for several years and writing My Splendid Concubine—based on Robert Hart’s real-life love story with a Chinese concubine named Ayaou—that I discovered the horrors that had been forced upon Asia in the 19th century by countries like Great Britain, France, Germany, and the United States.

The British and the French fired the first salvo starting the Opium Wars in 1839–1842 and then again in 1856–1860. The reason: China’s emperor refused to allow the British and merchants of other western countries—including the U.S.—to sell opium without restrictions to the Chinese people. In addition, the treaties allowed Christian missionaries the freedom to go anywhere in China and convert and save the souls of heathen Chinese.

As Christian missionaries were saving these souls, they converted a failed Confucian Scholar, Hong Xiuquan, who soon claimed that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ; he published a Bible in Chinese after writing and including his own gospel. Then he led the 19-year Taiping rebellion that’s considered the bloodiest rebellion in human history with 20–100 million Chinese killed by the time he was defeated. And because God’s Chinese son was against the opium trade, Christian British and French troops joined in the fight, including American mercenaries, to defeat the Taipings. As for Japan, in 1846, America made its first attempt to open Japan for trade. Commander James Biddle anchored in Tokyo Bay with two ships, including one warship armed with 72 cannons, but his requests for a trade agreement were unsuccessful.

The Japanese, similar to the Chinese, didn’t want anything to do with the Western barbarians, but those barbarians weren’t about to accept no for an answer and miss an opportunity to find new markets for their growing consumer-based economies. Customers were to be gained; cheap labor was to be had, and this would lead to increased profits for European and American companies.

A few years later in 1852, Commodore Matthew C. Perry returned to Japan and turned his canons on the town of Uraga. The Japanese demanded he leave. In answer, Perry ordered some buildings in the harbor shelled. When Perry returned in February 1854 with twice as many ships, the Japanese agreed to virtually all of President Fillmore’s demands for trade with America.

It would take Japan almost a century to transition from a primitive, feudal agricultural-based economy to an imperial industrial power ready to wage war in 1937 with a goal to take Asia back from the Western powers that were exploiting and colonizing the region. To achieve this objective, Japan attacked China because it needed China’s resources.

If America had left Japan alone, Japan may have stayed an agricultural-based economy, and there would have never been the invasion of China in 1937.

It was Japan’s invasion of China that eventually caused the defeat of the Nationalist Chinese led by Chiang Kai-Shek in 1949 when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) led by Mao Zedong won the civil war that had raged from April 1927 to December 1937—with a break during World War II as both the Nationalist (KMT) and the Communists fought Japan. The Chinese Civil War resumed in March 1946.

Fighting Japan cost the KMT 1.3-million KIA; 1.8-million WIA and the CCP 500,000 KIA/MIA. The KMT fought a traditional war while the Communists practiced guerrilla warfare. During World War II, most Chinese lost trust in the Nationalists who clearly wanted to return China to the way it had been before the Civil War when the average life span was age 35, and more than 95% of Chinese lived in extreme poverty and were often treated worse than animals by those at the top of the economic pyramid.

By June of 1949, the Red Army had four million troops fighting Chiang Kai-shek’s 1.5 million. What would have happened to China and Japan in the 20th century if the United States and Great Britain had not forced both countries to open markets to unwanted products and religions in the 19th century?


A big thanks to Lloyd Lofthouse. He discusses his research for My Splendid Concubine in this video and presents a timeline of China’s history here.


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