Norstedts, 2005. ISBN: 9113014854
Reviewed by Irene Scobbie in SBR 2006:1
Twin sisters Agnes and Adina, born in 1900, set off from Uppsala at the age of 21 to be missionaries in China. They know little of the world, have no Chinese and little conception of life in China, but they are firm in their Christian faith and see it as their calling to “save” Chinese souls. Their journey takes them from Sweden to Helsinki, Petrograd, then on the Trans-Siberian railway to Shanghai; from there up the Yangtze river, finally reaching their destination, Changsha. For Agnes this first period in Changsha and the surrounding missionary stations and schools, when they have intensive Chinese lessons, meet the personnel at the mission stations, help at the hospital and paint their living quarters, is the happiest time of her life. They hear about Sun Yatsen, are told about the growing hostility towards foreigners, but they have the Governor’s protection and feel secure. Gradually Agnes recognizes schisms in the Christian community. Pastor Berg believes, for instance, that learning Chinese and going out among ordinary Chinese people is paramount. He wants to instruct native Chinese so that they can take over the running of the missionary stations. Professor Selander, a theologian, considers higher education more important, and looks down on Berg’s methods. The qualified teachers are all Westerners, many of whom treat the indigenous Chinese as children with strange customs. (There is a amusing scene where a puzzled group of Chinese are being instructed in Ling’s gymnastics by an energetic Swede). As Agnes’s Chinese improves and she goes out among the native population, her attitude towards them changes. She dresses as a Chinese, but she retains, however, her absolute belief in the superiority of the Christian doctrine, and when her sister Adina, partly under the influence of Marcel Kellerman, whom she later marries, shows herself to be less dogmatic, Agnes worries about her backsliding. As Agnes herself comes closer to people whom she learns to admire and yet who have different forms of worship, she has to struggle increasingly to argue her case. Kellerman is the first to express unease about the political situation. Sun Yatsen has sent Chiang Kaishek to Russia. Chiang loves everything Russian and plans to set up a military academy for Chinese officers with Russian instructors. Kellerman’s fears are soon justified: Soviet influence grows, there are communist risings and massacres, and foreigners are placed in great danger. Then follow the Japanese attacks on Peking and Shanghai, and Agnes and her colleagues work tirelessly to help the streams of refugees plagued by air-raids, dysentery, typhoid, malaria and starvation. By 1938 the order comes from Sweden that all missionary personnel must leave China. In plotting the development of Agnes this rich, thought-provoking novel introduces convincing Chinese and Western characters and places them against these momentous political events. It has various strands. It deals with loyalty and responsibility; it highlights the significance of words, as well as the Word. What happens when the Gospels are translated into Chinese? “In the beginning was the Word” but the Chinese for “word” is “tau”, which also implies “god” and presumably has very different connotations to the Chinese mind. Above all the book deals with truth and religion in its broadest sense. Agnes goes through a severe crisis and is finally persuaded by her wise, dignified old friend Mr Wu that there is more that unites than separates their different religions. When the other Westerners return to Europe for their own safety Agnes, now a much wiser, humbler being, feels drawn to her Chinese friends and opts to stay.