Saved by the Braid…

….or how small details can make a huge difference

Searching for my family throughout the generations is indeed rewarding. I have found ”new” relatives and made connections I never knew were possible. A “new” second cousin of mine has been an immense support in my search for family history so far. We have not met as of yet, but we have talked over the phone and she has been very generous with what she knows about our family.

An interesting fact I got from her was that my family once (in the 60s) was featured in a newspaper as being a family with the most numerous current living generations having become missionaries. Such a funny story!

Thus, I went to the national library here in Stockholm, where you can find anything as long as you know what you’re looking for. Though I didn’t have much information – other than my family’s last name – I managed to find the article at last.

Robert and Dagny, private photo, 1890’s. Loaned to the paper in 1960. What an unusual wedding picture!

There they were – my great grandfather and grandmother all dressed up in Chinese clothes. I recognized the picture as their wedding picture. My grandmother used to tell me about it – how my grandfather’s parents got married and dressed up for a photograph in China. The picture exists in one of our family albums – somewhere – and the caption says it was loaned to the newspaper for this particular article.

Looking at the photograph of my great grandparents one can wonder why they dressed up as Chinese. Apparently it was customary for missionaries who went into the China inland to clothe themselves like the Chinese. And if you wore Chinese clothes, you had to wear Chinese shoes – at the time it was forbidden to wear foreign shoes together with Chinese clothes. The men also had to grow a long braid (a so called Manchu queue) on the back of their heads.

As you can see in the photo, my great grandfather has shaved his head and wears a hat. Underneath the hat, there is a queue (you’ll have to take my word for it) .

A funny story about this hairstyle is that it saved his life at one time. He, and his family, was out travelling along the countryside when they were ambushed by robbers. Robert, as his name was, tried to protect his children by picking them up and trying to run away. A robber who was threatening him with a knife attempted to grab him by his queue, but failed – as the queue was a fake one.

Instead of taking the time to grow long hair, my grandfather had had a fake queue sown into his hat! That way, he managed to keep himself from being stabbed to death by a robber – and thus our family line could continue.

Three generations of missionaries

There is another picture in the article as well – one of the three generations of missionaries who went both to China and Africa in order to continue working as missionaries. All of my great-grandparent’s children were born in China, and had spent their first, formative years there. When they had to go to school, they were sent home to Sweden. They saw their parents every 7-8 years or so thereafter.
And almost all of them took up the same kind of life as their parents. And some of their children did the same.

In a quote from one of my great uncles, one can read that the wish from the older generations certainly is that the generations to come also shall choose the same way of life. I sense that there is an immense pride in what the family has accomplished so far. But, he also says that he and his wife never tried to influence their children to become missionaries in any way. He recognizes that it’s a very difficult path to choose. He also talks about the fact that he had to spend so much time without his parents.

Of course, becoming a missionary is nothing one can be persuaded to do – if there is something I have understood from everything I have read on the subject, it’s that this way of life has to be a calling. All the more fascinating then, that so many generations felt this calling in this particular family.

But there was not to be a fourth generation of missionaries, like my great uncle wished for – at least not as far as my research goes. Perhaps that, if anything, is a sign that the times have changed.

14 thoughts on “Saved by the Braid…

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  1. I enjoyed this fascinating story about your great-grandparents, particularly the queue that saved your great-grandfather’s life! The theme of the cost of missionary work to a family shows up in this post as well, with the children not being able to see their parents for seven or eight years.

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  2. Thank you, Liz! Yes, they were sure taking risks. My grandmother used to tell me their adventures as bed-time stories when I was little 🙂 Now, I have found them again – printed in missionary magazines and letters. Such a treasure! It was a very different way of life – and at the time, children were not the main focus of the family as they tend to be today. I, for one, could never imagine sending my children off to another country for such a long time – no matter how important I viewed my own work. Of course, that’s not to say that they didn’t find it hard as parents as well – I know they longed for their children, but it seemed to have been part of the sacrifice they signed up for, and it was never disputed, really.

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    1. Yes, Louise, I think you’re right about that! And even though it was strict at the missionary home, where they stayed, they were in good hands. One of my great uncles once wrote about the strange feeling of seeing his parents again after so many years. He had waved goodbye to them when he was 14 years old, and didn’t see them again until he was 22. He said it was peculiar to meet them again. He was a different person – having gone through those very transformative years without his parents around. They didn’t know each other and thus had to get to know one another anew. He felt that the fact that he had gone without parents made him part of the mission in China – and he was proud to have made this sacrifice. He later became a missionary himself, of course:)

      Liked by 3 people

  3. I know that when they arrived in China they had to go straight to the tailor’s to be fitted for clothes suitable for working in the country side and blending in with the Chinese. Of course, they stood out anyway 🙂 And these wedding clothes were only used on this occasion – the other clothes were more like long, greyish dresses.

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