My great grandfather Robert and great grandmother Dagny lived through many difficult situations as missionaries in China. It is fascinating to read Robert’s accounts of the conflicts, wars, ambushes and robberies he and his family were in the midst of, and how they solved these situations.
Robert and Dagny were close to loosing their lives several times, but somehow they always made it. As those of you who follow this blog may remember, Robert died from heart disease in 1930 and not from shootings or road robbery (even if he was severely stabbed one time).
Robert started out as a missionary in 1892. Through all the letters, articles and accounts I have read from him, there has never been one mention of him regretting his choice to lead this dangerous life. He comes across as content with his mission, and seems to feel pride in his work – and he works all the time (even during so called holidays).
Threatened by bandits
As I am holding the yellowish pages of a letter Robert wrote in 1916 in my hand, I am amazed at how he describes a very tumultouos situation without loosing his beautiful handwriting. The letter is written in the midst of the siege of his town, by the revolutionary army. The first part is dated the 12th of May and the second part is from the 20th of May. During this time, Robert, Dagny and other missionaries were hiding out in the missionary station, trying to survive while the town was being taken over by “bandits from the mountains.” It seems he is quite calm even though chaos is all around and he cannot know if they will survive.
These century old pages were given to me by my aunt Carin, and it is a very special feeling to be able to hold them in my hands and feel the smell of old paper – almost like in a library – but fainter. The pages are sturdier than the frail air-mail pages on which Robert wrote about Dagny’s surgery. They are but a bit damaged around the edges.
The safe house
The way he starts the letter to his friend Joakim – by citing a Bible verse – indicates that he does feel quite safe at the missionary station in Hoyang: “The name of the Lord is a strong tower: the righteous runneth into it, and are safe.”
The next line puts the reader straight into the action as he describes a very unpleasant wake-up call:
“Gunfire outside the town woke us up at half past three this morning. Soon, everbody was up and about. We shouted from our room to open the doors and bring miss Ohrlander and miss Berg over to us. We had barely gotten dressed before they came running. We were so happy to see them.”
Emy Orhlander and Ester Berg where two female missionaries who were also at the station at the time. Robert and Dagny were worried they had been caught by the bandits and wanted that all of the westeners kept together.
Robert writes that they had thought the town Hoyang would be able to fight back like the last time this had happened. That was only about a month prior to this attack, and with 60 soldiers they had held the town against 1000 soldiers outside the walls. He continues:
“This time, we had heard that a big revolutionary army poured down the mountains in the north-west and would try to conquer Hoyang and that the first troops would be visible from the city walls. But on the 11th, they had decided to march towards Tong Chao Fu. We then thought we would be able to defend ourselves with our 600 soldiers against the disparate mob around Hoyang that were trying to take over the town.”
But then, the 600 soldiers decided to leave. The night before the letter was written, all of them headed to another town and left Hoyang to its destiny.
Robert describes the situation as very precarious and praises the former town mayor – a man named Schüin:
“…thanks to his quick wits and resourcefulness (he) had been promoted to chief of the town’s voluntary defence corps. He told us that all the volunteers had thrown their weapons and run away. He had then hurried to the town hall to ask for orders, after the few soldiers posted on the south wall had partly fallen, partly run away. But there was not a soul in the building. That’s when he realized our town was lost and thus went to the missionary station to help out with wathever he could.
It was now 5 p.m. and the bandits had already climbed over the wall and opened the south gate. During the one and a half hour of shooting, many people had come to the missionary station to escape the danger. I locked the doors, fearing the bandits would come in as well. Over and over again, there was pounding on the door. Now and then, a member of the congregation, a seeker or some well-known person begged to be let in, which we accomodated.”
Robert is apparently writing both what has happened up until he sits down with the letter, and in the moment – as things are unraveling around him. It seems like he writes, then has to pause to take action and finally comes back and writes again. Here, it seems he is first writing what he hears, and then we get to follow what went down.
“At the moment, the pounding on the door is intense and with a voice of a wild beast someone is roaring outside. “Open the doors at once, or we will shoot.” They roared unpatiently until the doors were unlocked and then came in and demanded – guns in hand – to at once be given the two horses that were supposed to be at the missionary station. The answer: the bandits took one of the horses in Hancheng, and the other one is not at the station.” Our friend Schüin then came up and talked reason with them and got them back out into the street again. Now, Schüin says we need to keep the doors wide open and that he shall keep guard there. He tells us to take away all the glasses and start preparing a big stew and get all the bread there is, as well as tea, ready. Everybody who comes here shall be offered refreshments. We put up the big lanterns and the worship flag so that everyone could recognize the missionary station.”
This was a smart strategy. The soldiers and bandits were often very hungry and it was better to voluntarily serve them and get them in a good mood, than to shut them out – making them even more angry and dangerous. The former major Schüin knew this, of course. Perhaps this is how he saved Robert, Dagny and the others at the missionary station from being shot, like other victims in the town.
“Even after the town had been taken, gunshots were fired regularly and it was very hard to hear them, as we understood that every new gunshot was equal to another lost human life.”
Robert then writes about how they had to greet the new “head of town” and obey whatever orders were given out. He has to “lend” a horse and a new saddle to the “chief” and writes with irony that he thinks it will be a “long-term loan.” Thus far, Robert’s letter.
Dagny was of course also there, noticing what was happening, trying to keep her family, friends and staff safe. My grandfather Rudolf was only three years old at the time. As a parent, I can only imagine how scary it must have been to have him in the midst of this turmoil.
Looking it up in the missionary paper from 1916 (Sinims Land), I find an account of the events from Dagny’s pen.
She writes about how they try to save the wounded. People are carried to the nearby school building so that the missionaries and their helpers can clean and put bandages on wounds from knives and gunshots. Several of the Chinese women working at the missionary station had learned basic nursing skills from miss Berg. Dagny writes:
“When we walked between the school and the missionary station, we carried a flag with the red cross, so that we would not be attacked.”
Even the bandits took help from the missionaries. Dagny describes it vividly:
“The bandits even demanded that we help an officer who had been shot, 20 kilometres outside of the town. They said they would send an escort with us. One of us had to go there twice. The escort was a released prisoner. He had a donkey with him, loaded with stolen clothes. Nice company!”
The mystery man
I can’t help but wonder if this photograph with a Chinese officer, is perhaps of Dagny’s and Robert’s friend Schüin (see previous post).
Or perhaps someone just like him – who tried to help them best he could, during a difficult time. This particular siege of Hoyang was certainly one situation that could have warranted wanting to keep the portrait and handing it down through the generations.
A thriving missionary station
The station in Hoyang survived, and the missionaries with it. When things settled the chinese children came back to the missionary schools and the Bible women resumed their work together with Robert and Dagny. Two years later – in 1918 – a photograph of those engaged in the missionary station shows Dagny and Robert (marked with black pen) sitting amongst their big “family.” Their son, my grandfather Rudolf, stands, hugging his teddy bear (see arrow). Both Robert and Dagny look a bit worn – but who can blame them?
Robert’s letter gives new meaning to the phrase “keeping a cool head.” I love the refreshments strategy!
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Haha! Yes, brilliant!
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I love the photo of the missionary station in Hoyang, taken around 1906. Have you shared it before? Robert looks very tough with his long mustache!
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Hi Brad! No, I haven’t shared this photo before. Yes, he looks tough and very serious. Dagny is almost smiling in this photograph – I like that! In 1906 she had just had her fifth child (and one son had died only two years prior). She had a tough pregnancy that Olga helped her with. This was the start of Dagny’s and Olga’s friendship. I think the missionary men were more alone than the women at the stations. There were usually a few missionary women at the same station, but that does not seem to be the case for the men. But instead, Robert wrote a lot of letters – and always to other men, so perhaps it worked ok anyway.
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If Robert was the only male missionary, he must have felt responsible for all the women at the station. During an attack like the one you described in this post, he would have feared for the women’s safety. However, depending on the motivations of the attackers, Robert might have been in even greater danger than the women, if he was seen by the attackers as the man leading the mission.
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Very true! I can’t imagine the pressure he must have been under. He was known to be a very thoughtful man, who did not make any hasty descisions. It must have been extremely stressful for him with this kind of situation. I suppose him wanting the two female missionaires to join him and Dagny in their rooms was an expression of this worry. At the same time he does seem quite confident that God will protect them. I wish he would have written more about his feelings. He is good at recounting everything that happens, but does not reveal so much about what he feels about it.
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