‘O Auntie, I must tell you
What Precious said today:
I heard her tell the children
While at their merry play
She would not mind if Jesus
Would send her Christmas night.
A little baby dolly
With hair all fair and bright.
She said it would not matter
If nothing else were given,
Could only one real dolly
Come down to her from heaven!’
And thus we see the longings
Of little Chinese hearts,
For joys we once have tasted
In large or smaller parts
‘Precious secrets’ (excerpt), by Door of Hope missionary Winifred Burlinson1 The poem was published in the Door of Hope Annual Report 1925, quoted in Sue Gronewold, ‘A new family: domesticity and sentiment among Chinese and Western women at Shanghai’s Door of Hope’, in Hayweol Choi & Margaret Jolly (eds), Divine Domesticities: Christian Paradoxes in Asia and the Pacific, ANU Press, Canberra, 2014, pp. 290–2.
Cornelia Bonnell was feeling ambivalent as she disembarked her passenger ship in the port city of Shanghai on Christmas morning, 1899. An aspiring Protestant missionary from upstate New York, she had long felt God summoning her to China, a country she had never been to and knew little about. Bonnell had recently graduated from the elite liberal arts college Vassar with the highest honours. Barely twenty-one years of age and of weak physical constitution, she had been rejected by multiple mission organisations operating within China for fear she was not robust enough to be an effective servant of the word of God.2 ‘Cornelia Leavenworth Bonnell’, Woman’s Work in the Far East, vol. 37, no. 4, Dec. 1916, Presbyterian Mission Press, Shanghai, p. 215. Determined to find an alternative avenue into China that would allow her to fulfil her Christian aspirations, she eventually accepted an English teaching post at Miss Jewell’s Day School for children of American expatriates living in Shanghai.
In a ‘divine’ intervention less than a week after her arrival, on the eve of 1900 Bonnell met five other women from the United States and Europe at a prayer meeting at the Shanghai Union Church.3 Rosalind Goforth & Jonathan Goforth, Miracle Lives of China, Marshall, Morgan & Scott, London, 1931, pp. 127–9. The women were each affiliated with a different mission operating in the city: Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, Anglican and the China Inland Mission. The small group bonded quickly, exchanging tales of their intrepid new lives in the Orient and offering each other support and advice. Together they lamented the ills of the red-light district and port areas of Shanghai’s International Settlement,4 The Shanghai International Settlement was an extraterritorially administrated enclave of the city resulting from the merging of Shanghai’s British and American concessions in 1863. where, within a complex social hierarchy of courtesans and prostitutes, young women were frequently seen being carried through the streets on rickshaws as live advertising for entertainment, companionship and varying degrees of sexual services. Resolved to rescue these victims of ‘the social evil’,5 Cornelia Bonnell, quoted in ‘Alumnae department news’, The Vassar Miscellany, vol. 43, 1913, p. 290. the women, rallied by Bonnell, established the Door of Hope Mission in 1901.
The turn of the century had offered little cause for celebration in China, which was still reeling from the aftermath of the British Empire’s aggressive export of opium into the country. This reprehensible but successful attempt to reduce its bilateral trade deficit with China had led to two imperial wars (the First and Second Opium Wars, in 1839–42 and 1856–60) followed by widespread social devastation, with conflict eventually subdued through a series of unequal treaties that forced the ruling Qing dynasty into a long list of humiliating extraterritorial concessions to Western powers. The island of Hong Kong was relinquished to the British and a number of treaty ports, including Shanghai, were established. These externally imposed reforms required China to abandon its traditional, tributary system of international trade and relations, and pried the country open to unwelcome foreign activity.
Christian missionaries, now free to proselytise and purchase land for churches and schools anywhere they pleased, flooded into China throughout the late nineteenth century, determined to stamp the mark of their God on the vulnerable country. Ironically, many of the social ills these missions sought to address were in large part the product of Western influence. Perhaps as testament, some missionaries rationalised the injustices of the intervening decades as instruments of God’s plan to Christianise China.6 Michael C. Lazich, ‘American missionaries and the opium trade in nineteenth century China’, Journal of World History, vol. 17, no. 2, June 2007, pp. 210–11.
China’s new semicolonial status sparked a deep identity crisis within the country. Brewing resentment among the populace overflowed in 1898 with the Boxer Rebellion – a vigorous, initially grassroots, movement against foreign influence, imperialism and Christianity. Western powers retaliated harshly, with each American or British death met with an exponentially greater number of Chinese deaths. An alliance of eight foreign forces (Britain, the United States, France, Germany, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Russia and Japan) captured Beijing in 1900. A violent free-for-all ensued, with members of the alliance engaging in cultural vandalism, the destruction of Chinese property and the looting of valuable artefacts. The rebellion formally ended in 1901 with the signing of the Boxer Protocol, which required China to make further debilitating reparations and concessions to the West. In the same year, the Door of Hope Mission commenced its activities while safely ensconced within Shanghai’s International Settlement.
Despite the lack of formal church support due to its ecumenical founding committee, the Mission’s female leaders, led by Bonnell, eagerly set about implementing their agenda to save as many marginalised Chinese women from servitude and illegitimate sexual relations – be it prostitution or out-of-wedlock sex – as possible. A small rented house in the heart of Shanghai’s notorious red-light district on Foochow (now Fuzhou) Road was set up as the mission’s ‘Receiving Home’. There was little to differentiate the unassuming residence from the other shikumen7 This historic style of architecture, where a double row of two-storey terrace houses creates an alleyway accessible by a stone archway, is unique to Shanghai. in the alleyway, adorned at night with paper lanterns bearing the names of available women. A neon sign stating 耶稣能救人 (Jesus saves) was later installed above the mission’s entrance. The strategic proximity of the mission allowed women seeking out its services to easily evade watchful brothel madams and their henchmen, although some residents are believed to have been brought through the mission’s doors against their free will.8 Gronewold, ‘A new family: domesticity and sentiment among Chinese and Western women at Shanghai’s Door of Hope’, p. 284.
On entering the Receiving Home, residents were provided with essential services, including food, shelter and medical care. Once immediate needs had been addressed and physical conditions stabilised, they were provided the opportunity to enter the mission’s ‘First Year Home’ at a nearby site. Here, in exchange for intensive religious instruction, residents could participate in an in-house educational program to learn basic skills, such as reading and writing, simple mathematics, sewing, embroidery and knitting. If deemed sufficiently pious at the end of their first year, residents were eligible to graduate into a third residence: the ‘Industrial Home’.9 Christian Henriot, Prostitution and Sexuality in Shanghai: A Social History, 1849–1949, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001, pp. 336–8.
The Door of Hope’s operations were severely restricted by a lack of funding in its initial years, rendering the mission reliant on the intermittent charity of local organisations such as the Rotary Club of Shanghai and the American Women’s Club, and the ‘kind assistance of a number of Chinese gentlemen’.10 Woman’s Work in the Far East, p. 188. To help ease the mission’s financial burden, Industrial Home residents could undertake various productive activities in exchange for food, ongoing board and, during profitable periods, a small stipend. One such activity was the manufacture of dolls, which resulted in perhaps the mission’s only known material legacy. The heads of these dolls were finely carved from pear wood by local artisans before residents painted in delicate facial features and hairstyles, and made bodies from stuffed muslin. Once assembled, the dolls were dressed from under- to outerwear in up to five layers of clothing, with each garment painstakingly woven and sewn by hand. The realistic costumes of the dolls represented different roles and classes in Chinese society, cultivating a degree of cultural pride that the missionaries deemed essential to the successful Christianisation of their charges. The first models to be created were a bride and groom in exquisitely detailed ceremonial dress (the bride accessorised with an elaborate beaded headdress), shortly followed by small children with an ayi (nursemaid), a married couple with school-aged children, an elderly couple and, finally, a widow. Farmers, policemen and a Buddhist monk were later added to the range, along with other roles that illustrated the Qing Dynasty’s highly stratified social order.
The project was labour intensive, with one doll taking approximately four weeks to complete. Finished dolls were sold locally within the International Settlement or distributed overseas through various mission networks. (The NGV’s collection of Door of Hope dolls was purchased by a family of Australian Presbyterian missionaries based in Jinju, Korea, from 1902–15.) Others ended up in the US and UK, where they remain today, highly sought after by collectors as rare and faithful depictions of turn-of-the-century Chinese dress customs.
Small, light and quite unlike anything available in the West at the time, Door of Hope dolls served as a novel international marketing tool to spread the word about the mission and encourage additional sources of patronage. As well as the small supplementary income earned from sale of the dolls, the production of their delicately sewn and embroidered costumes offered a means for the mission’s residents to refine their technical sewing abilities. These skills could later be relied on for employment in the production of clothing.
Self-support was uncommon for women in early twentieth-century China, and the strict Confucian social structure was not conducive to their self-determination. For more than two and a half millennia, the place of women in society had been dictated by the ideal of filial piety, within which a woman was bonded to three patriarchal obediences: first to her father, then to her husband, and later to her sons. The Confucian kinship system was patrilineal and patrilocal, requiring a woman to marry into her husband’s family and be excluded from inheritance. Outside of the hougong (imperial harem), education opportunities for women were limited and based on moral precepts encouraging discipline, obedience and the fostering of manual crafts. The public and private spheres were divided by gender, with women largely constrained to the domestic space and having limited contact outside the family. This dichotomy was further reinforced in cases where women were physically disabled by foot binding, a centuries-old but at the time still popular cultural practice undertaken to increase the marriage prospects of young girls.
Options were limited for non-gentry and working-class women who were unmarried, widowed young, or who had slipped outside of a kinship network through some personal misfortune. Factory work was often the only form of genuine employment, but it was hard to come by and hold on to. Many women were pledged into indentured servitude or prostitution (by professional traffickers or their own families), and were unable to exit these arrangements of their own volition. For those women in Shanghai who could escape, the Door of Hope offered protection and a new family unit – a constructed kin system between residents and missionaries. Bonnell proposed that if the mission’s residents could be educated and equipped with practical skills, they might break the vicious cycle of social marginalisation that had resulted in their servitude and prostitution in the first place, enabling them to transition towards a brighter future: a – ideally Christian – marriage.
Christian missions like the Door of Hope were not the only forces promoting women’s education and self-sufficiency at the beginning of the twentieth century. China’s first independent women’s periodical, Zhongguo nubao (Chinese Women’s Magazine), established in 1899, vigorously promoted gender equality and education for women. In 1906, the Women’s Education Association was established, calling for intellectual (as opposed to moral or manual) women’s education.11 Charlotte L. Beahan, ‘In the public eye: women in early twentieth-century China’, Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques, vol. 8, no. 3, 1981, pp. 215–38. Cantonese female doctor and women’s rights activist Zhang Zhujun also began a series of enterprises encouraging greater independence for women. In an article for the Shanghai journal Jingzhong ribao (Alarm Bell Daily) in 1907, Zhang implored women to equip themselves with an education that would make them self-reliant, lest they find themselves economically stranded. She acknowledged male oppression as a contributing factor, but also rebuked women for having accepted the situation for so long, citing their inability to join together in effective groups to work towards a common goal.12 ibid. p. 217.
The Boxer Rebellion of 1899–1901, though extinguished, had succeeded in galvanising a growing nationalism across China during the early years of the new century. In assessing the events leading to the country’s humiliation over the previous sixty years, a large portion of the population acknowledged the necessity for social and cultural change. Pragmatically, these movements recognised that the female population was a valuable, underutilised resource that could be deployed to better serve China in the public arena. Under increasing duress from a frustrated population and paranoid about anti-dynastic sentiment, the war-weakened Qing government reluctantly acquiesced to social reform during the first decade of the new century. In 1907 a suite of state modernisation initiatives included new regulations pertaining to the administration of private primary schools and colleges for girls. Popular organisations were permitted sufficient oxygen to operate and began to proliferate as a result, with many of them directed by women. In particular, Shanghai – by then a large, cosmopolitan metropolis – afforded women a degree of anonymity and freedom to participate in mass meetings and public action. Women from every stratum of society, including prostitutes, joined in. Although initially driven by nationalism, these meetings quickly snowballed into a platform for women’s issues, challenging Confucian notions of gendered restrictions in the public and private spheres. While Western figures like Florence Nightingale and Harriet Beecher Stowe were often advanced as new ideals of femininity, China’s ancient indigenous principles of Yin and Yang and heaven and earth were invoked to support the argument that ‘myriad creatures had been created without favouritism’, and advocated balance between gender through awareness of stoic female forebears, including legendary military generals and warriors like Qin Liangyu, Liang Hongyu and Hua Mulan.13 ibid. p. 219.
New models and depictions of modern femininity emerged from the movement towards greater independence and public participation for women, namely the archetypes of the ‘New Woman’ and ‘Modern Girl’. Today there is much discord among scholars with respect to these tropes of twentieth-century Asian femininity. While they cannot be assessed as monolithic entities, there is consensus that they describe women who were educated and self-sufficient, and who rejected Confucian ideals regarding sexual conservatism, domesticity and motherhood. Stereotypes of the New Woman and Modern Girl were widely perpetuated through mass media and literature, stoking anxieties among the former generation regarding the social and cultural upheaval brought on by rapid modernisation. Despite initial concessions from the Qing government, a conservative countermovement emerged, coupled with ongoing institutional resistance, even after the Qing dynasty was overthrown in 1912 and the Republic of China was founded.
Despite momentum on the ground, China’s nascent women’s liberation movement still had a way to go, as indicated by a statement issued by the national education minister in 1914:
Ever since the beginning of the republic, there has been a group of people advocating a new sort of theory which calls for the loosening of the restrictions on women … Although merely one trend of the day and a phenomenon hard to avoid in times of transition … it is truly … to be regretted. In my opinion, the proper direction for women’s education is to make them able to be excellent wives and virtuous mothers … able to maintain the household – and that is all.14 Beahan, p. 237.
Was this lingering attitude fundamentally any different to that espoused by the Door of Hope? It is certainly tempting to view the work of the mission as promoting self-determination among its residents, and many have extolled the work done by Christian missions as a force for women’s emancipation in early twentieth-century China. While the Door of Hope cannot be characterised as an empowering or feminist organisation in comparison to China’s own internally propelled movements, it is true that it was responsible for improving the immediate living situation for many of its female residents, albeit within the framework of Christian expansionism. According to one elderly alumnus interviewed in 1998, waking up after her first night at the mission was the first time she ‘had ever been warm in the morning during winter’.15 Gronewold, ‘A new family: domesticity and sentiment among Chinese and Western women at Shanghai’s Door of Hope’, p. 287. The mission certainly challenged aspects of the status quo, and tangible achievements were made: its persistent lobbying in Shanghai eventually secured the enactment of new municipal regulations, raising the minimum age that girls could enter the brothels to fifteen years old.16 R. G. Tiedemann, Reference Guide to Christian Missionary Societies in China: From the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Century, Routledge, London, 2009, p. 155. At its core, however, with its Christian values and deeply conservative ideals of femininity, the mission was ultimately promoting the same gender binary that popular movements were railing against, replacing the paternalistic social order of Confucianism with that of Christian marriage.
The mission indirectly reinforced the social segregation of women in multiple ways. Education programs were largely focused on domestic subjects like needlework that prepared residents to be good wives and mothers, while staying out of trouble in the meantime. These ideals were specifically instilled through the production of dolls that clearly illustrated the importance of women’s roles within the ‘three obediences’ (daughter, wife, mother) – both to those in the Door of Hope’s Industrial Home who spent countless hours making them, and to the impressionable younger residents, who were permitted to play with them as a reward for good behaviour.
Some residents rejected the mission’s teachings, although tools of resistance were limited. Many chose to run away, and by 1912 the mission had already been set on fire three times.17 Door of Hope Annual Report 1913, quoted in Sue Gronewold, ‘Missionary institutions in China as sites of conversion’, World History Connected, vol. 12, no. 2, June 2015, https://worldhistoryconnected.press.uillinois.edu/12.2/forum_gronewold.html, accessed 9 Oct. 2019.
The mission’s constructed kin system also firmly reinforced the Confucian family system. This went beyond dispensing maternal love and discipline (although girls were occasionally permitted to share beds with missionaries if they had been ‘good’).18 Gronewold, ‘A new family: domesticity and sentiment among Chinese and Western women at Shanghai’s Door of Hope’, p. 294. The Confucian concept of parental control of marriage was also reconstructed – missionaries selected suitable (usually Christian) husbands for their charges and even enjoyed the fruits of filial piety by accepting financial gifts from these ‘son-in-laws’ that were not declared in the mission’s detailed annual reports.19 ibid. p. 288. Highlighting its intrinsic compatibility with existing top-down approaches to social order, by its second decade the mission was receiving substantial program funding from both Western imperial (within the International Settlement) and Chinese governments. In fact, its relations with the Shanghai municipal council became so symbiotic that one missionary newsletter described the mission as ‘an arm of the State’.20 Sue Gronewold, ‘New life, new faith, new nation’, in Barbara Reeves-Ellington, Kathryn Kish Sklar & Connie A. Shemo (eds), Competing Kingdoms: Women, Mission, Nation, and the American Protestant Empire, 1812–1960, Duke University Press, Durham, 2010, p. 197.
Cornelia Bonnell remained in weak health and died at forty years of age in 1918, still at the mission’s helm. During her two decades in China she garnered a saint-like reputation within the international missionary community and continued to be heralded in missionary periodicals as the ‘Angel of Shanghai’ long after her death.21 ‘The Angel of Shanghai’, The Defender, vol. 17, March 1943, pp. 16–17. Her ambition to ‘save’ the marginalised women of Shanghai never wavered – during the Door of Hope’s lifetime an estimated 5000 women and children passed beneath the neon sign above the entrance to the Receiving Home. But what of the collective ambitions of Chinese women during these turbulent years in the country’s history? For many, they would not be realised until after Bonnell’s death. Following the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party implemented widespread education initiatives and civic participation opportunities for women. It also forcibly ejected the Door of Hope from the mainland in 1950 during a purge of what it deemed toxic foreign intervention. The mission’s left-behind alumnae were socially ostracised for years to come for their association with its Christian activities, while a new epoch was ushered in to the tune of Mao Zedong’s revolutionary catchcry, ‘Women hold up half the sky’.
The poem was published in the Door of Hope Annual Report 1925, quoted in Sue Gronewold, ‘A new family: domesticity and sentiment among Chinese and Western women at Shanghai’s Door of Hope’, in Hayweol Choi & Margaret Jolly (eds), Divine Domesticities: Christian Paradoxes in Asia and the Pacific, ANU Press, Canberra, 2014, pp. 290–2.
‘Cornelia Leavenworth Bonnell’, Woman’s Work in the Far East, vol. 37, no. 4, Dec. 1916, Presbyterian Mission Press, Shanghai, p. 215.
Rosalind Goforth & Jonathan Goforth, Miracle Lives of China, Marshall, Morgan & Scott, London, 1931, pp. 127–9.
The Shanghai International Settlement was an extraterritorially administrated enclave of the city resulting from the merging of Shanghai’s British and American concessions in 1863.
Cornelia Bonnell, quoted in ‘Alumnae department news’, The Vassar Miscellany, vol. 43, 1913, p. 290.
Michael C. Lazich, ‘American missionaries and the opium trade in nineteenth century China’, Journal of World History, vol. 17, no. 2, June 2007, pp. 210–11.
This historic style of architecture, where a double row of two-storey terrace houses creates an alleyway accessible by a stone archway, is unique to Shanghai.
Gronewold, ‘A new family: domesticity and sentiment among Chinese and Western women at Shanghai’s Door of Hope’, p. 284.
Christian Henriot, Prostitution and Sexuality in Shanghai: A Social History, 1849–1949, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001, pp. 336–8.
Woman’s Work in the Far East, p. 188.
Charlotte L. Beahan, ‘In the public eye: women in early twentieth-century China’, Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques, vol. 8, no. 3, 1981, pp. 215–38.
ibid. p. 217.
ibid. p. 219.
Beahan, p. 237.
Gronewold, ‘A new family: domesticity and sentiment among Chinese and Western women at Shanghai’s Door of Hope’, p. 287.
R. G. Tiedemann, Reference Guide to Christian Missionary Societies in China: From the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Century, Routledge, London, 2009, p. 155.
Door of Hope Annual Report 1913, quoted in Sue Gronewold, ‘Missionary institutions in China as sites of conversion’, World History Connected, vol. 12, no. 2, June 2015, https://worldhistoryconnected.press.uillinois.edu/12.2/forum_gronewold.html, accessed 9 Oct. 2019.
Gronewold, ‘A new family: domesticity and sentiment among Chinese and Western women at Shanghai’s Door of Hope’, p. 294.
ibid. p. 288.
Sue Gronewold, ‘New life, new faith, new nation’, in Barbara Reeves-Ellington, Kathryn Kish Sklar & Connie A. Shemo (eds), Competing Kingdoms: Women, Mission, Nation, and the American Protestant Empire, 1812–1960, Duke University Press, Durham, 2010, p. 197.
‘The Angel of Shanghai’, The Defender, vol. 17, March 1943, pp. 16–17.