Beyond the Stone Arches: An American Missionary Doctor in China, 1892-1932

Beyond the Stone Arches: An American Missionary Doctor in China, 1892-1932

by Edward Bliss Jr.

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"The words of David Livingstone express my feelings better than any words of my own. 'God had an only son, and He was a missionary and a physician.' A poor, poor imitation of Him I am, or hope to be. In this service I hope to live; in it I wish to die."–Edward Bliss, 1892

In 1892–during the latter days of the Qing Dynasty–a 26-year-old

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"The words of David Livingstone express my feelings better than any words of my own. 'God had an only son, and He was a missionary and a physician.' A poor, poor imitation of Him I am, or hope to be. In this service I hope to live; in it I wish to die."–Edward Bliss, 1892

In 1892–during the latter days of the Qing Dynasty–a 26-year-old Massachusetts native embarked on a dramatic journey to an outpost in feudal China. The man's name was Edward Bliss, and it was in the impoverished walled city of Shaowu that he fulfilled his dream of becoming a medical missionary and emerged as a true American hero.

In this inspired and riveting read, distinguished journalist Edward Bliss Jr.–the son of this original Peace Corpsman–tells the remarkable story of a courageous pioneer who selflessly risked his life to serve others. With the refreshing intimacy of a memoir and based in large part on letters Bliss wrote home, Beyond the Stone Arches takes us back to the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which saw an outpouring of missionaries to Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

Filled with drama and exhilarating anecdotes, Beyond the Stone Arches imparts the complete story of an American missionary: from Bliss's happy childhood in Newburyport, Massachusetts, to his rigorous days at Yale University, to the remote Chinese city where he battled malaria (which twice nearly killed him), plague, torrential floods, and, finally, the encroaching Communist armies to help make the world a better place in which to live. Bliss continued to heal the sick, toil as a farmer, deliver babies, and work to eradicate the rinderpest virus–all for the "glory of God and dignity of man"–until the early days of Mao Zedong when a Communist army descended on Shaowu.

This intimate glimpse into the life of Edward Bliss also provides a rare impression of the obstacles faced by missionaries in the feudal Chinese culture. A rare tribute, Beyond the Stone Arches is a luminous portrait of an exemplary figure, a man whose extraordinary life story offers us insight into how to face adversity in our own time.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"When you were so sick in infancy, and there was little hope of your recovery, did I not earnestly pray that the Lord would spare your life that you might live for His glory," wrote the devout Emily Lydston Bliss in 1891 to her oldest son and the author's father, Edward, upon hearing that he had chosen to become a missionary doctor in China. Relying on letters from and conversations with his father and others, as well as his own recollections of living in China as the son of two missionaries, Bliss offers a lovely account of his father's lifelong devotion to China and its people. The author perfectly balances an objective description of his father's contributions as a physician and Christian missionary with a genuine warmth and respect for him. As a backdrop to the primary story of his father's work, Bliss describes the larger sociopolitical events taking place both in China and around the world--recalling that his father once described himself and his fellow American missionaries as "the first anti-isolationists." Bliss senior suffered bouts of malaria, plagues and floods, but it would only be in the wake of Mao's rise to power that Edward would leave China. Bliss succeeds beautifully in painting a private view of a transformative period in world history through the eyes of one man. Readers will recognize Bliss's name from his long and distinguished career in broadcast journalism, which will contribute to sales of this excellent book. (Jan.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
During the latter days of the Qing Dynasty, Bliss, 26 years old, left his native Massachusetts and travelled to the impoverished walled city of Shaowu to fulfill his dream of becoming a medical missionary. His son, distinguished electronic journalist Edward Bliss, Jr. tells the tale. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Kirkus Reviews
A rousing account of a New England missionary doctor who worked for 40 years in China. Bliss (Journalism/American Univ.) compiled this testament to his father's life from interviews with him, his wife Minnie, and their family and contemporaries, as well as from their personal correspondence. As a young graduate of Yale Medical School, the elder Bliss applied and was accepted for service as a missionary doctor, and in 1892 he was assigned to the remote mission station at Shaowu in the province of Fujian. For most of the next four decades, Bliss was the sole practitioner of Western medicine for many miles around, and his practice quickly outgrew its capacity. To help serve the overwhelming demand, he trained Chinese assistants in the basics of Western medicine and taught them how to prescribe drugs. He also tried to set up agricultural collectives, and worked to find an inexpensive vaccine for rinderpest (a devastating livestock disease that was very common in the region). His exploits are chronicled from the last days of Imperial China through the various republics that arose in the wake of the 1911 revolution to the appearance of the Communists and the coming of WWII. Although it is common practice nowadays to view missionaries as agents of western imperialism, Bliss comes across well in his son's account—compassionate without being paternalistic, and instructive without being domineering. A loving paean to a long-absent father—an exemplary man whose faith and devotion provide a refreshing tonic against the ambivalence and cynicism of later ages.

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Read an Excerpt

I Feel I Have Fallen
among Friends

THE CITY WAS not yet in sight. It lay behind the hill called Monkey Head, around the great bend in the river, but the foreign doctor in the incongruous bowler hat--incongruous in the hinterlands of Fujian Province--asked the boatmen to put him ashore. He was sure he could walk faster than the river junk was being rowed.

By the Chinese calendar, Edward Bliss, M. D., had arrived in that province on the sixteenth day of the tenth moon in the eighteenth year of the reign of Emperor Guangxu. The date by Western reckoning was November 5, 1892. The coastal steamer had left Shanghai at daybreak on the fourth and had reached Fuzhou on the night of the fifth, picking its way up the intricate channel to Pagoda Anchorage in the light of a yellow moon. That same night, writing home, he described the broad harbor mouth and the encircling mountains and the warm welcome given him by the Fuzhou missionaries. He had wondered if he would feel lost among them, for they were all strangers, but he was able to say, "I feel I have fallen among friends."

He had been assigned to the mission station at Shaowu, on the upper reaches of the Min, which required a river trip that, in that time, took three weeks. He had planned to proceed there directly, but the American consul advised him to wait. The Min, with its rapids and marauding pirates, was no river to travel alone. Joseph Elkanah Walker, D. D., and his wife, Adelaide, would be making the trip in about a month and were old China hands. Walker had founded the Protestant mission at Shaowu and may have known more about China than any other "roundeye" in the province, for he made a serious study of its culture, wrote beautifully in Chinese, and was able to translate hymns. It was said that he was as at home with the parables of Confucius as he was with those of Christ.

Walker's personal history captured the imagination of the children of the mission. His father, a graduate of Bangor Theological Seminary in Maine, had served as missionary to Indian tribes in Oregon Territory. The journey across the American continent from Maine took 178 days, most of them on horseback. The son enrolled at the same seminary a year before completion of the transcontinental railroad, and so to reach Bangor from Oregon Territory he had traveled by ship to Panama; by train--in a boxcar-- across the isthmus; by ship to New York, and then by train the rest of the way. It was on a paddle-wheeled steamer of the Pacific Mail Line that he came to China from San Francisco in 1872.

Now with his wife he was returning from furlough in America, and the consul had no doubt they would welcome the young doctor's presence on the long, upriver trip. As it turned out, the Walkers did not reach Fuzhou for two months. Although Edward chafed at the delay, he put the time to good use at the mission hospital, treating fearsome, often unfamiliar diseases he later would have to treat by himself. (His first patient was a deaf mute who set forth his symptoms in unintelligible Chinese characters.) Descendants have an old photograph of Edward taken in this period. He appears in a group picture. "Oh," he said one time, recalling the occasion, "that was my first Christmas in China. The Foochow [Fuzhou] people had a celebration, and there was plum pudding and a tree." The photograph shows him wearing a mustache--the goatee came later--but he has the same alert eyes and well-shaped bald head that proves he lost his hair early.

It was not until January 19, 1893, that they started upriver. Walker superintended the loading of the two boats like a seasoned docker, shouting orders in shrill Fukienese and smiting his forehead with the palm of his hand in exasperation whenever a box was placed in the wrong boat or a crate of breakables was too rudely set down. Sacks of oranges and potatoes, flour bags wrapped in oil paper, canned dried beef, cocoa, condensed milk, and medicines were stowed under loose deck boards. Other provisions, packed in bamboo baskets, were set aside for use during the trip. Live cargo consisted of five caged chickens.

The bustle seemed out of all proportion to the business of transporting three foreigners and their worldly goods. Coolies with broad bamboo hats and flouncing queues trotted to the boats in impressive succession with the missioners' possessions while, through it all, a solitary crewman sat in the stern of the Walker boat, mending a sail. He seemed the only serene, right-minded person in the whole affair.

Their flotilla consisted of three river junks of the class called duck boats. In fact, all Min River boats were in the "fowl" class. There were duck boats and rooster boats, made of camphor wood, and super duck boats and sparrow boats. A rooster boat was twice as big as an ordinary duck boat and only a little smaller than a super duck. The so-called salt boat was a version of the super duck used to transport salt, which was a government monopoly. The sparrow boat, which reminded Edward of a whale boat, was the smallest craft on the river, measuring no more than twenty feet. With their narrow beams and V-bottoms, the little sparrows darted between rocks that would tear other boats apart. The duck boats chartered by Walker were puny compared to the great river junks of North China, which sometimes measured more than a hundred feet. The Walkers and their belongings, including a new set of dining room furniture, took up two of the boats, Edward shared his boat with a bright-faced Shaowu boy of fifteen who had been attending the middle school at Fuzhou. With a crew of nine on each boat, no one had room to spare.

It was 250 miles from Fuzhou to Shaowu, and on the first day they traveled only fourteen miles. While the patched sail fluttered dismally between an occasional breeze, Edward studied with the schoolboy Tsien, who had cheerfully agreed to teach him a few phrases in the Shaowu dialect. These lessons took place in the open bow of the boat. A large thatched canopy, or peng, covered the craft amidships. Edward and the boy slept in the forward cabin with a few yards of mosquito netting draped over the entrance. The large aft cabin belonged to the crew. During that first day the crewmen were strangely invisible, although their voices, low and aspirate, could be heard through the bulkhead. In the stern, the frowning helmsman stood on a raised platform, his arm on the great sweep oar, looking straight ahead, rarely moving, a graven image of purpose.

Toward noon the Walker boat pulled alongside, and Edward went aboard for a Chinese meal of mushrooms, fried red peppers, and rice. Walker said that mushrooms raised at Shaowu were famous for their tenderness and flavor. Reminiscing, he told how he and two other missionaries, Simeon Woodin and D. W. Osgood, "discovered" Shaowu on the fifteenth day of November 1873, the first Americans ever to enter the walled city. Osgood, too, was a doctor and treated such cases as presented themselves, while Woodin and Walker traipsed through the countryside, distributing tracts.

The three missionaries reconnoitered for a week, then withdrew to Fuzhou. But in 1876, Joseph Walker returned with Adelaide and stayed. During the next sixteen years they were joined by other missionary families, but the merciless climate, and malaria, forced all but two families to leave. An excitement filled Walker as he talked. Pioneering came to him naturally. He said, "I had to pioneer," and told how his parents had gone to Oregon Territory.

Walker said that normally they would proceed under sail as far as Shuikou, now a matter of sixty miles. If the wind died absolutely, the men would take to the oars. Shuikou marked the foot of the first rapids, where tracking would begin. To track, six men from each boat would go ashore and don their harness. Only three stayed on board--the helmsman to steer and the two others to keep the boat off the rocks with their iron-tipped poles. "In some places," Walker said, "you will see eighteen or twenty men on a single tracking line. They will pull one boat through the rapids and then go back for another. I have seen it take an hour to pull one salt boat fifty feet."

He picked up one of the lines and showed Edward how it was plaited with strands of bamboo and how each line, no matter its diameter, was composed of sixteen of these strands. If the line was heavier, each individual strand was heavier, but the number of strands was always the same magic number, sixteen. The lines were hundreds of feet long, so that they would reach several times across the river if let out their full length. And if they dipped into the current, it made no difference. They would not gain weight and encumber the trackers because bamboo does not absorb water. Walker called the river ruthless. "In four thousand years," he said, "the Chinese have built perhaps a hundred bridges between Fuzhou and Shaowu, and today not one of them stands."

As he talked, the missionary flotilla passed a village, where on the riverbank women were washing clothes. The women were kneeling. Again and again they dipped the clothes in the water, cudgeled them, and wrung them. Near the opposite shore a mandarin's caravel moved majestically downstream, propelled by fourteen oarsmen whose shafts rose and dipped rhythmically, like the oars of a Roman galley. The chant of the oarsmen came to Edward across the water, and he could make out a large dragon flag waving at the stern.

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Meet the Author

EDWARD BLISS Jr. has had a distinguished career in broadcasting. He was writer/producer for Edward R. Murrow and news editor for Walter Cronkite prior to founding the broadcast journalism program at American University. In 1993, he was honored with the prestigious Paul White Award for lifetime achievement in electronic journalism. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

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