Minor Heresies, Major Departures: A China Mission Boyhood

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An American boy, son of Presbyterian missionaries, was born in Shanghai early in this century. The boy lived two lives, one within the pious church compound, the other along the canal and in the alleys of a traditional Chinese city. There he faced the alley brats' Lady Bandit, heard the shrill screams of a child's foot-binding, learned rank obscenities from passing boatmen, and, while still in short pants, chewed Sen-Sen and ogled snake-charmers in the old Native City. He sailed up the Yangtze to attend boarding school, and along with his Boy Scout patrol, met Chiang Kai-shek. And when John Espey grew up, he wrote about his years in China.

This memoir is the story of those years, and while it is a wry, affectionate account, it also conveys an often overlooked picture of China in the years before communism. Seen through the eyes of a child, the interplay of religion, commerce, and American colonialism that took place during this period is revealed more tellingly—and more lightheartedly—than in many an analysis by an "old China hand."

Espey's bent is to use a "Chinese" approach to his subject, that is, to hide a second meaning within his words, to speak in parables. This he learned from both his single-minded missionary father and the family's Chinese cook. The result is that the reader of Minor Heresies, Major Departures will learn a great deal about the Pacific Rim while having a rollicking good time.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Looking back on his childhood in Shanghai during the early 1900s as the son of American missionaries, Espey, a professor emeritus of English at UCLA, is critical of his parents' view of the Chinese, which he sees as typical of an ``American attitude that led self-righteously into policies supporting reactionary governments abroad and an unquestioning assumption of superior knowledge in all things.'' Still, this is a gentle memoir evoking the simple pleasures of Espey's youth, his sense of being influenced simultaneously by the Chinese culture and by the Presbyterian ethic of his parents. Although he and his older sister, Mary Frances, jousted with the local children, he had no real friends among them; attending American schools in Shanghai, he never became fluent in Chinese. Espey's sensitive perceptions evoke a vivid contrast between the earthy, practical Chinese and Shanghai's isolated foreign community during the era between the Boxer Rebellion and the Japanese invasion. In 1937 his family was forced to leave. This droll and graceful memoir draws on Espey's previous books, among them Tales Out of School . (Apr.)
Library Journal
The author was born in China, the son of Presbyterian missionaries from America, and his extraordinary experiences growing up in two cultures provided him with a unique perspective. His humorous and witty memoir, replete with satirical but good-natured comments about Presbyterian missionaries, consists of various short essays, most of which originally appeared in whole or in part in Harper's and The New Yorker . These piecemeal biographical sketches, produced over a span of 50 years, are grouped together according to a clear chronological time frame, within a definite geocultural setting, and with a central thematic concern. Taken as a whole, they offer an insightful and charming undocumented history of China at the beginning of the century, revealed through the eyes of a boy. Highly recommended for all libraries.-- Mark Meng, St. John's Univ. Lib., New York
Mary Ellen Sullivan
The son of American Presbyterian missionaries in Shanghai, where he was born, Espey in this delightful collection of essays manages to respect his childhood experiences while still pointing out the many absurdities of missionary life and the West-is-best mentality so many Europeans and Americans brought to their Third World colonies. Displaying confidence and a self-deprecating sense of humor and neither trivializing nor sentimentalizing the past (as so many childhood memoirists, speaking from the older-but-wiser adult point of view, do), Espey recounts experiences ranging from attending Chinese kindergarten to interacting with the "alley kids" that lived near the canal outside his family's compound to developing a crush on his French teacher at the American boarding school he later attended. Although these vignettes are simple, Espey brings to them a complexity of insight, language, and cultural texture that elevates them to the literary level of quality fiction.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520082502
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 4/4/1994
  • Pages: 376
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Essayist, novelist, and scholar, John Espey is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of California, Los Angeles.
In 1990, Espey's Strong Drink, Strong Language received a nomination for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

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