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Women Missionary-Ethnographers in 19th Century China? A Field for Further Research

By Naomi E. Thurston – The Chinese University of Hong Kong  

Naomi E. Thurston teaches the history of Christianity in China and researches contemporary Chinese Christianities at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Her recent research traces the theological reception of the German Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann in Chinese scholarship. She also writes on comparative themes and missionary ethnography in the 19th-century Western missionary enterprise. She has translated the writings of contemporary Chinese scholars and has introduced the emerging discourse of “Sino-Christian studies” in Chinese academia today.

When we think of women missionaries or missionary-connected western women who wrote on China during the 19th and 20th centuries, the names of a few authoresses immediately come to mind: first and foremost among them is the popular American writer Pearl S. Buck, followed by lesser-known but also popularly read “missiographers,” such as Geraldine Taylor (widely known as “Mrs. Howard Taylor”), who wrote numerous books on the missionaries of the China Inland Mission, or Isobel Miller Kuhn, who wrote extensively about her work among the Lisu people, introducing a remote people living in the mountains of Yunan to western missionary supporters. Such writings fall into one of several categories: popular fiction, memoir, general missionary hagiography, and another genre, that of Euro-American missionary educational literature, inaugurated with the writings of the early 19th-century missionaries (initially Morrison, Milne, and Gützlaff, followed by several other active missionary-authors[1]) who not only translated the Scriptures, catechisms, hymns and other Christian texts into Chinese, but presented knowledge of China to audiences at home in simple, often didactic registers, including in the form of novels and translations of contemporary Chinese authors – with notes on language, history, and geography – for a general readership. Such texts differed from earlier Jesuit introductions of China, as those had been written for elite, power-wielding, and specialized audiences. Out of the vast movement of 19th-20th-century missionaries, a small number of individuals stood out who dedicated time and effort to deeply understanding and translating China’s written culture, its classics; they became known as missionary-scholars. The vast majority of these, though not all, were men – they have been studied and introduced at length. Studies exist, too, on the contributions of women missionaries in the fields of education, educational administration, medicine, various works of charity and social activism, sometimes focused on women who held influential leadership roles in these sectors.


Title page of Gillette Bridgman’s 1853 – “Daughters of China

One area that has yet to be studied systematically is the ethnographic content or merit of the writings of missionary women in China: missionary and missionary-connected women wrote a great deal, from business communication, to literary translations, to fiction – writings in which China was represented through the eyes of a westerner, however well adjusted to Chinese life she may have been, whether sympathetic toward or harshly critical of Chinese culture.[2] Numerous missionary accounts decry the idolatry of Chinese religions, sometimes describing China as Satan’s kingdom, while others focus on the evils of foot-binding and female infanticide. These are well-known examples. Women missionaries also wrote about Chinese customs generally, life conditions in areas not frequented by foreigners, and of their relational encounters and other personal experiences of China.

One such missionary-writer was the educator Eliza Jane Gillett Bridgman (1805-1871), founder of several early Protestant schools for girls, including Bridgman Academy in Peking.[3] She was known chiefly as the wife of Elijah Bridgman (1801-1861),[4] missionary-translator, editor of the Chinese Repository (1832-1851), and an important cultural intermediary. Eliza Bridgman (hereafter, Bridgman), who set sail for China in the mid-1840s, having been influenced in her teens by the missionary dedication of Harriet Newell (1793-1812),[5] later authored a book entitled, Daughters of China, announced as a portrait of Chinese domestic life.[6] In it, she expresses the missionary – and civilizing – aim of “elevat[ing] the Chinese female to the hopes and privileges of woman in Christian lands, and giv[ing] her the same qualifications to discharge the duties of daughter, wife, and mother.”[7] At the same time, her explicit objective is to “tell the tale of woman’s condition in that far-off land.”[8]

While Bridgman’s account is filled with mournful references to the paganism of the Chinese women she introduces and justifications of her missionary endeavors, it is littered throughout with observations of everyday life among different classes of Chinese society, marriage customs, funeral rites, encounters with concubines, the lamentable plights of women forced to sell their children, and descriptions of rides in sedan chairs. The author introduces the materials of which windows and different types of dresses and hairpieces are made, the time women spend on their “toilet,” the atmospheres in individual homes, the household gods that need to be appeased on different occasions and for various purposes.

Bridgman also offers some demographic observations, writes of life expectancy, and the reactions of the Chinese to foreigners in their midst, noting for example their admiration for foreign children. Her most interesting observations, however, do not relate to externals, but to her relationships with Chinese women, who could never interact directly with “the missionary,” i.e. the “male missionary.” Bridgman’s friendships with Chinese women, her role in educating their daughters, and her adoption of two Chinese girls – the Bridgmans had no biological children – allowed her entry into a world largely unknown to westerners, a world that existed in parallel to that of the Chinese classics, which the missionary scholars were busily translating at the time. The author of Daughters of China had harsh words for some of the women she encountered: “The women of China possess intellect, but it wants cultivation; they have hearts, but they require the gospel’s sanctifying influence; they need also, early, judicious training.”[9] She criticizes how Chinese mothers care for their infants, who, in light of the possibility of having to give them up, lack the tenderness of “Christian mothers”:

…when they take it up, instead of enfolding both arms around the tender babe, and gently supporting its head, as Christian mothers do, they handle it as others would a bundle of clothing. …They do not wait for the eye to sparkle, and the smile of the expanding infant to work upon the maternal bosom—this would be too much for a mother’s heart, even for a heathen Chinese mother.[10] 

There is certainly much that is left to be desired in Bridgman’s account of “China’s daughters” is troubling and problematic on so many fronts: her descriptions ranging from the sympathetic to the blatantly racist and odd mixtures of both. Since her presence in China was occasioned and driven by her missionary-educational goals, rather than the agenda of studying and portraying an ethnographic other, is it legitimate nonetheless to scrutinize her writings on Chinese women as a kind of ethnography? I think it might be. First, all ethnographers bring their own agendas to their work, which does not serve the people they study in any direct sense. Even when ethnographers obtain permission for their research, it is doubtful whether willing subjects identify with a researcher’s goals. Secondly, the extent to which portraits of ethnic others can be viewed as “racist” may simply be a matter of degree, and professional ethnographers are no less implicated in principle in the history of racialization than other foreigners. Thirdly, professional ethnographers have historically relied on the ethnographic groundwork done by missionaries, their networks of informants, social infrastructure, and accomplishments in language learning.[11] On this basis, the works of 19th and 20th-century women missionaries in China may offer more than information on that “peculiarly “sentimental imperialist,””[12] that was the Western missionary presence in the East, and shed light on a history of interactions between missionaries and Chinese and the observations that formed her China, not just his.



“This research is part of a project funded by a Direct Grant of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Project Code: 4051198

Work Cited

[1] See: Alexander Wylie, Memorials of Protestant Missionaries to the Chinese: Giving a List of Their Publications, and Obituary Notices of the Deceased. With Copious Indexes. Taipei: Cheng-Wen Pub. Co., 1967. Patrick Hanan references John Murdoch’s Report on Christian Literature in China, with a Catalogue of Publications of 1882. Cf. Patrick Hanan, “The Missionary Novels of Nineteenth-Century China” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 60.2 (2000): 413–443, 414. Hanan focuses on missionary works written in Chinese for proselyting. Many 19th-century missionaries wrote in both genres, most of these early figures who became well-known were men.

[2] There are numerous studies on women missionaries in China and their various contributions, and some authors have also focused on missionary women’s images of China. See, for example, Joanna Baradziej, “China through Women’s Eyes: The Contribution of Female Missionaries in Manchuria to the Image of China at the Turn of the 19th Century,” in Alexander Chow, Scottish Missions to China(Leiden: Brill, 2022), 101-118`. Such studies tend not to view the contributions of women missionaries from the perspective of ethnographic merit: the focus of study tends to remain on the missionaries themselves, their networks, ideologies, and religious identity, or theologies. The interest in other works on westerners’, including missionaries’, receptions of China tends to centre on how foreign China images perpetuated popular stereotypes of their times, ignoring how their works generated original ethnographic data and fed into different forms of ethnography, since missionaries were often the earliest western ethnographers, including in different parts of China. Or, they deal with the contributions of missionaries to early Protestant Sinology. While there is overlap in some early representative figures, Sinology is a separate discipline focused on literary and high culture, especially in the 19th century.

[3] Cf. Dana L. Robert, “Eliza Jane Gillett Bridgman,” Bibliographic Dictionary of Chinese Christianity, accessed 23 October, 2023.

[4] Elijah Bridgman was sent our by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission to China and arrived in Canton in 1830.

[5] Confer Eliza Bridgman’s CR obituary: Henry Blodget, “The Late Mrs. E. C. Bridgman,” Chinese Recorder 4 (March 1872): 261-63, 262.

[6] Bridgman, Eliza Jane Gillett, Daughters of China, or, Sketches of Domestic Life in the Celestial Empire (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1853), accessed through Gale Primary Resources on 23 October 2023,

[7] Ibid., IX.

[8] Ibid., X.

[9] Ibid., 6.