Sunday, June 26, 2016

Not “But for the Grace of God,” But Because of It

In the Shadow of the White Pagoda by Clara Hausske
Review by Walter Giersbach

Historical memoirs are fraught with problems as reminiscences dim or are subjected to revisionism.  More problematic is that the farther back in time the commentator goes, the more the facts are distorted by the writer’s interpretation.  Because Clara Hausske recalled and kept notes on her work in China almost a century ago, the reader of In the Shadow of the White Pagoda is struck with unvarnished truth about the shattering poverty, malnutrition, sickness, chaos of war and banditry taking place far from the cities.  Yes, the writing is often simplistic and reportorial, but reading Hausske’s description of the challenges she and her husband faced in China in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s is as clear as looking at an unedited film.  There is a level of authenticity as she describes a life that’s hard to imagine — except that other parts of the world are undergoing these same difficulties and opportunities.

The Hausskes went to China sponsored by what is now United Board for World Ministries.  Their religious denomination was Congregational, now the United Church of Christ.  Their mission was located literally in the shadow of the pagoda where 20 years earlier Boxer rebels massacred Christians. 

Albert Hausske left the U.S., with his wife Clara and two toddler children, in 1920 to administer the accounting for a hospital in Taiku, Shansi Province.  This mission was two days’ inland from Tientsin by boat, railway and rickshaw.  The book, extremely well edited by her son, Albert Carol Hausske, was published in 1989 from Clara’s notes, photos and letters.

This was the back country that appeared on no one’s tour guide.  The Hausskes were missionaries not to convert some indifferent Buddhists, but to cure those on the verge of death, feed those protein-starved people who saw meat in their diet only on holidays, who were illiterate to the point of having to unlearn “folk wisdom” and embrace proven scientific diet, and to care for people so desperate they abandoned their children to the school as the only hope their progeny would live.  In that, they were lucky also to have served with  Dr. Wiloughby Hemingway, uncle of author Ernest Hemingway, who had arrived there in 1903.

Clara offers a positive, forbearing look at daily life with all the quotidian duties, communication obstacles (the Hausskes learned to speak Chinese), and hardship of moving from house to house under trying circumstances.  It is also an insider’s look at life as the Communists approached Nanjing in 1927, themselves emigrating to Korea as refugees, their return when Chiang Kai-shek recaptured Nanjing, and fears as the Japanese took over city after city in the years leading up to 1941.  That declaration of war forced the Hausske family back to the States (there had been occasional furloughs home since 1920) until they could return in the 1950s. 

She writes, “In 1940, only seven foreign missionaries supervised the care of about fourteen hundred inpatients, ten thousand outpatients, three hundred and fifteen boarding students in the schools, thirty student nurses, several Chinese doctors, and innumerable people in the countryside.”  Her commentary on this is enlightening: “Their lives were simple but very rich.  They were fortunate that there was always plenty of work to keep them in good spirits.  And it was also as well that they could adjust themselves to difficulties when it was necessary to do so.”  Was this a rosy-eyed view?  More likely it was the interpretation of a spiritually rich person who had seen much progress.

Surprisingly, Clara displays a total lack of irony or disbelief in her descriptions of children being carried to the hospital on a relative’s back, or a tearful father giving his child to the orphanage so the boy might live.

If there is one lapse for this reader, it is that Clara did not apply more subjective reporting and personal response to the political changes raging around them. Their work was threatened, as were the lives of the local population.  The relief work was halted only when the Japanese sent them out of the country and when the Communists refused to let them resume. 

Today, there often is a knee-jerk reaction to missionaries, seeing them as evangelicals out to corrupt the purity of native populations.  Witness what missionaries did to Native Americans and Hawaiians in the name of “civilization.”  Clara makes almost no reference to religious teaching in her memoir; there is continual detail of the Chinese lives they saved, the children and adults they taught to read and write, and the Western lessons in diet, nutrition and childcare they taught to extend and enrich their lives.

The book provides another interesting insight into the independence of this woman.  Clara was often alone when Albert was traveling to other missions.  She regularly traveled by herself or with her children.  She was emancipated years before women gained the respect they deserved.  In many ways, Clara mirrors the life of my grandmother traveling the U.S. on the Chautauqua lecture circuit during the same period.  Yes, there were women who became empowered in that period.

I need to disclose that Albert and Clara Hausske were friends of my father, Walter C. Giersbach when he was president of Pacific University, and of my mother.  I have a vague memory of their son, Trevor Hausske, graduating Pacific in the mid 1940s when I was six years old..  And the Hausskes were generous in their gifts of Chinese art to my parents, including their sale of two antique Chinese chests that are still with my family.

A few weeks ago I was inventorying the antiques my parents collected and decided to unravel the  mystery of who the Hausskes were, these shadowy people from my childhood.  Out of that detective work came the discovery of In the Shadow of the White Pagoda, now available only through a used bookseller. 

Published by Caves Books, Ltd., Taipei, Taiwan, 1989.


Rebecca Stuhr said...

Thanks Walter!

Walter Giersbach said...

No, thank you! I'm so glad to see your site is back in business.