Personal tools
You are here: Home About TCPL Library's Column Their China That Was

Their China That Was

Document Actions


October 1 is China National Day, commemorating the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

Ever since Marco Polo reported on his travels, the West has been fascinated by China in all her remote vastness and inscrutability. For many years, missionaries, in particular, have given our own area a sense of connection to this distant and mysterious place.

Lottie Moon (1840-1912), from Albemarle County, devoted nearly 40 years to China and influenced generations of Baptist girls to become interested in missions in China.

Pearl S. Buck’s best-selling novel, The Good Earth, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932, and led to her award of the Nobel Prize in Literature for "her rich and truly epic descriptions of life in peasant China". Born in Hillsboro, West Virginia, Buck (1892-1973), lived in China with her Presbyterian missionary parents, and remained until 1934.

Craig Houston Patterson (1897-1993) relates in his memoir, My China That Was: from the Boxer Rebellion to Pearl Harbor, that he and his brother went to school with Pearl’s sister Grace. Patterson was born in China to Presbyterian missionary parents, Brown Craig Patterson and Anne Rowland Houston, who were from Fishersville (Tinkling Spring) and Roanoke.

Following seminary, Patterson married Frances Glasgow, a native of Lexington and a descendant of Mary Moore of Abbs Valley; they returned to China in 1923. The Pattersons worked closely with William F. Junkin and his wife, Nettie Lambuth DuBose, in Sutsien. Mr. Junkin was a skilled negotiator who defused several tense situations with Chinese bandits and soldiers.

Patterson illuminates the work of missionaries, which revolved around devising practical solutions to daily problems—medical needs, education, training for work, distributing seed, ending the crippling custom of footbinding, providing flood and famine relief, and advocating against opium traffic, banditry, and the downgrading of women. They lived in austere conditions, with no electricity or running water, and constantly battled insects and disease. He recounts many funny incidents as he dealt with people problems.

The Junkins settled in Tazewell after their service in China. Their daughter Nettie, also a missionary, had to leave mainland China with the revolution in 1949 and served in Taiwan until her retirement. When she came to Tazewell, she worked with the Library’s literacy program. At the conclusion of a literacy conference in Richmond, we had lunch at a Chinese restaurant. Miss Nettie drew the entire restaurant staff in a big circle around our table when she gave the waiter her order in Chinese.

The Pattersons also came to Tazewell, first in 1938 when they were refugees from the war with Japan. After Pearl Harbor, Dr. Pat pastored churches in Grundy, Williamson, Bluefield, and Bramwell.

Another absorbing account of a mission experience in China is The Small Woman by Alan Burgess. Rejected by the China Inland Mission, a British missionary society founded in 1865, for her lack of education, Gladys Aylward (1902-1970), a domestic worker, used her life savings to make her own way to China via the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1930. The dramatic account of her harrowing journey during the incipient war between Russia and China is only the beginning of a riveting life story.

Gladys apprenticed herself to Jeanne Lawson, a widowed independent missionary, with whom she studied the language and culture. Searching for a way to communicate with a distrusting people who saw them as "foreign devils", they opened the Inn of the Eight Happinesses, and gradually developed a warm rapport. Gladys came to be revered by the peasant people and respected by community leaders, and used her influence to improve living conditions, quell a prison riot, and save many lives. When the Japanese invaded in 1938, she led 94 orphan children on a long journey to safety through treacherous terrain.

Her exploits were made famous by the 1958 film, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, starring Ingrid Bergman. Although based on her biography by Burgess, the movie took liberties with her story and mortified her.

Joseph Needham (1900-1995), son of a London doctor, was a married Cambridge biochemist who fell in love with a Chinese woman who came to study with him. Through Lu Gwei-djen, he found his life’s passion in bringing to light for the Western world the centuries’ worth of advanced scientific discoveries and inventions made by the Chinese. Because his knowledge of the language was so strong, the British government sent him to China during World War II to lend support to scientists, whose supply lines were cut off by the Japanese invasion. He used his diplomatic post to travel and make acquaintances far and wide, interview scholars, accumulate crates full of ancient Chinese books, and learn everything he could about China. Eventually, all this knowledge found its way into his magnum opus, the 17-volume encyclopedia, "Science and Civilisation in China", published by Cambridge University Press beginning in 1954.

A political activist, Needham was involved in the establishment of UNESCO and is the reason science is part of the focus of that organization.

Simon Winchester, known for blowing the dust off obscure historical figures and making them famous, has written a fascinating account of an eccentric fellow whose reputation for scholarship is still strong. Read and cheer for The Man Who Loved China: the fantastic story of the eccentric scientist who unlocked the mysteries of the Middle Kingdom.

Buck, Patterson, Aylward, and Needham were contemporaries and knew many of the same people and places in China; they also knew or knew of each other. The connections they share make reading their stories a most interesting experience of their China as it was before the revolution.

For these books and more about China, past and present, visit or call 988-2541.

Library Catalog

Advanced Search

My Account
Contact Us

(276) 988-2541


(276) 326-1577


(276) 964-5282






Online collection of animated, talking picture books to encourage reading in children.


staff log in