Audrey Ronning Topping recently published China Mission: A Personal History from the Last Imperial Dynasty to the People’s Republic, an account of China as seen by three generations of her family. She discussed the book, which is previewed here, with Susan Kille.
Q: How long did you work on China Mission?
A: For 30 some years off and on. In 1975 I was in China on assignment for The New York Times and National Geographic when I heard about the discovery of the life-size clay soldiers guarding the tomb of China’s First Emperor, who was buried in 210 BCE. It was the most important archeological find since King Tut’s tomb. I flew to the ancient capital of Xian and became the first Western journalist to witness the excavation of the incredible find. My story was a world scoop. I was awed by the working site resembling an ancient battlefield with legions of broken soldiers and horses half buried in the red earth of the Yellow River Valley. Then it struck me: Here I am witnessing the reincarnation of Emperor Qin Shihuang Ti. The history of China’s first Imperial Dynasty was being revealed before my eyes. After the establishment of the first dynasty my missionary grandparents had witnessed the fall of the last dynasty 2,200 years later. While looking into the ancient site I decided to write a book about how the history of \my own family was entwined with the history of China. The actual writing of China Mission took about three years but while it was cooking I published two other books: The Splendors of Tibet and Charlie’s World: The Improbable Adventures of a Hong Kong Cockatoo and his American Family.
Q: Descriptions in family letters to and from China bring this book alive with first-hand accounts. How did the Ronnings preserve these letters?
A: I think handwriting is a lost art. In the olden days, before email and Twitter, people like my grandparents, Halvor and Hannah Ronning, as well as my parents wrote intimate and thoughtful letters by dipping quill pens in India ink under the light of oil lamps. In those days, no one threw letters away. They were cherished and kept in special boxes or secret drawers. Later, some family letters were typed with carbon copies. My grandparents also sent letters about their work to mission headquarters both in Norwegian and English, which were kept in files.
Q: What was missing from the family archive that you wish was there?
A: In China my grandfather wrote a diary of letters to his brother Nils in Minneapolis, who took it upon himself to destroy letters he felt too intimate for others to read and I regret that. I also regret that I never met my grandmother or my great-aunt who died 20 years before I was born. As a child I was told I looked like my grandmother and I was curious about her life. I started writing the story of Hannah but Halvor kept taking over and became the strongest character. I knew my grandfather well and loved him deeply. He was a great storyteller and told many of the stories in the book.
Q: Did you come across surprises?
A: Yes I was amazed at the wonderful way they expressed their feelings and the acute observations. Many were both funny and prophetic.
Q: Do you have an anecdote to share about organizing the book?
A: The first draft ended when my family settled in Canada in 1928 shortly before I was born. It was generously accepted by LSU Press but the anonymous reader, who later turned out to be Andrew Burstein, suggested many cuts but commented that it ended too soon. So I added the three last chapters and the epilogue.
Q: In today’s world, letters are rare. Will future historians do as well with emails, videos and blogs?
A: The world has speeded up and is changing so fast that we don’t have time to think. One cannot reveal profound thoughts and inner feelings in 25 words or less. Emails and blogs can represent a stream of consciousness with little regard to facts. Short videos are often shot out of context and can give the wrong perspective. I don’t believe they will be as valuable to future historians as hand-written letters were.
Q: While making clear the deep Christian faith that began the Ronnings’ relationship with China, the book is never moralizing. Was that a challenge?
A: No, not moralizing was never a challenge, perhaps because my grandparents and parents were not judgmental. They were more concerned with giving than taking and never felt superior to the Chinese or sorry for themselves. They spoke Chinese and understood the enormous problems facing China. Which is more than I can say for some other foreigners in China.
Q: Is there anything you did not put in the book but wish you had?
A: Oh yes! I am constantly thinking of what I left out and I would like to write the whole book over. I feel I have only revealed the tip of the iceberg but writers have to know when to stop. I haven’t learned that yet.
Q: What do you predict is in China’s future?
A: Remember that China is the only civilization on earth that has come down through the ages intact. The women of China, especially, are a special breed, a strong force that has evolved through “survival of the fittest.” They are demanding “Half The Sky” and although China has and will have great problems, both environmental and political, I believe that China is on the road to a special type of democracy with feminine Chinese characteristics.
Q: Your father made a “three wishes journey” to China. Where would you go on such a trip?
A: Well I might wish that my five daughters, seven grandchildren and two great grandchildren will accompany me back to China to visit the Buddhist Temples Caves again — with a stopover in Norway to pay my respects to my ancestors in Telemark and a romp in Galapagos Islands.