China Mission: A Personal History from the Last Imperial Dynasty to the People’s Republic [Louisiana State University Press, October] by Audrey Ronning Topping is more than a family memoir. It is an engaging account of a turbulent century in China. Beginning with her grandparents in 1891, Topping writes, a Ronning “was there for almost every event of importance.”
Ronnings have been kicked out of China six times but they keep going back. Nine Ronnings were born in China and three died there. Topping tells their story through on-the-ground reports drawn from a treasure of family letters and diaries written over three generations, books by family members and her own reporting and research.
Hannah Rorem, Topping’s grandmother, was just 20 when she sailed to China to be a missionary with Halvor Ronning, 29, and his sister, Thea. A month after they arrived, Hannah and Halvor were married. The couple, Americans with Norwegian roots, had seven children. Nelius, the oldest, had plans to be a missionary in China but died as a young man in Canada. Another son, Talbert, did become a missionary in China. Chester, their second child, served in China first as a teacher and then as a senior Canadian diplomat highly valued for his native speaking skills and deep knowledge of Chinese history and culture. And, as is common knowledge among OPC members, China is where Audrey Ronning meant a dashing foreign correspondent named Seymour Topping.
Hannah and Halvor were caught up in the Sino-Japanese War; the Hundred Days of Reform and subsequent Palace Coup; the Boxer Rebellion, during which foreigners and Christians were particular targets of violence; the Siege of Peking; and the deaths of the last emperor and the empress dowager that led to the collapse of the last Imperial Dynasty. As teachers in China, Chester and his wife Inga, Audrey Topping’s parents, experienced the Warlord Period, watched the emergence of student revolutionaries and fled during the Great Revolution in 1927. During World War II, Talbert rode a bicycle to escape advancing Japanese troops. Audrey met “Top” in China during the outbreak of the Civil War. Chester and Top witnessed the fall of Nanking to the Communists. Audrey Topping has returned to China many times as a journalist and author, including in1966 to report on the Cultural Revolution for The New York Times Magazine. After getting her story and spectacular photos, she was escorted out of the country by Red Guards who called her a “Ronning dog of Imperialism.”
Zhou Enlai, the first premier of the People’s Republic of China, was one of Chester’s closest friends. While knowing Chinese intellectuals and officials, the family also maintained ties with childhood friends, classmates, neighbors, the people they helped and the many Chinese who helped them in times of trouble.
“China Mission,” Topping writes, refers to the missionary efforts of her grandparents and uncle but also to her father’s diplomatic mission for the West to understand the complexity and beauty of China. The book rewards readers with unique perspectives of Chinese history.