Henry Luce - who coined the catchphrase about 'the American Century' - once said that the crucial event of that century would be the Christianisation of China. He meant the Protestant evangelisation of China; it would have been no less absurd to propose the conversion of the Chinese to Judaism, but there was a time when millions of American homes gave little subscriptions for the cause, and when the prestige of the American missionary stood high. When authors like Pearl Buck wrote about 'the good earth' in the 1930s, they sold vast shoals of books. As late as the late 1950s, Harold Isaacs could publish a highly influential volume entitled Scratches on Our Minds, showing the immense extent of the cultural impression made by the Sino-American encounter. If this relationship never rose to the level of the Anglo-Indian kinship it was because it went on for less time, was based even more on trade and conversion, and was initiated at almost precisely the moment when the Chinese people had made up their minds to be rid of foreign rule. Since that consummation was accomplished quite swiftly, and under Communist leadership, the resulting breach was much wider and deeper than it might have been; China reverted to resembling, in the American mind, something far worse than partes infidelium. The John Birch Society, an important orchestrator of American paranoia in the 1950s, was named for an American missionary who had supposedly been martyred by the Reds.
LRB 5 April 2001 | PDF Download