Fictional but fact-filled tale of American missionaries in China

The Call, by John Hersey. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 701 pp. $19.95. ``A fictional biography'' is how John Hersey describes his monumental (701 pages) work, ``The Call.'' The fiction is here, all right (competently told, although not the gripping variety we have come to expect from this prolific writer). But what Hersey has really given us is a biography of America's missionary work in China.

Even Hersey's fictional hero is not wholly imaginary.

``Some of the traits and experiences of the central character . . . were suggested by some of those of six actual missionaries to China . . ,'' Hersey writes in the notes at the end of his book. Among the missionaries he lists is the name of his own father, Roscoe M.Hersey.

The true-life Hersey family spent some years in Tianjin before moving back to the United States in 1925 with their 11-year-old son John, who had been born in China. Since then the author has visited China three times. The intense feeling, then, of both love and bitterness, was indeed come by honestly.

Despite a handsome map on the flyleaf, the author's explanatory notes, a long list of sources and an index to Chinese names, all reinforcing the book's nonfictional side, the book starts off in true storytelling style with the difficult birth of its hero, David Treadup. Then, with plenty of anecdotes, it traces Treadup's roots and involves us in the progress of this huge young man with his huge heart and dedicated enthusiasms.

For about 80 packed pages we seem far from China, but Hersey knows what he is about. He is showing the character and environment that go into the making of a missionary -- a man who would leave all to help a country he knows little about. It makes for a good story, and along the way we discover in detail (sometimes too much detail) how to harvest ice, how to qualify for college entrance around the turn of the century, what it meant to live in poor rural America.

Most important for his purpose, Hersey involves young Treadup (and us) in the religious ferment of the day so that we can understand why this rather naive young man feels called upon to save as many Chinese as possible before Jesus' imminent Second Coming.

So, under the auspices of the YMCA, Treadup leaves for a China he knows next to nothing about. Once there, faced by the sheer magnitude of his task, his enthusiasm loses some of its drive -- until he adopts a new cause. Surely, he decides, China's path to salvation must lie through science: Teach the people scientific principles and they will acquire admiration for ``God's beautiful laws'' -- and a much-needed respect for the missionaries.

Moreover, Treadup thinks, science could help point China along the road to Westernization, by meeting its need for ``the idea of rigor -- exactitude. Over and over again I had heard my [Chinese language] teachers use the phrase `ch'a pu to.' `How long is it?' `As long as my arm, ch'a pu to.'. . . The phrase means `more or less.' The allowance always has to be made . . . but you couldn't modernize a huge country ch'a pu to.''

Treadup no sooner has an innovative system of science lectures successfully under way than he takes up a new cause: a literate peasantry. So he is off again, this time devising a successful method for teaching poor villagers to read.

Righteous cause follows righteous cause, arousing suspicion among the powers-that-be in China, and worry among his superiors in the YMCA who feel Treadup's original mission is being swallowed by humanitarianism. It worries Treadup, too. What should the priorities of a Christian missionary be? In fact, Treadup's religion does melt away -- but not his zeal to help China, nor his great love for her. By the book's end he has spent almost the whole of his life in her service.

And all the while Hersey is telling us this and filling in the details of Treadup's personal life, he is using his hero to show us the history of China since the turn of the century: revolutions, counterrevolutions, invasions, plagues, and floods. I only wish he had made a clearer distinction between fact and fiction.

Treadup himself, after enduring imprisonment by the Japanese, is expelled from China forever by the Communist People's Liberation Army. ``My heart,'' he says later, ``was broken.'' Just before he dies in 1950, when Communist China is still not recognized by Washington, he writes:

``All America is suffering from the `lost love' pain. China. There is much talk about why we `lost' China -- as if we ever `had' China. The loss I feel . . . is in the stable values of our society. We no longer seem to hold to the simple Emersonian law that good deeds will be rewarded and mean deeds will reap retribution. . . . Look! [Sen. Joseph McCarthy is] driving out `the China hands,' so many of whom are sons of missionaries. Why? Ironically, because they loved, and understood, the China we have `lost.' . . . It is not the object of love America has lost, so much as the capacity for it.''

It's a tragic ending, it seems, both for Treadup and the real-life missionary effort. But a careful reading of ``The Call'' suggests that the missionaries did leave a mark on China and on American thinking about it, Senator McCarthy notwithstanding.

Hersey writes: ``What is remarkable in retrospect about [the Lecture Bureau of the Chinese National Committee of the YMCA] is that in so many ways, . . . its work foreshadowed techniques and ideas that were used all over China during and after the ultimate Chinese upheaval, that of the Communist revolution.''

Pamela Marsh is former editor of the Monitor's weekly International edition.

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