CHINA is reevaluating a century of ties with Christian missionaries, emphasizing the benefits of an era once seen as a source of national shame. Two dozen scholars met here recently to focus on the period 1850-1950, when 50,000 or more evangelists landed on Chinese soil.
After the 1949 communist revolution, missionaries were denounced as cultural imperialists. During the anti-Western, anti-intellectual fanaticism of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), graduates of the missionary-founded schools crossed the street to avoid being seen with one another, says Charles Hayford, a history professor at Northwestern University. Many lost their jobs.
Today, eager to modernize and disillusioned with the failure of postrevolutionary technical training, China is reassessing the liberal arts curricula of the 16 missionary-founded schools - three Roman Catholic and 13 Protestant - that were closed, amalgamated, or renamed after the revolution.
Despite advancing years, the alumni have been allowed to form associations. Histories of the colleges have been published, and archives are open to researchers, both American and Chinese.
Edward Xu, a Chinese from Shanghai studying at Princeton University, brought photocopies of letters from the St. John's University archives in Shanghai. That school, founded by Episcopalian missionaries in 1879, closed in 1952.
``There is a renewed emphasis on educational standards, a new interest in the experience of Christian education,'' says Mr. Xu, whose father, grandfather, and three uncles went to St. John's. Mr. Xu is compiling an oral history of the school for his doctoral dissertation.
Scholars noted that the missionaries both succeeded and failed. They did not win many converts to the religious doctrine of personal salvation but imbued many Chinese with reformist ideals. By the 1930s, only 10 to 20 percent of the St. John's students were Christian, Xu says, and that was typical of the other schools. But they had learned Western democratic principles of liberty and equality that inspired both the Nationalist and Communist movements.
``The missionaries were prophets of reform,'' says the Rev. Samuel Chao of Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.
An ``old girls network'' persists today of women who graduated from St. Hilda's boarding school in Wuchang, Hubei Province, in central China, says Judith Lui, a sociology professor at the University of San Diego. Her mother, Yeh Yuan-shuang, now 74, attended the American Episcopalian missionary school.
``The government won't let them retire. They are one of the last generations of women who obtained Western educations,'' Ms. Lui says of her mother's friends. Her mother lives in the United States.
Lui and other scholars cautioned that the revision under way is limited to the missionaries' educational efforts. To the extent that the missionaries arrived in China with an arrogant, contemptuous attitude toward the Chinese, their legacy is still reviled.
``It wasn't for purely humanitarian reasons. [The late industrialist and philanthropist John D.] Rockefeller sent his medical missionaries in so he could sell them kerosene,'' said Lui, referring to the Rockefeller Foundation-supported Yenching University, later renamed Peking University.
``After Mao's death, the Chinese became aware that the best educated among them came dispro portionately from these universities. Now they're worried that the last generation who went to the schools is overworked,'' says Princeton history professor Arthur Waldron. He did not attend the conference but has visited the sites of many of the defunct schools.
Another development in the last few years is the quiet ties that are developing between the officially atheistic state and private Christian groups in the United States. Since 1980, the year after China started its open-door policy to the West, the United Board for Christian Higher Education in Asia, a private agency supported by Protestant churches, has sponsored scholars from China to study in the United States and sent Western educators abroad. It provided a partial scholarship to Xu and is eager to see more Chinese study this era.
``We think this period is very important in understanding relations between China and the United States today. The story needs to be told more thoroughly by the Chinese,'' said Paul T. Lauby, president of the New York City-based board.
Dr. Lauby said that many of the scholars sent to China are ``committed Christians,'' but they are asked to refrain from proselytizing.
``We are not interested in reviving the old ties. We are sensitive to the charge that they are there to reestablish old relations. We want to work with the new China,'' Lauby said.
Franklin Woo, director of the China program of the National Council of Churches, an organization of mainstream Protestant churches, said the council does not want to ``rehabilitate the churches,'' just to send English teachers to China. The openness benefits the Chinese, he said, because the government makes contacts all over the world through the international church network.
The Luce Foundation in New York, established by the late Time-Life founder Henry R. Luce in memory of his missionary father Henry W. Luce, is in its second year of a six-year project called the History of Christianity in China, funded at $500,000.
The program is administered by Dan Bays, a Chinese history professor at the University of Kansas, Lawrence. ``Fifteen years ago we wouldn't have gotten a visa to do this. Today it is acknowledged that a lot of missionaries were good people who contributed to modernization,'' Mr. Bays said.
The missionaries, in their letters home to mission boards and families, created an image of China held by hundreds of thousands of Americans before World War II, the scholars noted.
Some missionaries, such as John Leighton Stuart, US ambassador to China in the crucial period from 1946 to 1949, and Walter Judd, a New York congressman, went into public service. Children born to the missionaries in China, many of them bilingual, hold key posts in the US State Department today.
The new interest is part of a larger trend in scholarship, according to one conference participant.
``People are taking more seriously the role of religion in American history,'' said Richard Madsen, a sociology professor at the University of California, San Diego, and a former Maryknoll missionary in Taiwan. ``History is not just driven by economics and politics. Religion has to be taken seriously as a very important enterprise.''
Though Mr. Waldron at Princeton said some Chinese officials are uneasy about reopening a painful chapter of history, progress will continue as long as China stays its present, reformist course.
``Christianity in China is a special case,'' said Xu. ``If contact with Western countries is close, the Chinese government adopts a more tolerant approach.''