From 1858 many women in Britain were inspired by Mary Ann Aldersey’s letters which were published in the Female Missionary Intelligencer, the newsletter of the Society for Promoting Female Education in the East (SPFEE). She was over 60-years-old and yet still proving that a woman could achieve so much more than was usually expected of the “fairer sex”. Those letters told the stories of Asan, San Avong and the blind woman who was the first Chinese female missionary to be sent to China by a Western Christian agency – Agnes Gutzlaff.
Miss Aldersey “adopted” Asan into her family soon after she arrived in China. As she grew up Asan deeply resented having to conform to English customs such as allowing her feet to grow to their natural size. In Ningbo at that time all girls in wealthier families had their feet broken and bound when they were two- or three-years-old in order to create “three-inch golden lilies”.
This custom had continued in China for over 1,000 years. To produce such “beautiful” feet a girl’s mother would bend all the toes except the big one under the sole of the foot. The arch of the foot would then be crushed by binding a large stone on top of it. The mother would endure her daughter’s screams because she knew how ashamed the girl would be years later if she was rejected on her wedding day by her mother-in-law for having feet longer than four inches.
For years Asan remained aloof and rebellious, meeting all attempts to convert her to Christianity with determined indifference. Miss Aldersey wrote: “Although she had a very superior mind, and could read Chinese and English well, she sometimes asked ‘What is the use of adding to our stock of knowledge?’“ But then in 1851 Asan was converted and changed considerably. Miss Aldersey described her as a clever girl with great powers of managing the school children, even if there was no teacher there.
Zia-Leang-Sang had helped at the school since its infancy and became an evangelist after he was converted. Not wanting her work to be confined to Ningbo or just to girls Miss Aldersey sent him to a place she called Tsong Gyiaou (San Ch’iao which means The Third Bridge), five miles from the port and in a district where the Rev William Russell had established a Church Missionary Society out-station. Soon people were walking miles to listen to Zia and the American Presbyterians sent two of their church members to help him. Miss Aldersey arranged the marriage between Asan and Zia – and Asan set up a girls’ school to complement her husband’s work.
Miss Aldersey had a very different initial response from San Avong. She was introduced to San Avong’s family soon after she set up her first school outside Ningbo city in 1843. Her landlady realised that if there were more children in the school the foreigner could pay her more money – so she took San Avong’s mother to see it.
Miss Aldersey reported later: “It happened that my little pupils and myself were engaged in our morning worship, when my landlady entered with this friend, whom she had almost persuaded to place her four youngest girls with me. As I was reading the Scripture aloud, my pupils observed that silence and order that I had enjoined upon them. This disgusted the mother, and she remarked to her friend, on leaving my house, ‘Did you not observe how much afraid the poor children were of their teacher, and how demure and dismal they looked? Do not think I will ever subject my children to such trammels!’ I was sadly disappointed, but I knew it was my wisest course to conceal all feelings of regret. After a considerable time, however, the parents summoned courage to bind their four little girls to me, for the terms, severally, of two, four, six and eight years.
“Dear San Avong, the eldest of the little party, had of course the shortest period allotted to her, and this term was still further limited, as, although she was only nine years of age, she was betrothed. She quickly evinced not only a very superior mind, but a heart influenced at a very early age by that Holy Spirit, whose office it is to prepare for the holy and glorious kingdom of Jesus.”
Below: The ‘Three Pure Ones’ in the Buddhist monastery at Tien-Dong, near Ningbo, by C.F. Gordon-Cumming. In China in the nineteenth century the women played a very important role in the worship at temples and of the ancestors. It was feared that the Christian missionaries could undermine Chinese families by not only educating girls but also by convincing them not to take part in such worship.
San Avong’s wedding was arranged in 1848 – to a 27-year-old man whom Miss Aldersey thought was coarse and ignorant. But at least he was easy tempered. Miss Aldersey tried to remain in control of the situation. She came to an agreement with the family that, although the bridegroom was not a Christian, they would be married by a Christian missionary and San Avong would not have to fulfil any of the ancestral worship usually required, or bow to idols. She could also spend each Sunday with Miss Aldersey so that they could study the Bible together.
Initially Miss Aldersey was successful but to many of the relatives the couple’s Christian marriage was invalid. After her first Sunday with Miss Aldersey following the wedding San Avong was accompanied home by two Christian women. There she was grabbed by three men, dragged into the ancestral hall of the family’s home and forced, weeping and wailing, to prostrate herself. She was terrified that this meant she was condemned to hell. But she was assured that Jesus knew what she believed in her heart and so still accepted her. To Miss Aldersey there was still the problem of San Avong not eating meat which had been offered to idols. To protect her Miss Aldersey offered her husband a job as school cook. In this way she brought San Avong back under her own roof.
A few years later, however, the husband died and his family attributed this to the dismal wailing and tears of San Avong before the idols. As her husband was in debt when he died the family proposed to sell her to a non-Christian who lived a considerable distance from Ningbo. Miss Aldersey rushed to help her. She found the family gathered around the body of San Avong’s dead husband: “The abacus was brought to ascertain what would be the best mode of disposing of the widow, and what amount of debts should be defrayed by me, in consideration of my being allowed to have San Avong for the future under my control. Fifty dollars were required, which sum I gladly gave, and the young widow accompanied me home. No Chinese regarded such a transaction in the light of a purchase; and had San Avong been disposed to leave me, I could not have detained her.”
San Avong immediately settled down to studying English and became a valuable and creative teacher at the school. It was she who was able to deal with the most difficult students. She also led the way with breaking with the tradition of foot-binding. Miss Aldersey commented: “It was, I believe, solely on Christian principles that, unsolicited by me, and, indeed, without my knowledge, she unbandaged her feet, though by so doing she incurred the ridicule and contempt of those of her countrymen and women who were not acquainted with her personally; those who did know her, however, whether men, women, or children, alike respected her. Thoroughly and unaffectedly modest and humble, she had a good deal of moral courage, sustained by a high sense of Christian principle.”
San Avong also assisted with the Christian work among women even if this meant visiting areas her own family would have considered unsuitable for a well-to-do young woman. When she accompanied Mary Leisk on a visit to a Chinese woman who was sick in bed she was taunted for being with a foreigner and because her unbound feet were becoming larger. Not realising that Mary perfectly understood the local dialect some Chinese commented on how disgraceful it was for parents to give up such a good looking girl to foreigners. They were sure the foreigners would kill and eat her!
In 1857 Miss Aldersey handed over her school to the American Presbyterians because she wanted to be free to do more missionary work. She told the SPFEE she would continue her superintendence of Chinese evangelists in the villages around Ningbo and the establishment of girls’ schools like that run by Asan.
She had initially planned that San Avong would continue teaching at the school in Ningbo. The young widow wrote to her in English: “When I heard you were to leave us here how sad I felt! For you had just been like my mother to me. Yea, my own mother has not half been like you. I was just a young, helpless widow, and a motherless child, cast upon the wide and selfish world; but I quickly remembered one text, John 14:18, which you told me to remember when I was thirteen years old. At that time I was about to leave the school, you said to me, ‘San Avong, you shall not be alone, your Saviour will be with you there.’”
It was not long, however, before Miss Aldersey felt it would be safer if San Avong was living with her. She explained: “Fearing that, in the event of my death, her mother would endeavour to marry her to a heathen, I judged it right to seek a Christian husband for the young widow, and she therefore again became an inmate of my own abode.”
After the Treaty of Tientsin in 1858 foreigners could travel further and more easily outside the treaty ports – so Miss Aldersey began regularly visiting Zia and Asan, often accompanied by either San Avong or Agnes. There they met one of the local Christians, Yi-Loh-Ding who, with the help of a missionary doctor (Dr William Parker) had stopped smoking opium. He had become a Christian preacher and was interested in marrying San Avong. At first San Avong resisted Miss Aldersey’s attempts to arrange a marriage but then accepted this matchmaking. She was married in October 1858 and joined her husband in his Christian outreach work.
But within months she became so ill that Miss Aldersey brought them to Ningbo so that San Avong could receive Western medical treatment. Her son, Eng-Sy, was born there in July 1859. The young mother, however, did not recover. As death approached she said to Miss Aldersey: “ I wish you also to know that I am happy; Jesus is with me; I have no fear; therefore, I am quite happy.”
After Miss Aldersey retired from the school she moved her household to the home of Mary and William Russell (Mary Leisk married the Rev Russell in 1852). The Russells must have had quite a large home for Miss Aldersey’s household included her three elderly Christian servants, two mums with their children whom she was sheltering, San Avong plus Agnes and the three blind girls she was teaching.
Agnes was the only one of the seven blind girls sent to the West for education by Mrs Mary Gutzlaff who did return to China. Four of them had been sent to the London Society for Teaching the Blind to Read in the early 1840s. After 13 years at that Society’s school Agnes was recruited in 1855 by the Chinese Evangelisation Society (CES) to work among blind women in Xiamen (Amoy). The CES (founded by Karl Gutzlaff) could boast that it was the first agency to send a blind person as a missionary to another country. It was also almost certainly the first to send a single Chinese woman to China. But sadly it was incapable of doing it properly.
Agnes arrived in Ningbo in June 1856 virtually penniless and unable to speak the language. She had been sent out with the promise of just £10 a year towards her support. CES missionary James Hudson Taylor (who would later found the China Inland Mission) wrote home: “How very wrong it is, to take a poor blind beggar girl, bring her up in the best style, & then leave her with a less sum than will…. pay for her food, for she cannot now live as a Chinese.” Below: A blind beggar in China in the 19th century, by C.F. Gordon-Cumming.
Thankfully Agnes found a safe haven with Miss Aldersey. Within a few years Miss Aldersey had helped her set up a small school of industry for the blind. Miss Aldersey loved working with Agnes – but the way the young blind woman had arrived in Ningbo did not endear her to the CES. She was even more shocked when Hudson Taylor decided that the only way he could successfully travel inland was to be dressed like the Chinese. This was an issue that would divide the missionary community for decades. Miss Aldersey felt very strongly that the Westerners should maintain their own standards and be dressed properly as Europeans. She and Mary Russell ran very proper British households.
It would be one of Miss Aldersey’s major criticisms of the James Hudson Taylor when he arrived in Ningbo in 1856. She certainly would not consider him as a suitable suitor for any of her “girls”. She was used, by then, to acting as a matchmaker for those who joined her household and by January 1853 Burella and Maria Dyer had done just that.
So the feathers did fly when Maria Dyer (the daughter of Samuel and Maria Dyer) fell in love with Hudson Taylor. For more of that story see Jemima, James Hudson Taylor and his Maria.
Miss Aldersey proved that it was possible for a single woman to work in China and the Dyer sisters had followed in her pioneering footsteps. After Maria and Hudson Taylor founded the China Inland Mission their first team in 1866 included single women at a time when organisations like the Church Missionary Society (CMS) still rarely considered such recruits.
Miss Aldersey leaves China:
In 1860 Miss Aldersey decided to leave China and the dedicated corps of female teachers that she had trained. The mission stations she had helped to establish in villages around Ningbo became the responsibility of the CMS. But she did not return to England – instead she sailed to Australia to join her brother. Richard Aldersey had emigrated with his wife and seven of his children in 1849 and settled in McLaren Vale, South Australia. Miss Aldersey named the house she had built there Tsong Gyiaou.
As a member of the local congregational church she visited the sick, helped those in need, and encouraged young women to become involved in missionary work. She died on September 30, 1868 – and two of her nieces (Eliza and Mary Ann Aldersey) turned Tsong Gyiaou into a boarding school for girls. This was closed in 1903.
In Ningbo Agnes Gutzlaff continued to receive grants from the SPFEE and also financial support from Miss Aldersey. Miss Aldersey had asked Mrs Russell to care for her and she was able to continue running the industrial school for the blind. But in 1861 Ningbo was in danger of being attacked by the T’ai P’ing rebels and it was decided she would be safer in Shanghai. There she continued to teach blind children how to read using the Moon embossed type but also made a living by teaching English to educated Chinese. Michael Miles stated: “She was not only the first well-trained teacher of reading for blind people in China’s long history, but as a role model was unique – a blind young woman living independently and paying her way by using the skills her education had provided.” Although she continued to wear Western clothing she lived frugally in a Chinese house. She saved so much that after her death she left sufficient to found a hospital in late 1871 – the Gutzlaff Hospital. This was amalgamated with another hospital in 1883.
It is not known when Agnes died – nor Asan. According to notes made by Miss Aldersey’s biographer, E Aldersey White, after the death of her husband Asan was employed by the American Presbyterian Mission in Nanking. She had three sons – one was a Presbyterian pastor, another a preacher and the third a teacher.
copyright Pip Land December 2012
WAS YOUR FAMILY IN CONTACT WITH BRITISH CHRISTIAN MISSIONARIES IN THE 19TH CENTURY? If so why would you like any research done concerning those missionaries: when and how they reached your family’s home town, what they did there and maybe even if they had contact with your ancestors? If so post a comment on this website.
E J Whately (Ed) Missions to the Women of China, John Nisbet & Co, London, 1866, pp107-123
Female Missionary Intelligencer, newsletter of the SPFEE, 1858-1860
About Agnes Gutzlaff: Blind and Sighted Pioneer Teachers in 19th century China & India by M Miles www.independentliving.org/docs7/miles201104.html and Whately pp92-93 and pp139-140.
Miss Aldersey in Australia:
Letter from one of her nieces published in the Chinese Recorder and Missionary Journal, December 1868 pp 165-166
Ira Nesdale The Third Bridge – Tsong Gyiaou – McLaren Vale, 1980, Investigator Press Pty Ltd, Hawthorndene, South Australia. (My thanks to Kaye and Chris Aldersey of Tintinara, South Australia, for sending me a copy)