Reviewed by Don Webster

 

The curtain of the 21st century parted to reveal a new Shanghai, the center of business for China, and arguably the center of business for Asia.  A friend of mine just returned from Shanghai and said that he counted over 60 high lift cranes adding tall buildings to the city's already lofty skyline.  Businesses which have not already done so, are scrambling to open offices and factories in this new darling of Asia.

But is it a new darling, or more accurately a mature city, coming forth to show her makeover.  We know from history and from novels, such as "Taipan" and "Noble House",  that Shanghai did her coming out previously in the 19th century, and that the 20th century was a period of decay from her glory days.  

We may have read of the growth of Shanghai in the 19th century, of the competing interests of the British, French, Portuguese, Chinese war lords, and many others.  Less well understood is the role of the missionaries who came not only to Shanghai and other large cities, but who ventured far beyond the areas of business interest to minister to the needs of the thousands and millions of Chinese people who represented the lowest class of humanity.  

Traveling any distance in those days was best done on a river by san-ban, those distinctive Chinese craft which served as truck, bus, and home at the same time.  They had sails for when there was wind, they had oars for still water, and they had long ropes to allow a team of a dozen or more coolies to pull the boats upriver.  

In her novel, "Hungry River; A Yangtze Novel", Millie writes of people and of a river for which she has some first-hand knowledge.  Millie's character Nils, inspired by her grandfather, Philip Nilsson,  is a young Swedish seaman who was nearly killed in Shanghai while on a port visit in 1892.  Nursed to health by a young Salvation Army missionary named Lizzie, he became convinced that he was saved for a reason and elected to marry the young lady who had helped him. They stayed in China to advance a ministry to people along the Yangtze River.

 

The author, Millie N.S.,  was born in China, the daughter of second generation missionaries to China.  Her family left China under great duress in 1950 with the collapse of Chiang Kai Shek's Nationalist Government on China's mainland.  The family fled part way down the Yangtze River, the river which she describes with such passion and intimacy in her book.  

Much of the source material for this book comes from hundreds of letters, pictures and other documents left to her by her parents.  She has aunts and uncles who were also missionaries in China, and she has tapped their archives to fill in other pieces of the picture.  

Millie is particularly moved by the plight of women in China.  If the Chinese masses represented the lowest forms of society, Chinese women were an order of magnitude lower in stature.  This book captures the killing of baby girls, the foot binding,  and the overall hopelessness which was the fate of women in China.

"Hungry River" is a book which describes the great faith of those who ventured into clearly hostile areas in response to their commitment to God.  Perhaps one's faith is not truly tested until one goes way out on the limb, until the last strand of security is severed.  It is in that circumstance that one is wholly dependant on a belief that one is in the center of God's purpose and under His protection.  Millie describes these instances with great intensity and in detail.

She also puts a face on otherwise nameless masses.  She focuses on individuals and in several of her characters makes us a part of their transformation from nobody into sons and daughters of Christ, and how they begin to grasp that they are loved and that their life is to have purpose.

I too am the son of missionaries to China, and we escaped the Chinese Communists by traveling down the Yangtze River in 1950.  Even though I was four years old, I still have memories of the men pushing on long oars at the front and back of our san-ban.  I remember sitting on the roof of the motor launch as we traveled turbulent water between the high cliffs of the Three Gorges.  For me, this book resurrects details of a river and the people along it.  It awakens memories of great loss, great sacrifice and great happiness.   

Don Webster

 

"Hungry River, A Yangtze Novel" by Millie N.S. is available through Amazon Books.  It is the first of a trilogy.  The second novel, "Dragon Wall," is expected in 2006, with the final book, "Jade Cross," expected in 2008.  
Links:

Amazon.com: Books: Hungry River: A Yangtze Novel

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Email to:  Millie N.S.                                      Don Webster