What appeared at first to be the end of the world quickly became the center of the world for Passionist missionaries, Sisters of Charity from Convent Station, New Jersey and Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden, PA. Assigned to China between 1921 and 1955, almost all arrived by boat at Yuanling沅陵 West Hunan (known as the Xiangxi湘西 region). Life and commerce depended on the river and spilled out to the mountainous countryside.
When I travelled to Yuanling in 1989 the first view I had was the view you see in this photo.
After an eight hour car ride from Changsha長沙, Hunan 湖南I came to the crest of a hillside. Believe it or not the only way to traverse from one side of the river to the other was via a short twenty minute ferry boat ride. In an instant history made sense to me. Letters and photos from the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s in the Passionist China Collection came alive. Visiting there again in 2004 I was pleased, shocked and saddened that the city planners had constructed a necessary bridge. Today local residents of the area use cars much more than a ferry or sampan boats.
I have a good idea how this picture was taken. One day in the late 1920s or mid-1930s one of the priests took that ferry boat ride to the bluff on the other side of the Yuan River沅江 and looking back at the town snapped the picture. Now what we see what they saw every day. Look first at the Yuan River. Water currents always had to be negotiated. River traffic would dock on the beach where goods from as far away as Shanghai were unloaded. The white church straight on in the center of the photo with the double spires is the Catholic Church of St. Augustine. It is important to know that when the Passionists set foot in Yuanling in 1922 (the town was known as Chenzhou辰洲 at that time. In 1935 the name was changed to Yuanling.) that this church had been originally built by the Spanish Augustinians. They had arrived in Hunan in the 1870s from Valladolid, Spain. So when the Passionists took over, you might say that became the new Catholics on the block.
Ongoing struggles and responsibilities faced the local people and missionaries in Yuanling each decade of the 20th century. Bandits and famine were a problem in the 1920s. New Nationalist government initiatives became overburdened by the late 1930s as a result of the Anti-Japanese War (1937-1945). Consequently, refugees poured into Yuanling and the city was bombed by the Japanese. The post-1945 era presented challenges as well. This leads us to another feature of the photo that demands more attention and interest from historians. During these years, this town was built on a complex web of Chinese and foreign interests that made the local economy work.
Look again at the photo. Homes surrounding the church point to a local market culture. To the left of the church was a local temple. To the right of the church the Passionists in the late 1940s built a Catholic hospital. Behind the Catholic Church on the hill top are several other buildings. This was operated by Reformed Church of the United States (Da Mei fuchu hui 大美 复初 會). They arrived in Chenzhou in 1904. Their archives are at the Evangelical and Reformed Historical Society, Lancaster Theological Seminary, Lancaster, PA. Also, many might be surprised to know that as a result of the Anti-Japanese War, Yale-In-China was forced in 1938 to evacuate their Changsha, 長沙Hunan campus to relocate in Yuanling till 1945. You can learn more about this at雅禮協會百年史: A Centennial History by Nancy E. Chapman, Jessica C. Plumb. (Chinese University Press, 2001), pp. 60-63. Still unanswered is the question on how all these groups had an impact on one another throughout the 20thcentury.
Two closing thoughts: I recall that one of the features of traditional Chinese art is to appreciate that local people live day to day and as part of a bigger picture. The willow to the right casts shade the local Chinese style building. This symbolized how all people who ended up in Yuanling from 1900 on were dependent upon the town, river, land and political and social change. So many photos in the Passionist China Collection explore this intimate relationship. Second, the value of this photo is to ponder and appreciate Yuanling not as a relic of the past but more as an invitation to learn respect for ongoing Chinese history, cultural interaction and ourselves.
Ask the Historian a Question
To support this project, Fr. Rob and Passionists must undertake fundraising for $15,000 per year to cover part of his living expenses.
If you like this photo please consider supporting this effort by making a gift of $25 or $50-the cost of a meal at a Chinese restaurant. But please know that no gift is too small. Make your make out your check toPassionist History Ministries. Mail it to:
Fr. Rob Carbonneau, C.P.
1075 Ellis Street
San Francisco, CA 94109
Fr. Rob Carbonneau, C.P.
Visit our website every Friday to see a new China photo. Click here to see previous China photos.