Cover image for Through the dragon's mouth : journeys into the Yangzi's three Gorges
Through the dragon's mouth : journeys into the Yangzi's three Gorges
Cowles, Ben Thomson, 1915-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
Santa Barbara, Calif. : Fithian Press, 1999.
Physical Description:
319 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Format :


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DS793.Y3 C69 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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This exhilarating and fascinating book is the account of Cowles' amazing adventure: a nineteen-day trek in which he immersed himself in the life of the notorious river. Sharing a ninety-five-foot junk with sixty-five crewmen, he encountered bandits, sages, revolutionaries, birth and death, and ultimately, a sense of meaningfulness that has accompanied him ever since -- an awareness that we are all brothers on the long river.Lyrical, thought-provoking and suspenseful, it is filled with reverence for oriental philosophy and a running commentary from the I Ching. Armchair adventure travel writing at its best, it's illustrated throughout with photos and illustrations plus a sixteen-page full-color insert.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

RiversÄand water in generalÄpossess properties that are both constant and constantly in flux. This paradox is certainly not lost on Cowles in his account of traveling along China's Yangzi River and, in particular, through its famous Three Gorges. His first excursion took place in 1946, and he took three subsequent trips over a relatively short span of time half a century later. On the surface, the book features Cowles's impressions of the river's majestic beauty, essential links to Chinese culture, rugged denizens and a controversial "mega-dam" project that threatens to reshape them all. More deeply, Cowles, a Presbyterian minister who was first drawn to the country as a missionary, uses his experiences with the river as departure points for exploring his relationship and responsibility to the world at large. Though the recounting of events often is utilitarian, the ardor Cowles brings to his later ruminations will reward patient readers. From the outset, he owns up to his Western, Christian worldview, but he demonstrates a profound admiration for the land and culture he's observing; the philosophical conclusions he draws are earnestly argued, whether one is inclined to go against them or be swept away. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Four hundred million Chinese live in proximity to, and are influenced by, the Yangzi River. It is China's major river and the world's third largest. Cowles, an American, grew up in China. Just after World War II he traveled the gorges in junks, along with a missionary, a military pilot, and a Chinese university instructor. These were the days when trackers in harnesses pulled the boats upstream, straining along narrow riverside paths, chanting to the beats of drummers. In recent years, Cowles has returned several times, but on the now-popular tourist boats to contrast his experiences. His descriptions are strong, as are his knowledgable musings on Chinese history and culture. He also writes alarmingly of the dam now under construction along the river and the enormous toll it will take in human and ecological terms. Far more than a travel narrative, this is a major book on an important topic and is recommended for all libraries.‘Harold M. Otness, Southern Oregon Univ. Lib., Ashland (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Yichang Mission Hostel's Caveats And Counsel     An ancient pylon-like pagoda on the Yichang riverbank was a pivot for our Army twin-motored plane circling the city. We had a spectacular view of the two mile wide Yangtze River sweeping inexorably eastward. On the south bank, a strange pyramidal hill rose from the Jianghan Plain. The ancient walled city with new settlements mushrooming outside each of its gates, spread asymmetrically over the north bank. Far away, towering on the western horizon, we caught glimpses of the palisades guarding the east entrance to the gorges.     Completing a giant circle, we landed where, less than a year before, Japanese Zeros and bombers had taken off to rain terror on China's interior cities. The enormous airfield, set in a plain of rice paddies, appeared deserted. The once-proud bastion of Hirohito's crack squadrons now was but a monument to defeat, with empty hangers and dilapidated buildings. With no passenger center and no evidence of the city in sight, we wondered if we were anywhere close to Yichang.     A small truck emerged from the orange grove adjoining the field and stopped near us. The driver loaded our gear, buckled us in, and quickly had us bouncing along the potholed cobblestone highway to Yichang. His pall-mell pace never slowed, even as we reached the outlying villages. As the jeep careened, we struggled with the fact that only four hours before we had been 800 miles down river in Nanjing.     The closer we came to the city the more the country road became choked with people, chickens, pigs, carts, and bicycles. Within sight of the city wall, the country roads opened to a wider and smoother riverside boulevard that led to the Bund. At close range what appeared from a distance to be a foreboding river bastion became a lively urban center. The city exploded from its sedate and ancient walls. The western style buildings clustered at the river's edge near the South Gate bore the marks of 19th-century British colonial architects.     Midway on the Bund we reached the broad central flight of stone stairs, astir with bucket carriers splashing water and slops, burdened coolies and pushy pedestrians. At the base, a series of pontoon docks served as the mooring for rows of junks and other craft stretched in an unending chain along the river's edge. Resembling a logjam, they lay two, three and four deep. Hundreds of Sichuan-built junks, with their high-varnished cypress woodwork and high-castled sterns, and an array of craft, looking "like the teeth of a comb," as the Chinese say, made a spectacular display.     Steamers anchored in midstream were surrounded by lighters transferring cargo to the shore. Wide cement slips with embedded iron tracks led from the pontoons at the water line up to warehouses on the Bund. The river margins here are not wild and rocky, as we would see upstream, but were lined with concrete levees.     During the late 19th century, the imperial Custom House had dominated the row of Western-styled offices and residences. At either end of the Bund were small, plain, box-shaped shops and houses clinging to steep hillsides, grayed by coal dust. These crate-like structures lost their modesty in the winter when the river level dropped, revealing their naked 50-foot piers. They were separated by a few long staircases, or narrow-gauge cable car tracks reaching up from the river. Farther along the western river edge, smoke billowed from the reconstructed furnaces of the yards of the rejuvenated Ming Sung iron and ship works.     The recently built-up area between the river and the walled city bulged with colorful store-front kitchens, small brass and tin works, carpenters' sheds and retail shops. Sidewalk stalls served roasted chestnuts, noodles and flatbread. Narrow alleys reached out toward the crowded living quarters which mushroomed to the rear. Everywhere clusters of men and women, boys and girls swarmed about, eating, buying, talking and working.     This six-lane thoroughfare bore the heavy traffic moving toward the South Gate. Our driver laid on his horn to clear a way past pedestrians and cyclists peddling in self-absorbed slow motion. Approaching the dilapidated 600 year-old wall, we could see how it had been cut in many places to accommodate modern traffic. The tower's superstructure, however, had been rebuilt and the massive brass-studded doors were in tact.     In 1946, with a population of over 100,000, Yichang was the largest center between the tri-city metropolis of Wuhan to the east and Chongqing to the west. The number of Western residents that year was only a fraction of what it had been before the war. The present number included British, Americans, French, Belgians and a few Russians. They were consular and customs officials, business persons, and Catholic and Protestant missionaries.     Once inside the city we were driven northward through a maze of still bumpy avenues. Going through the North Gate we passed the walled compounds of both of the Scotch Church Mission and the Swedish Missionary Society. We could see the foreign-styled residences, schools, and churches. In the 19th century these properties on alleys outside the walled city, were the only places Yichang authorities allowed missions to get started.     Farther on, still outside the city, we saw the extensive compound of the Catholic Mission set atop a beautiful knoll. Before we reached the hill we turned into the China Inland Mission's hostel, where Wang Shi and I lodged. The two pilots were driven on to a nearby officers' residence. Friends at the C.I.M. hostel welcomed us and asked their accommodating cook to serve us a late lunch.     We were relieved to find that Mr. Chen Yu, the mission's administrator, had engaged a river junk for us. He also had arranged to have Robert Thompson, an English-born, third-term American missionary, travel with us. Thompson's destination, farther inland in Sichuan, would take him beyond our turn-around city of Wanxian. Thompson, he told us, was an experienced upper river traveler, and more important he had "good face" with the lao-ban (skipper) of our chartered junk.     Mr. Chen took us into the dining room, where he introduced Thompson. His friendly, straight forward and good-humored manner was engaging. The easy confidence he shared was reassuring to Wang Shi and me--another good omen for our trip.     Gregory Studd, one of the mission's younger evangelists, hosted us at lunch. Boyish and reserved in appearance and with his Yorkshire brogue he reminded us of what we had heard about the 19th-century British origins of this mission.     "I'm tolerant of Americans," He commented, wryly. "I had to be during the year I studied in the United States."     "How did you three get together?" Studd asked, wasting no time finding out about us `down river threesome,' as he called us. We in turn, found that he was a Baptist from the Midlands and had been a cricket player in college. One of our other hosts added proudly that Gregory was the grandson of Charles Studd, one of the celebrated seven "Cambridge converts." The famous grandfather was part of the fervent and dedicated evangelicals who, in the 1880's and '90s, won many volunteers and enlistments for the C.I.M. on both sides of the Atlantic.     We sat forward in our chairs when we found that two months ago Studd had made the trip through the gorges to Wanxian and return.     "Traveling in these parts is never a string of pearls," he said. "In picturesque ravines you may be treated to sweetly scented orange and peach blossoms. But more often there're threatening rocks and dangerous rapids, delays and disappointments."     "First off," he continued, "can you loosen your tight schedule? In counting on a twenty-day round trip you're not allowing for the many unexpected happenings that always occur between here and Wanxian ... Our experience has taught us the up-and-return trip often takes double the time we plan. This section of the Long River is notorious for its serious hazards, contrary winds, treacherous currents, balky crew, long waits in towing-lines, junk crashes, obstinate officials and river bandits."     "Second," Studd continued, "Do you have plenty repellent-to combat bedbugs and foul odors? Also, how're your nerves?' ... The sting of bedbugs and the consumptive coughs of the emaciated crew, are minor compared with the terrors of the river when it is rampaging. Even with steady nerves, split-second reactions and years of experience, the best of crews can be undone when the river is on a rampage. The Long River is merciless. Bleached bones piled like a white pagoda on the north bank of the Hsintang Gorge reminds the living of the dead claimed by the fateful `dragon's mouth passage.' ..."     "Good afternoon and welcome to our Yichang hostel," interrupted a heavyset distinguished-looking gentlemen in his late fifties. "I'm Abraham Jones, and which one of you is Cowles, the Presbyterian from Nanjing who wrote me?"     "Abraham is this mission's indispensable senior missionary," Studd explained. "His salt-and-pepper hair and pointed beard give him a severe appearance and his loyal fundamentalism lead some to consider him austere. But he's a warm-hearted Midwesterner-genial and open as the Kansas plains. Just back from furlough, he's beginning his fourth term with us. He outranks and outruns us all. Amazing person! He keeps us happy while keeping our noses to the grindstone!"     Abraham addressed me with a mischievous twinkle in his deep-sunken eyes: "As for you, Cowles, in the first months of your first term and a reputed East Coast liberal,' I've anticipated trouble with you. But in my 30 years in these parts, I've seen all sorts of travelers. You don't have horns and a tail, so we should get along."     Brother Jones, as he asked us to call him, reminisced briefly about his Kansas origins. Before long, however, he got around to our trip into the gorges and his skepticism regarding our overly optimistic plans.     "You remind me," he said bemused, "of how my Missouri grandfather Ebenezer felt in the 19th century when he saw starry-eyed Easterners rolling into St. Joseph, expecting a smooth trek across the plains and Rockies. Upriver junks bear some resemblance to the idealized 19th-century prairie schooners. On the Long River's gorges, you won't meet menacing Indians, but you'll be savaged by whirlpools, rapids, dysentery and bandits."     Others among our new friends told of the boatmen's drawn-out starting rituals. The first day, the captain bargains about money for supplies and crew; the second day, food and supplies are bought and the crew is hired; the third day, the crew's debts are paid; the fourth day is spent in celebration; the fifth day is for visiting shrines to propitiate angry river gods; the sixth day, customs experts inspect the bamboo tracking cable.     Angela Hubbard, an older single woman, maneuvered to ease Abraham's and Gregory's discouragements. Changing the subject she asked what we thought of Yichang's distinctive Pyramid Hill-the incongruous triangular mountain on the river's south bank. Science teacher that she was, she suggested that in reality it was a drumlin, a pile of rock and sediment thrust up by glaciers as they ground their way through this area eons ago.     Not so, however, according to local geomancers, she explained. To them, for centuries, the strange Hill with its peculiar position and form presented a fearful nemesis. Diviners spread the popular suspicion that some ancient ruler had interfered with the correct fen xui , the mysterious balance of earthly and heavenly forces. Much of the populace feared this miscarriage of nature and held that it bore ill for the city's prosperity. In the past, priests routinely offered elaborate prayers to allay the divine fury incarnated in this grotesque angular mountain.     Chen Yu, the animated veteran business manager, came in as we were finishing lunch. A bundle of smiles and energy, he announced that he was ready to escort us for the afternoon to show us the city. A native of Hubei province and a 20-year resident of Yichang, he proved an information-packed guide.     "Our city," Chen began, "has a propitious name: ` Yi ' means `proper,' `fit,' or `right.' And ` Chang ' means `prosperous,' `shining,' or `good.' ... It's questionable whether we're `right' and `shining.' But we are working on being `proper' and `prosperous.' ..."     "The city's major industries," he explained, "are chemical, pharmaceutical and textile manufacturing. The surrounding area is famous for tangerines, porcelain, black tea and mushrooms. But before seeing these and other sights, let's first visit the mission's schools before the students are finished for the day."     School was serious and intense. Classes started at 7:30 a.m. and continued until 4:30 p.m. Choruses of recited lessons and exuberant play at recess made for a noisy environment. Elementary school boys and girls, unaccustomed to seeing foreigners, stopped in their tracks to look us over as we entered the yard. Soon recess games were disrupted as more and more curious pupils gathered around us. The children jumped, skipped, laughed and cheered at the words of greeting we offered.     Classes were in loud progress next door in the delapidated central building of the middle school. Geography, appropriately, was the subject of the class we squeezed into. Several students who were squatting on the floor with their open textbooks accommodatingly moved forward into the aisle to give us standing room in the back. The redoubtable woman teacher tried valiantly to continue the lesson despite the commotion we created. Soon she asked us to speak about the afternoon's lesson-northern Africa. Students, however, were more interested in America and Americans. Hands went up raising questions about the United States: Where did each of us live? What did we eat? What sort of houses did we live in? What sort of schools did our children attend? What were our salaries?     Li Fang-shih, assistant middle-school principal, while escorting us across the grounds, described some of the difficult conditions his staff confronted. His descriptions were less a litany of complaints, and more an assessment of the herculean tasks these school leaders faced. The problems included: scarcity of trained workers, insufficient funds to meet payroll, problems transporting pupils to schools and the workers to satellite centers. Post war months present uncertainties and organizational break downs, political and economic unrest, loss of key supportive board members and administrative officers who fled west during the war and never returned.     "Repeatedly we're frustrated and often exhausted," put in the ten-year veteran teacher accompanying us. "Teaching has never been easy. And, though it's long been one of China's most honored professions, teachers have never been well-paid. But we're not discouraged. Amid the troubles and confusions there are yet satisfactions, especially the grateful response of appreciative students."     The teachers' reports were cut short to make way at the big entry gates for the children pouring through on their way home.     At the high school, short of time, we did not visit a classroom. We were fortunate, however, to catch visits with three instructors and Mr. Liu, the resolute middle-aged principal. Praising his staff's fortitude and flexibility during the Japanese occupation, he told amazing stories of the teachers' innovative making the most of very little.     "You'll see the same hardships in schools and colleges all over China," Wang Shi reacted, as we walked toward the high school. "China's entire educational system has similar hardships: serious overcrowding, lack of teaching materials, buildings in disrepair, over-worked and worn out teachers ... I'd like to ship half my college graduating class here to Yichang to help out."     Out on the busy avenue again, Mr. Chen resumed his spiel about the city. He described historic spots in the nearby hills. He explained that he would now take us to Sanyouping (Three Travelers Cave), a favorite spot in the hills outside the West Gate.     En route to the caves, Mr. Chen sketched the Japanese bombardment, capture and occupation of the city. He told of the fateful events of 1939, with the Japanese advancing relentlessly up the river, headed inevitably toward Yichang. The capture of Hankow, 400 miles down river, had meant that no other large city lay between the enemy and Yichang.     The possibility of transporting even a fraction of the crucial supplies to Chongqing, the war-time capital, 300 miles upriver, had appeared hopeless. The vital war materiel that had poured into Yichang from all parts of China seemed doomed to fall into enemy hands. But a superhuman effort by the Ming Sung yards had surpassed all expectations in building enough ships to evacuate tons of crucial supplies. Chen became animated as he recalled the feat of what he called the "heroic plant."     In those despairing weeks during 1939, the Free China government called upon Lu Tso-fu, head of the Ming Sung Company, to organize a fleet of ships to move as many of the supplies as possible upriver in a race against both the Japanese Army and the fast-approaching July flood waters. In addition to the nearly impossible logistic task, Lu was besieged by bribing entrepreneurs frantic to move their particular cargoes piled on the docks. Nevertheless, amid the confusion of conflicting demands and criticisms, he devised and enforced a firm system of priorities.     Manager Lu radioed all available ships to report to the Ming Sung yards. Hasty repairs were completed on three disabled steamers, and five more ships were salvaged and rebuilt. With fuel-oil supplies gone, one diesel-engined ship had to be converted to steam power. Too short to permit the installation of a steam engine, the ship was hauled ashore with skids and hand winches, cut apart amidship and lengthened by 40 feet. A boiler was reclaimed from a sunken ship and reinforced with scarce supplies of plate and tubing. The four steel-hulled and thirteen wooden ships under construction were rushed to completion. When the Japanese started bombing, much of this innovative improvisation had to be carried on in caves excavated from the riverbank's solid rock.     To move 20 and 30-ton loads, he had available only a few trucks and a few decrepit cranes. So he organized coolies into large work crews. Around the clock these teams of humans shouldered and moved freight. Day and night the chant of workers and stevedores rang out. Machines, boxes, bales, parts and supplies were carried aboard, ship after ship, by the tens of tons. Most of these loads were moved on the shoulders of two, four, ten or twenty sure-footed coolies, picking their way down slippery banks and across narrow gangways with their rhythmic swaying bamboo poles. Day after day the steamers battled the rapids to reach upriver ports with their essential cargo. The mountains of machines at Yichang grew smaller, until 42 days after Mr. Lu had arrived, the last machine was loaded. The impossible transport job was accomplished! When the Japanese marched into Yichang they found the city's wharves and warehouses empty.     "Now, seven years later, the heroic Ming Sung yards are comparatively quiet." Mr. Chen added, concluding the city tour he had escorted so enthusiastically "But Yichang still shows signs of its stubborn stand against the enemy. You still see pill boxes, barricades, trenches and pock-marked walls."     Reaching Sanyouping , we found the caves tucked into the hills situated in a beautiful fruit grove overlooking the river. Nearby was an historic pavilion and a new giant Buddha. They had been built to mark the entrance to the most dangerous of the gorges, the Xiling. A statue of the Three Kingdom's, general Zhang Fei looked out toward the water.     Mr. Chen told us that Chinese scholars have divided the poems of the Three Gorges into three kinds: descriptions of nature with political meaning, human history and poems in praise of particular places. An illustration of poems that describe the natural wonders of the Gorges to serve political purposes, he said, is Bai Juyi's poem entitled, `The Entrance of Three Travelers Cave.' "This scenery is wonderful," Wrote Bai Juyi, but he used the `poetic soul' of the mountains and rivers to express his despair and the bitterness of his lot. Even on sighting the Xiling Gorge, the poet moodily wrote, "If you want to know how great my worry is, well, it is higher than Yanyudui (Goosetail Rock)."     The second type, Mr. Chen explained as we drove back to the city, are poems that describe the history of human activities and of civilizations, or disseminate scientific knowledge, history, geography, politics, military lore, local customs and specialities, hydrology and shipping, and the weather ... The third style are poems that sing the praises of scenic spots and historic sites along the Three Gorges, using them to express patriotic feelings.     We stopped at a dingy wayside inn in a tiny village. Clusters of noisy children and raucous carriers were gathered around the several stalls crowding out into the narrow country road. From inside, however, we could hear the graceful and heart-stirring sound of classical Chinese music. It was so sweet we couldn't help pursuing the source.     We found a group of young musicians performing with ancient musical instruments from archeological excavations with such exotic names as `Bianzhong,' `Bianquin,' `Fangzian,' `Yun' zithers and inverted bells. We became absorbed as they plucked the zither strings, struck the chimes, and rang the bronze bells. We wanted to spend the rest of the afternoon in that intoxicating place! Instead we returned for supper back at the Hostel.     Later, around the dinner table, Gregory and Angela told us more about Yichang. They described the life of Westerners during these months following the close of World War II. Winter evenings, they said, were long and dull, summers were hot and mosquito-infested. The old hands had long ago explored the intellectual depths and shallows of their neighbors and so knew their colleagues' thoughts and feelings. Mental and social capabilities of newcomers were quickly assessed. The arrival of a stranger, the weekly mail boat and the changes of the customs or consular staffs were the chief varieties of life.     Gregory Studd took advantage of the moment to acknowledge his respect and admiration for Angela Hubbard's long and remarkable contribution to the Yichang mission. Angela, originally from a small Illinois town, was serving her third term at Yichang. From a large rural family, she had worked her way through college by substitute teaching. After her Commencement she arranged also to graduate from obligations to an ailing mother and younger siblings. She took steps to go abroad as a teacher or nurse. As a candidate for service in China, she could well have written that her motive included, "The desire to live a holy life and to help others to do the same."     This resolve cut her off from the familiar and from the likelihood of meeting an eligible male. Her difficult commitment amounted to entering a Catholic order. She loved families and often wished she had married and had children. Angela, however, had found that her work with hundreds of Chinese youngsters had become a delight instead of a burden and fully as significant as the teaching she might have done in a one-room country school in rural America.     After vespers, missionaries gathered on the screened-in porch. Glasses of ginger ale or cups of tea in hand, they had their "happy hour." Relaxing in creaky rattan chairs, they shared bits about the day's events and people. As Abraham Jones loosened up, his colleagues relaxed and became more revealing about what had brought them to this distant inland station.     In the illuminating hour that followed, instead of more details about the Long River's gorges, personal interest gems were shared. The major, Wang Shi and I gained unique cameos of heroic people working to innovate in this mission outpost.     "As to my Midlands English," Greggory Studd said, responding wryly to my acknowledgment of his Yorkshire brogue, "it reminds the Yankees here that it was an Englishman, Hudson Taylor, who started the C.I.M. back in the 19th century! In this century English leadership continued, but increasingly the new workers came from North America and Western Europe.     From its beginnings, the mission tried to get beyond its `foreignness' and stress its `China-centeredness,' in language, organization and practice. Effort was made to train Chinese pastors and teachers to eventually take over the mission's educational, medical and pastoral functions.     "We are grateful to have Mr. Studd," interrupted Abraham. "He keeps us on our mettle in more ways than speaking correct English. Even though the rest of us Westerners now outnumber our English colleagues, we benefit from his encouragement--not only to speak correct Midlands English. He boosts our spirits and his unwavering emphasis on evangelism and the mission's `China-centeredness' keeps us all on our toes."     "I remember my father," Abraham continued, "who was a C.I.M. missionary before me, telling me how he began as a starry-eyed young missionary, at the turn of the century. He said he focused on `rescuing heathens from hell.' Before long, he found it was the heathens who rescued the foreigners from their hell. At first he insisted on prospective converts `surrendering their individual wills to God and Christ,' only to find that they hadn't the slightest conception of Christ and less of an idea about what sort of a God he was talking about."     As we began to get acquainted with Abraham Jones we found a remarkable veteran and not at all the austere and stuffy person we first considered him to be. His heritage was as fascinating as it was unique. He had inherited his Kansas father's iron will and dedicated devotion to the China missionary enterprise. As a son of the mission field he had seen other missionaries, who had not died, often despair and return home in anger that the charity they had given had not been accepted. The senior Abrahams persisted in serving at the interior mission station where they were assigned at the turn of the century. When Abraham's mother, an equally intense C.I.M. devotee, died in childbirth, father Abraham remained in China and carried on as a single parent.     Years later, when the young Abraham, decided to follow in his father's footsteps, the mission's examining committee had more stringent requirements for 20th century recruits. The son, with a more thorough education and good health, was readily accepted and sent out to China to begin his missionary career in 1916. Being raised in China, his Chinese language was flawless and he intuited naturally the nuances of how Chinese thought and felt. Furthermore, he knew the poignancy and suffering of missionary life.     The times in China were dark in 1916. Convulsed in the years following the overthrow of the 267 year-old Manchu dynasty, the troubled country was entering the era of rapacious warlords. Even though the United States had not yet become drawn into that World War I. European nations were into their second horrible year of tearing each other apart. English and French missionaries in Chinese cities looked daggers at German missionaries. China was sending coolies to Flanders to help dig trenches and was itself in unbelievable turmoil.     Abraham the younger's first assignment was to a small and isolated Sichuan station, 200 miles northwest of Yichang. Working under the supervision of a Chinese evangelist and a veteran English missionary, he preached, taught Bible classes and traveled to homes, carrying on first aid work in outlying villages. Each week day he spent two to three hours with his tutor, reading and writing Chinese. During this term, he and his wife had two children. The youngest, "an exuberant two-year-old blond angel," as Abraham spoke of her, died during a typhus epidemic.     At the end of a four-year stint the family returned to the States on furlough. Back in Chicago, he took refresher courses and deepened his evangelical convictions at the Moody Bible Institute.     Returning to China within the year (1921), he was transferred to the larger mission of Yichang. For a few months the mission met less antagonism from Chinese officials and less hostility from the populace. Evangelistic work expanded in the burgeoning river-port with its productive outlying rural feeder areas. Christian workers were heartened.     By 1922, however, the Chinese hopes that the overthrow of the imperial regime would lead to a new democratic and powerful China able to deal effectively with her own problems were further dashed. The country's newly (1921) organized Communist Party began to be a factor in the lethal national mix. Political-military rivalry under "war-lords" divided the country into contending territories and imposed the indiscriminate conscription of their youth. A series of floods, crop failures, and famines compounded the worsening economic, political and military conditions. Commoners' uncertainties and hardships increased.     By 1927 anti-foreign feelings escalated. Angry mobs accumulated in cities and demonstrated for an end to Western imperialism. The missionaries were charged with being in league with the foreign capitalists. The demand was to "run all foreigners out!" With nationalism and patriotism becoming more ascendant, attacks on Christianity and Christians were intensified.     In the same year (1927) Central China was enmeshed in the grinding and cataclysmic throes of Chiang Kai-shek's and his coalition of Southern warlords' northern campaign.' In Shanghai thousands of Chinese Communists were machine gunned down by Nationalists in their ruthless drive to gain control of the Yangtze Valley. The Nationalists' success brought the end of the denouement of the turbulent "war-lord" days but did not bring an end to political and economic insecurities. Old problems remained unsolved and new difficulties emerged.     Following its victory the fledgling Nationalist government established comparably stable social and economic conditions within cities and succeeded in pacifying wide areas of the country side. In this short lull anti-Christian opposition lessened.     Foreign missions and Chinese churches were allowed and even encouraged to provide educational and health services for the people, albeit in the midst of continued social disorder. In these years (1929-31) 7,675 foreign missionaries served in China-a peak that has never been surpassed.     Within only a few years Japanese armies, having invaded China's northeastern or Manchurian provinces two years before (1931), pressed down to Peking and threatened Shantung province. They bombed and captured Shanghai and other coastal centers. The foes pushed up the Yangtze River toward Nanking. After mercilessly raping that capital city and murdering 300,000 of the populace, the Japanese army pressed west. Soon their forces were threatening Hankow, the next large city east of Yichang. By 1934 the attack on and fall of Yichang was imminent.     Abraham with his wife and two young children moved up river, first to Wanxian and then further west. He worked with rural pastors surrounding a center 80 miles east of Chongqing. In 1940 physicians in Chongqing insisted that, for their health and safety, his wife and children should return to the United States. This involved a long and hazardous journey. They traveled by boat up the river, and then by bus southwest to Kunming. From there, again by bus, they took the Burma Road to Rangoon, where they caught a ship for the long voyage back to the States. Before Abraham himself could exit and join them in the States, Pearl Harbor occurred and he was marooned in the small Sichuan station for the duration.     "In addition to widespread destruction and terrible loss of life, the Japanese war years (1941-44) brought severe economic instability and political disorder," Abraham explained. "Refugee churches in the west were swamped with inquirers. The increase was gratifying, but not without a host of new difficulties. We had to learn, for example, to seek out people's motives for becoming Christians. When we failed to do this, many of those received were found to have no real concern for Christ's work. Much additional work went into disciplining their faltering commitment and backsliding into opium-smoking, gambling, dishonesty, or heavy debts for extravagant weddings or funerals. Working with the unredeemed was hard; trying to service the unredeemable was impossible. Missionaries and Chinese colleagues alike often worked 16 hours a day. Exhaustion and frustration brought on frequent burn-outs."     "After V-E day (April 1945)," Abraham continued, "I squeezed into an overcrowded rickety bus and survived a five-day hair-raising ride over 350 miles across mountains to Kunming. From there I caught a convoy down the Burma Road and eventually got back to the States for another furlough."     Three months ago (1946) and 30 years after his start, he had returned to China. He was glad to be back in Yichang. This term, his fourth, offered both promise and difficulties. Though peace was welcome, many of the same problems his father before him had struggled with remained. Now they were magnified and their solutions more complex. Civil war was heating up, even as the enormous tasks of reconstruction were everywhere apparent. Christian workers, more than ever needed flexibility and decisiveness amid the period's confusions and changes. What's more, he missed his family, since he had not been able to bring them with him this time.     "It's heartening," Abraham reported, "To see how Chinese Christian pastors, teachers and lay leaders are facing the many old and new tasks before them. Significant positive things are occurring. Within the new openness of spirit we are experiencing, Chinese church leaders and missionaries alike are rethinking what work and emphases are `essential'.     Many Chinese Christians have caught the vision of Chinese propagating the faith (evangelizing) in all parts of China. Chinese Christians increasingly form their own spiritual, moral and conceptual relationship to God in Christ. More are developing their own sense of how the `old life' can be changed into the `new.' They know they must state their faith in Chinese idioms, images and deeds to make them meaningful to their neighbors.     "We missionaries have had to become more flexible. Rigid and doctrinaire approaches hinder instead of help communicate our message. Rivalries and fragmentation in the Christian witness are disastrous. The old system of fragmented Protestantism needed to come to an end. We are all bound in one bundle; we advance together or we fail together. Every denomination's `China mission' confronts conditions demanding change. All face reconstruction's costs and extent, renewed Chinese nationalism, the reality of a strengthened indigenous Chinese church, reduced funds and personnel from sending churches.     "The critical task, however, no longer can be how to advance the missionary enterprise, but must be how to strengthen the Chinese church. The key questions are: how is the Chinese church to become self supporting, self governing, self propagating, and more accepted and influential within Chinese society.     "Many of our current Chinese pastors and leaders, though depleted in numbers, are young and an increasing number are women. Liberated now, they have become more aggressive and more determined to develop a new vocabulary, new forms and new approaches appropriate for the new day. Millennia old folk religions cause difficulties, as does the tight family system that often limits its members' freedom to hear and respond to the gospel."     Abraham sat back, spent but satisfied. In a moment he concluded, "It has helped me to review the years with you. Thank you for listening."     "Brother Abraham," coaxed Angela, again guiding the conversation into lighter considerations, "you've been back from your leave in the States for months now, but you've told us little about how you found the hamlet that was your family's hometown."     "In faded towns of central Kansas," Abraham ruminated, "ghosts and live inhabitants sleep squared to the world, neatly, like accountant's figures! ... How's that for a start?"     "When you return to your boyhood town and county," he added, "you find it wasn't the town or county you longed for--it was your boyhood."     Pausing, he concluded, "It's taken a lot of living to become aware of where I had come from. For years I missed developing my personal identity and allowing myself to be my own person. In time I've come to appreciate the distinctiveness of my heritage. Now I'm glad to be back to my other hometown, Yichang, here on the Jianghan Plain!" Copyright © 1999 Ben Thomson Cowles. All rights reserved.