NANPING, China—Dams now have tamed the wild Min River, leaving its waters tranquil. That was not the case early in the last century.
My grandparents, who were Methodist missionaries in China from 1921 to 1926, described the heart-stopping boat trips amid the rapids in letters home to the States.
"For thirty seconds we had the thrill of our lives. It was Coney Island's Leap the Leap, Figure Eight and the rest combined," my grandfather, Karl Scheufler, wrote in a letter in 1923 after flooding had made the river even more turbulent than usual.
Many other challenges besides river travel tested U.S. missionaries, including superstitions, unusual dialects, health woes and rustic conditions, such as a lack of roads.
"There is not a wheel in Yenping," my grandfather wrote upon arrival, referring to this now-modern city by its old name, which meant City of Lingering Peace, a distinct misnomer.
Rampant lawlessness bedeviled Fujian province, and much of China.
"The people throughout the country are pretty well frightened. Sometimes the soldiers and bandits have compelled the folks in small towns to pay enormous amounts of money," my grandmother, Ada Scheufler, wrote shortly after their arrival here.
"The soldiers do not march into town. They straggle in. Some can hardly drag one foot after another," Karl Scheufler wrote in another letter.
On his travels around the area, my grandfather and his colleagues kept alert to the presence of gunmen. Bandits sometimes sought them out.
"We heard a whisper at the door, `They have come,'" wrote another missionary, Frank M. Toothaker, in a bulletin in 1922. "We stepped out a few moments later to behold five bandits, antiquated but ferocious looking side-arms pushed behind their girdles. And all they wanted was to see our watches. Did we have any for sale?"
The Chinese were as wary of the foreigners and their practices as the missionaries were intrigued and puzzled by life in China.
"The women are as much afraid of a Kodak (camera) as you would be of a rattlesnake," my grandfather wrote of his hobby of taking photos.
My grandparents, both from Ohio, often commented on curiosities of daily life, including the way women used wax to coax their hair into elaborate headdresses, and how easy it was to get lost in the alleys of China's large cities.
"Every vista we have of this land as we plod along over the path is the subject for a painter's brush," my grandfather wrote after his first wanderings in 1922, a trek through the hills to a church. "The books you read which tell of poor, treeless, barren China are books written by men who have not been in south China."
My grandmother embraced the experience: "We are in love with China and her people," she wrote in 1922, even as local customs sometimes mystified her.
"Dr. Rawlinson (a fellow missionary) says he does not believe a question could be asked about China but what you could answer `yes and no.' Somewhere in China it would be true to say `yes' and another place to say `no' at just the same time and to the same question," she wrote home.
Chinese here knew my grandfather as Xie Fuhui, his Chinese name, although the name took tinkering once they arrived here after a year of language training in Nanjing.
"Did I tell you last Sunday that I had to change my Chinese name on coming to Yenping? I did! My old character in Foochow dialect meant `lazy, indolent.' My character now is `xie' and means `thanks,' he wrote to his father in one of the letters now stored at Yale University's School of Divinity Library.
My grandfather felt accomplishment—and frustration—once he became capable of offering simple sermons in Chinese.
"There are so many shades of expression that one wants to use, but cannot," he wrote after his first sermon, noting that his wife attended. "She said I talked for 38 minutes but has not said that I said anything intelligible in that 38 minutes or not so far."
The Methodist mission in Yenping ran a hospital. Treating plague, leprosy, typhoid and malaria were frequent challenges, as was maintaining adequate sanitation.
"In this land, you cannot keep fleas off of you. That does not sound very nice, but it is the truth. Our houses are full of rats, and the rats are full of fleas," my grandfather wrote after his first year.
"Rats, rats, rats are everywhere here," he wrote months later. "In Dr. Skinner's house, the rats are fierce. They have eaten the backs off all of his medical journals. They must like the glue in those magazines."
At one point, my grandfather battled several ailments.
"My malaria is now gone. Quinine in large doses killed all the malaria bugs in my blood. My boils are still with me. I am starting on my third dozen," he wrote.
The Methodist hospital became a sanctuary from conflict.
"The postmaster fears for his life. It seems that he is seeking temporary refuge in our hospital," one letter said. Another noted: "The hospital has hard work to keep its head above water with all the soldiers coming for attention. They are a filthy, diseased lot."
Dealing with erroneous ideas among uneducated people was a common task.
"A superstition has swept over China by storm during the past few weeks," my grandfather wrote in 1923. "Starting last Tuesday, according to the superstition, for five days the sun was not to shine, nor the moon to be seen. In that interval one half of the population of China (or something like that) was to die."
On a wry note, he added: "We are still on the Earth."
Letters home frequently returned to the chaos and fighting that gripped China in the decades before 1949, when communist forces under Mao Zedong captured power.
"Conditions are very bad politically. I say that in every letter. They are getting worse. That too has been said many times in my letters," he wrote in 1924.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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