This book attracted my notice because of my Chinese connection with the past. Not only did I spend my early childhood in Taiwan where my parents taught English, but my grandmother was born and raised in China by her missionary parents. My mother and father also taught English there at a later time, but I didn’t accompany them on that trip. Their home has always been open to hosting students from China, many of whom have become our friends over the years. My grandmother spoke Mandarin all her life and never forgot it, and my mother also learned the language. She can chat with waiters in Chinese restaurants.
City of Tranquil Light by Bo Caldwell, although a novel, reads as if it were a biography and the reader is an integral part of the day-to-day experiences of Edward and Katherine Kiehn. Especially meaningful is that the story centers on these two Mennonite missionaries who went to China early in the 20th Century, as did my great-grandparents, only they traveled there even earlier in 1891 under the Southern Presbyterian Church. They initially met on the voyage over, but were posted to different cities. After my great-grandfather made an exceedingly difficult trip to visit her, my great-grandmother decided to accept his marriage proposal because she loved him, and to spare him another horrific journey which included a canal boat with an opium addict, as did one trip described in the book.
An extremely moving part of the story concerns the sickness and death of Edward and Katherine’s young daughter, almost more than they could bear and forever in their hearts and minds. My great grandparents had five children born in China, with one stillborn. Their oldest son, after finishing college and seminary in the United States, returned to China to serve as an itinerate pastor, as had his father, visiting small villages where Christ was not known. Another son completed medical school and returned to China to work with his mother, also a doctor. Highly unusual for a woman in that era. She’d been tried early on by villagers who brought a boy to her nearly dead from a worm infestation. Knowing it was a test, she laid him out on the ground where all could see, and gradually gave him something to make the worms leave his body, curing him. And won their respect.
Eventually all members of our family were forced back to the states in 1939, after Japan invaded China and war ravaged the land. Living in China makes an enormous impact on Americans, as it did on those in Ms. Caldwell’s book upon whom she based her story, and as it’s made on our family. A hospital now stands on the spot where my great grandmother practiced medicine and their stillborn child is buried. Many descendents of missionary families who’d served there at that time were invited back to a celebration of its founding in 2005.
My parents have a camphor wood chest, not as elaborate as the one described in the book, but as fragrant, that they bought while teaching school on Taiwan. They (and I) can attest to the feelings of love expressed in the book that flowed between the Chinese friends of Edward and Katherine and which the couple reciprocated with all their hearts.
*Photographs are of me as a child in Taiwan with my doll tied on my back like the peasant women who carried their infants that way while at work in the rice paddies.
*My great-grandmother, Annie Houston Patterson and my Great Uncle Houston
*My grandparents, Henry and Margaret Mack, my mom and uncle. My grandmother grew up in China, returned to the states for higher education and married. She and my grandfather traveled back to China and stayed with her parents for a time, later journeying as missionaries to the Philippines.