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Dr. Emma Zhang reviews the autobiography of an Oxford scholar and Catholic missionary who witnessed multiple national upheavals and whose life was committed to her faith and community.

Audrey G. Donnithorne, China: In Life’s Foreground (Australian Scholarly, 2019), 435pp.

Audrey G. Donnithorne was born on 27 November 1922 to an Anglican missionary family in a Quaker mission hospital in Santai (Tongchuan) in Sichuan province, China. She grew into a woman with remarkable intellect, relentless faith, and restless energy. She lived her life on three different continents, traveled through dozens of countries in Europe, Asia, America, Australia, and the Middle East. She published numerous academic books and papers, and nurtured generations of China Studies scholars and researchers. In 1985, she retired to Hong Kong and resided there until her peaceful passing in June 2020, at the age of 97. As an academic and a woman of faith, Audrey Donnithorne spent her life building networks, connecting and empowering people, and helping the development of Christian communities in China and elsewhere. Her book China: In Life’s Foreground records her eventful life from 1922 to 1985 and takes the reader on adventures to inland China under the reign of warlords, to wartime Chongqing under Japanese bombing, to England through World War II, to Mao’s great famine and Cultural Revolution, and to Nazareth on the morning of Yom Kippur. She did indeed spend her life in history’s foreground.

Donnothorne’s family came to China at a time when Christianity was going through a period of unprecedented growth. Christian missionaries came to China as early as the Tang dynasty, but its influence remained limited for more than a thousand years. In the late Ming dynasty, Jesuits stationed in Macau made an effort to master the Chinese language and culture, and eventually succeeded in establishing a firm base for Christianity in inland China. By 1918, the number of Chinese Catholics had reached 1,900,000, and Protestants numbered 350,000. Chinese historian Gao Shouxian describes the spread of Christianity in China in the Ming and Qing Dynasties as a “cultural invasion” and argues that the Christian missionaries were backed by colonial powers, and though they were able to attract Chinese believers through material means, they could not truly transform their polytheistic folk beliefs (Zhongguo zongjiao lisu, 1994).

Audrey Donnothorne’s narrative tells a vastly different story. She calmly relates the personal sacrifices these “cultural invaders” had to make to serve their God. Her parents were newlyweds who shared a passion for service in China and left for Sichuan shortly after their wedding in 1919. The harsh living conditions of inland China caused her mother to miscarry a number of times. The couple’s firstborn, David, did not survive and was buried in Chengdu in 1921. In 1923, two of her father’s missionary colleagues were killed by local bandits. In 1925, when Audrey was merely two years old, a group of bandits broke into her house and kidnapped her whole family along with other missionaries, carrying them into the high mountains of Sichuan. The bandits wanted money and weapons as ransom, but the British Council refused. With a rope tied around his neck and his young wife and daughter in the hands of bandits, Audrey’s father Vyvyan prayed “in those happy days which will come, when these idolatrous brigands burning incense have given place to Christian churches, when instead of the reports of rifles will be heard the sound of church bells summoning a God-fearing people to worship, then these green and rich valleys will be indeed an earthly paradise” (11). After this frightening experience, Audrey was brought back to England in 1927 as a young girl to be raised by a fellow missionary family while her parents continued their services in China. Audrey rejoined her parents 13 years later, in 1940, as a young woman.

These “cultural invaders” lived modestly and devoted their lives to service. Unwittingly, they made a greater contribution to the preservation of ancient Chinese cultural artifacts than the local magistrates. With their own daughter being raised a continent away, the Donnithornes fostered orphaned children and helped them find families; they stood by and let their neighbors walk away with their cows without protest; they helped the desperate widow to buy a sewing machine so she could feed her children. They dressed and ate like the locals; butter was a luxury reserved only for special occasions. Audrey had never seen a banana until she went to Shanghai as a five-year-old. Her father Vyvyan, who had a keen sense of history, once advised the Guanghan magistrate to preserve the ancient chastity arches that adorned the road to Chengdu. In 1931, a local farmer told Vyvyan about the discovery of jade on his land. This led to the excavation of Sanxingdui (Three Star Knoll), and the elaborate bronze statues of ancient Shu re-wrote the early history of China. “Fortunately,” Audrey writes, “not much more excavating around Sanxingdui was done at the time; otherwise, during the Cultural Revolution, the whole site might have suffered the same fate as the ancient arches [which were destroyed]” (66).

Audrey felt that her parents “were yoked together primarily in a common devotion to their work” and that she was “a sort of extra addition rather than an essential constituent of the family” (59). Perhaps it was this sense of distance that led her to find her own path to faith. Inspired by the quiet dignity of a Catholic woman who worked in her household and informed by her own readings of Catholic literature, Audrey converted to Catholicism in 1943 and embarked on a spiritual journey of her own. She grew into a woman with formidable strength and intellect, and her love for China never faded.

Audrey compiled reports from The People’s Daily and threaded together whatever information she could gather about Chinese economics behind its bamboo curtain from 1940s to 60s for her book China’s Economic System. When it was published in 1967, Audrey became one of the few scholars who alarmed the world about the economic devastation in communist China, long before the extent of Mao’s famine reached readers around the world. Similarly, she foresaw the folly of state-decreed population control and argued against it in her article Is the World Heading towards Starvation? Her strong opinion and assertion of unwavering faith earned her the reputation of being “a very traditional Catholic”. She responded that it was “a reputation I hope to continue to deserve” (235). Her fearless attitude and strong moral conviction did not win her any favors from the dictators of China’s ruling class. As a China expert who had devoted her whole life to studying Chinese economics and demographics, Audrey sought opportunities to live in or visit China whenever she could. She argued for a Return Home Permit on account of the fact that she was born in Sichuan, but one was never granted. She was banned from entering China in 1997 without so much as a reason.

Audrey’s book is a scholarly account of her upright, productive life lived to its full capacity; her devotion to scholarship and missionary work makes her a worthy example for women who seek to discover and unleash their own potential. Her humble and down-to-earth narrative style, however, does not do justice to the dramatic and fruitful life she led. Despite an unmistakable closeness and love for her father that she related repeatedly in her narrative, the scene of her father’s passing falls flat and lacks the expected pathos. She spares merely two paragraphs at the end of chapter 9, reporting that her father passed away on 12 December 1968, and his funerial service was held on the seventeenth. The chapter ends with the somewhat cold declaration: “In Australia, a new lifestyle awaited me” (197). While Audrey’s account of her life is richly informative and details much of the vast social network she built in her lifetime, she remains somewhat aloof. It is up to a future historian or biographer to tell her life story with the full emotional depth it no doubt deserves.


Dr. Emma H. Zhang is a lecturer of English at the College of International Education of Hong Kong Baptist University. Her research interests include comparative literature, comparative mythology, and e-learning. She has written on the subjects of contemporary Asian-American literature, Chinese mythology, as well as life writing.

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