In the beginning they were a tiny vanguard, clinging precariously to the rim of the great Chinese landmass—a few earnest, lonely, often frightened men and women engaged in an almost entirely futile enterprise. They lived among Western merchants but shared little with them. For their task was not to build trade. It was to save souls.
Generations later, China became a major target of Western capitalism—and a target as well of a much larger and more ambitious missionary project. The missionaries’ task remained difficult and in the end mostly unsuccessful. But they were no longer lonely and less often frightened, and they promoted not just Christian faith, but Western progress. The legacy of these missionaries was not only their work, but also the work of their children who inherited their parents’ ambition and their sense of duty to do good in the world. Henry R. Luce was one such person—a man whose great power and influence always reflected his childhood among what he considered modern saints, his father among them, and from whom he inherited his own missionary zeal, which he carried with him into the secular world.
The first Christian missionaries in China were Italian Jesuits, who arrived in the late sixteenth century, flourished for a time as favorites of the imperial court, lost that favor as a result of doctrinal controversies, and were mainly gone by the 1790s, having converted few and antagonized many. Early in the nineteenth century some American Catholic priests traveled east from Turkey and Palestine and, like their Jesuit predecessors, entered China alone. They too confronted a complex, sophisticated, insular society whose language they could not speak and whose culture they did not understand. Few stayed for very long.1
Starting in the 1830s, as scattered English and American trading outposts grew up along the Chinese coast, another wave of missionaries arrived, this time mostly Protestants. They attached themselves and their families, somewhat uneasily, to the coastal merchant posts and seldom strayed far from them. They were large in ambition but small in numbers. In the decades before the American Civil War, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions—the principal recruiter of missionaries in the United States—sent only forty-six ordained missionaries (and another fifty or so spouses, relatives, and assistants) into all of East Asia, fewer than half of them to China. Perhaps that was because those they did send were so singularly unsuccessful. Protestant missionaries spent eighteen years in China before they won their first native convert.2
The Chinese did not become very much more interested in Christianity in the latter decades of the nineteenth century than they had been during the earlier ones. But missionaries became a great deal more interested in China. That was partly because of the expansion of the Western presence in Asia, as American and European businessmen built railroads, created oil companies, and extended their reach inland from the coast. Their growing presence helped open up new areas for missionary activity. More important to the future of the missionary project, however, were events in England and America—several profound shifts in both the theological and institutional foundations of Anglo-American Protestantism.
The social upheavals of the industrial era and the great scientific advances of the late nineteenth century—most notably the widespread acceptance in England and America of Darwin’s theory of evolution—had produced a crisis of faith in many Protestant denominations. Most Anglo-American Protestants responded by moving down one of two new theological paths. One was the road that led, in many cases, to fundamentalism: a fervent defense of traditional theology and a rejection of the new science that seemed to challenge it. But it was also an inspirational belief, because it suggested that preparation for the Second Coming of Christ, when only Christians would be saved and redeemed, required strenuous efforts to expand the community of believers.3
Other Protestants—many of whom eventually came to call themselves modernists—chose to accept Darwinism and other scientific discoveries and to adapt their faith to them. Evolution, they argued, was an even more inspirational story than the literal Creation, because it described continuing progress and development through the ages—a process to which they believed living men and women could usefully contribute. It helped inspire the large, diverse movement among late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Protestants that became known as the “Social Gospel,” a commitment to combining faith with active efforts to solve the social problems of the industrial world.4
These emerging Protestant factions were at odds with one another on many issues, but they converged, even if somewhat uncomfortably at times, on one of the great Christian projects of the late nineteenth century: the dispatching of thousands of missionaries out into the world. One source of the new missionary fervor was a Bible conference in the summer of 1886 in northern Massachusetts convened by Dwight Moody, a Methodist layman who became one of the most influential evangelists of his time. More than one hundred college students emerged from Moody’s conference having pledged themselves to become missionaries. Their commitment was the beginning of a wave of student interest that over the next two years attracted more than two thousand additional volunteers and that inspired the creation, late in 1888, of the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions. It soon became the largest and most influential student movement in the nation and spread as well to Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and the European continent. By the end of World War I the Student Volunteer Movement (SVM) had dispatched more than eight thousand American missionaries from the United States to foreign lands.5
For Moody himself and for many of the student converts, the inspiration for the volunteer movement was the desire to prepare the world for, and thus hasten, the imminent coming of Christ. “The Evangelization of the World in this Generation” was the ambitious, urgent slogan of the new movement. Its most important text was Arthur T. Pierson’s The Crisis of Missions, published in 1886. “The fullness of time has come,” Pierson wrote, “and the end seems at hand, which is also the beginning of the last and greatest age…. Such facts mark and make the crisis of the missions. Now or never! Tomorrow will be too late for work that must be done today…. He who lags behind will be left behind.” For evangelists, he insisted, “the field is the world.”6
But the Student Volunteer Movement also attracted modernists, to whom the end did not seem near and who considered missionary work not just a project of leading believers to Christ but also an effort to uplift the oppressed and improve the life of the world. The president of the Union Theological Seminary in New York argued that “the gospel for heathen lands is not alone a gospel of deliverance for a life to come, but a gospel of social renewal for the life that now is—a gospel that patiently and thoroughly renovates heathen life in its personal, domestic, civic, tribal, national practices and tendencies.” The task of the missions, many volunteers came to believe, was to produce educated elites in “heathen” lands—“a thinking class, a class of leaders,” one missionary wrote—who would be capable both of spreading the faith and of improving society.7
Although the Student Volunteer Movement sent missionaries to many parts of the world, some evangelists considered China their greatest and most important challenge: the world’s most populous nation, most of whose hundreds of millions of souls had never been exposed to Christianity. “China for Christ” was their rallying cry, and it drew to the Chinese missions the most committed and indomitable of the young volunteers, a new generation, charged with an energy and zeal that transformed and expanded the missionary enterprise.8
Among the many energetic, idealistic students attracted to the Student Volunteer Movement in the 1880s was the Yale undergraduate Henry Winters Luce. He was born in 1868 into a moderately prosperous family in Scranton, Pennsylvania; his father owned a wholesale grocery business and was a member of the town’s commercial gentry, a society Henry for many years expected to enter. As a young man he displayed what was for his time a more or less ordinary Christian faith. He participated in the youth activities of the Presbyterian Church and joined the Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavor, commitments balanced against an active social life outside the church community. But he had something more than ordinary energy and ambition. His desire to attend Yale, and his father’s willingness to send him there, was itself evidence of his own and his parents’ exceptional expectations, for in the 1880s going to university—particularly to one as distinguished by its elitism as Yale—was unusual for Scranton, even for the son of a comfortably middle-class family.9
As a member of the Yale class of 1892, Harry Luce (as he was known to his classmates) at first followed a relatively conventional path. He pursued the prescribed, largely classical curriculum but also began preparing himself for a career in the law. He joined clubs, became editor of the Yale Courant (a weekly magazine that was the least prestigious of the four campus publications of its time), engaged in spirited arguments with his classmates (developing a reputation as a man of very firm opinions), and became active in the YMCA—for which he also worked in Scranton during the summers. But the most important thing that happened to him at Yale was almost certainly his friendship with Horace Pitkin, a mesmerizing young man of intimidating religiosity. Pitkin shunned liquor, cards, and dancing, and refused to attend events at which any of those things might occur. “He took a stronger stand than any man in the college,” a classmate commented. When he and his friends gathered at night in their rooms at Yale, Pitkin led them in prayer before any ordinary conversation could begin.10
Pitkin decided very early that his life would be devoted to the ministry. He became the leader of the Student Volunteer Movement at Yale and committed himself both to joining a foreign mission himself and to persuading others to do so as well. Luce resisted for a time, but in his senior year he finally succumbed to Pitkin’s daunting, inspiring example. According to his own later accounts he experienced an irresistible call to the faith while reading a devotional pamphlet, and he announced to his startled but ultimately supportive family that he would not return to Scranton to read law. He would instead attend divinity school and seek a posting abroad, perhaps in China (where Pitkin also hoped to go). “God willing,” he wrote from college, using the language of his new religious fervor, “… I propose to go into the foreign field and witness for Him as best I may in the uttermost parts of the earth.”11
Luce and Pitkin moved together from Yale to the Union Theological Seminary in New York, a nondenominational institution that gradually became a bastion of liberal theology. The two men, and another Yale friend, Sherwood Eddy, met every day (in Luce’s words) “to pray over the things pertaining to ‘our great purpose.’” After two semesters at Union, Luce, Pitkin, and Eddy all spent a year as traveling evangelists for the SVM. Luce worked mostly in the American South, where he apparently recruited many new volunteers with his now well-honed religious eloquence and where he also developed a lifelong commitment to racial equality. The following year he enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary, earned ordination and a degree in 1896, and began traveling for the SVM once again, including another period in the South, where he raised funds for his own posting abroad. He had heard much about the revered missionary Calvin Mateer, who had established a small school in Shantung,* China, in the 1860s. By the 1890s it had grown to include a college for Chinese converts to Christianity. Mateer was an important spokesman for combining evangelism with efforts at education and social improvement, and his progressive image of missionary work matched Luce’s own generally modernist sensibility. Luce requested assignment to work with Mateer in China.12
On a visit home to Scranton, he met Elisabeth Root, an attractive, well-educated, somewhat reserved young woman who had grown up in Utica, New York, in an unhappy middle-class family blighted by divorce. She was operating a hostel for factory girls run by the YWCA—a classic Social Gospel project. She met Harry at a weekday prayer service, and their mutual attraction was almost immediate. Although Elisabeth did not share Luce’s exuberantly evangelistic temper, she was a woman of deep and active faith (“very religious,” a daughter-in-law once recalled of her, not altogether kindly). In later years she often sent her children long letters consisting entirely of prayers copied from religious tracts. Her earnest charm attracted Luce; his energy and faith attracted her. They were married on June 1, 1897 (in the Presbyterian church Harry had attended through most of his life and in which he had been formally ordained less than two weeks before). Three months later, after the SVM persuaded James Linen, a Luce family friend in Scranton, to pledge one thousand dollars to support the young couple, Harry and Elisabeth sailed for China, having already conceived their first child.13
The opportunities for missionaries in China were a great deal more expansive when Harry and Elisabeth arrived there in 1897 than they had been a generation before. The Western imperial powers—particularly Britain, Germany, France, and the United States—had wrested new concessions from the feeble provincial governments and the even feebler imperial court in Beijing. They had built more railroads, established more businesses, and in some areas—especially Shanghai—created whole urban districts built and populated by Europeans. It was much easier, and seemingly much safer, for Westerners to move around China than it had been earlier in the century.
But missionaries had made contributions of their own to the expansion of their enterprise. Discouraged by their inability to win converts through evangelization alone, they set out to build schools and colleges and to create missionary compounds, where Western clergy could find communities of like-minded people with whom to live. Shantung, in northeast China, was a particularly attractive destination for Western missionaries, with its long coastline and its important ports. It was one of China’s most densely populated regions (even after the departure or death of four million people after floods and famines earlier in the nineteenth century). The growing presence of prosperous German and British businesses eased the lives of missionaries, but it did little to alleviate the great poverty of the vast majority of the Chinese population. The wretchedness of most of the province reinforced the Westerners’ belief that they must work to lift China out of its backwardness and into their own modern world.14
The Luces joined Calvin Mateer in the small Christian college he had established at Tengchow, on the Shantung coast. (Their friend Horace Pitkin, now married and a father, was several hundred miles west in Paotingfu—separated from them by a slow and arduous journey that prevented regular visits, although they joined one another on a seaside vacation in the summer of 1898.) The Tengchow college was a modest place: a walled compound containing a little church, a small observatory, and a few red-brick buildings, among them some spartan homes shared by several missionary families. Both Luces set out quickly to learn the Chinese language, since Mateer himself had been something of a pioneer among missionaries both in learning Chinese and in translating the Bible into the language. Harry learned Mandarin without tremendous difficulty. But Elisabeth did not. Her letters to friends at home described days devoted almost entirely to prayer, Bible reading, and above all “Chinese study,” often three times a day for a total of six to seven hours. For all her agonizing efforts, however, she never developed any real facility in the language, perhaps because of her partial deafness, the result of a childhood attack of scarlet fever. She finally gave up language study and focused her energies on her household. She was known to the other missionaries, according to friends, as “wickedly clean” and a “great house-keeper,” which to Anglo-Americans in China—as in much of the Victorian middle class in America and England—generally meant managing the household staff effectively. Her Chinese servants (with whom she could barely converse) “always looked better than any of the rest. She had them keep their garments clean and no wrinkles.” She was also a voracious reader, and as her enthusiasm for studying Chinese faded, she spent more and more time reading the Western literature that she and her neighbors had brought with them and shared with one another.15
Harry was a dynamo almost from the moment he arrived in Tengchow. His reverence for Mateer, nurtured from afar, increased on exposure to him, a tall, imposing man with a great white beard, reminiscent of an Old Testament figure who both inspired and intimidated. But even more than Mateer, Luce exhorted the small missionary community to take education more seriously. Evangelization alone would win few converts to the faith, he argued. Only by demonstrating Christianity’s capacity to improve the conditions of life could Westerners hope to draw larger numbers of Chinese into the faith. His own first assignment at the college was a course on physics—a subject he had never previously studied, and which he had to teach in a language he was only just learning. He plunged into the task with the same enthusiasm and commitment he brought to nearly everything he did.16
In these first months, as throughout Luce’s long career in China, he met resistance from less enthusiastically progressive missionaries. Many of them believed that no reform was possible until after the triumph of Christianity, and saw little hope of improving conditions in China except through conversion. Such views had theological origins. They also had social roots—the discouragement of missionaries who found the Chinese elite almost wholly resistant to them, which left the Westerners little choice but to work with the poor and uneducated. It was no wonder, perhaps, that some began to develop a real contempt for the people they were trying to help. Such views found expression in the widely read book Chinese Characteristics, published in 1894 by the American missionary Arthur H. Smith. In building his argument that the Chinese were essentially irredeemable within their present culture, Smith presented a numbingly contemptuous portrait of them in chapters titled “The Disregard of Time,” “The Disregard of Accuracy,” “The Talent for Misunderstanding,” “Contempt for Foreigners,” “The Absence of Public Spirit,” “The Absence of Sympathy,” and “The Absence of Sincerity.” But his most important critique was of China’s spiritual weakness: “Its absolute indifference to the profoundest spiritual truths in the nature of man is the most melancholy characteristic of the Chinese mind,” he concluded. “In order to reform China the springs of character must be reached and purified…. What China needs is righteousness,” and that need “will be met permanently, completely, only by Christian civilization.” Smith and others drew encouragement from the substantial increase in Chinese converts in the last decades of the nineteenth century: from a few hundred in 1850 to one hundred thousand in 1900, an increase that could not be explained by any significant improvement in social conditions. That remained a tiny percentage of China’s nearly half-billion population, and it seemed likely that not even all the ostensible converts really understood what conversion to Christianity meant. Even so, some missionaries argued that if conversions continued to increase exponentially at the same rate by which they had grown since 1870, China would be a predominantly Christian nation within a generation or two. Luce did not share their optimism. Conditions in China were so bad, he said, that it was irresponsible to focus on conversion alone. He believed, rather, in respecting Chinese culture and religion while at the same time educating and elevating the Chinese to Western levels. If such efforts were successful, Luce’s students might decide on their own to embrace Christianity.17
But even he did not fully understand the volatility of Chinese society and the precariousness of the missionary project. The Luce family’s arrival in Shantung had roughly coincided not only with the crumbling of the Qing dynasty and the collapse of local political authority, but also with the rise in northern China of a large, secret, paramilitary society that (not without reason) blamed China’s troubles on Westerners and pledged itself to purge the nation of “foreign devils.” It called itself the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists, but it was known to Westerners as the “Boxers” (because of its emphasis on martial arts). Its members were mostly poor peasants, coolies, and destitute former soldiers. They had no strong leaders, few weapons, and modest resources, but they did have a fervent commitment to their cause and a fanatical belief that they were invulnerable to bullets. In 1899, less than two years after the Luces arrived in Shantung, the Boxers staged a murderous rebellion. They rampaged through towns and cities, killing whatever Westerners they could find (mostly missionaries, about 135 in all) as well as a much larger number of Chinese converts to Christianity—perhaps as many as thirty thousand, nearly a third of the total. One of their victims was Horace Pitkin. In the absence of his family, who were visiting relatives in America, he had refused to flee from Paotingfu with other missionaries. “We must sit still, do our work—and then take whatever is sent us quietly,” he wrote a friend. He was captured and killed by the Boxers, who then paraded his corpse through the streets.18
The Luces were more prudent, and also more fortunate, than Horace Pitkin, since Tengchow was on the Shantung coast. The family stole away from the missionary compound after dark one night. Guided by their Chinese nurse, they raced through nearby fields and arrived (still in darkness) at the docks, where a ship was waiting to take them and other refugees first to the Chinese port city Chefoo (now Yangtai) and then to Korea, where they stayed until after the rebellion was finally and brutally suppressed. In the summer of 1900 a combined force of European, American, and Japanese troops descended on Beijing to rescue a group of Western diplomats under siege in their walled compound, crushed the Boxers, and—in a rampage of their own—killed many other Chinese in the process. They then extracted reparations and further concessions from the now permanently crippled imperial government, which survived for only another twelve years with minimal authority.19
Some of the missionaries who had survived the Boxers were, for a while, consumed with vengeance and indeed seemed at times as bloodthirsty as the Boxers themselves. They exhorted the Western troops to punish the Chinese even more ferociously than they already had; a few actually joined the soldiers and led them to people they believed had been instrumental in fomenting the rebellion. There were even reports of missionaries looting Chinese homes to compensate themselves for their own lost property. Although such incidents were probably rare, the American press made much of them and, in the process, tarnished the image of the missionaries in the United States and Britain. At the same time, however, the martyrdom of the murdered Christians aroused many American evangelicals, and a large new wave of missionaries began flowing into China in the first years after the rebellion.20
Luce returned to China deeply shaken by Pitkin’s death and chastened by the evidence the rebellion had given of the frailty of the missionary enterprise. But he was not one of those who called for vengeance. Instead he became more than ever determined to understand the Chinese and to help them improve their society. He began agitating immediately to move the college inland from its remote location on the coast to the provincial capital, Tsinan, where it could become a much more visible and important presence in the life of Shantung. Because of lack of funds and inadequate resolve among his colleagues, he was forced to compromise. The theological school and the primary and secondary schools remained in Tengchow. Only the medical college moved to Tsinan. But in 1904 the arts and sciences college, in which Luce taught, moved to Wei Hsien, a more central area in the interior, where it had access to a much larger local population. It could not have been lost on the members of the college that their new, well-fortified compound—which they shared with an English Baptist missionary community—was built near the site of an earlier mission station that had been destroyed by the Boxers.21
Luce had a compelling reason to flee the Boxers in 1900 and to conciliate the Chinese on his return: He was now a father. His first child, a son, was born on April 3, 1898, and was baptized soon after by Mateer (in a Presbyterian ceremony conducted in Chinese) as Henry Robinson Luce. His middle name was chosen in honor of the Luce family’s pastor in Scranton. Like his father, he was always known as Harry.22
Harry and Elisabeth were besotted by their new baby, and like many parents attributed to him from the beginning characteristics of brilliance, even greatness. Elisabeth, in particular, focused almost constant attention on the infant. She kept a journal of his development (“Nov. 11 baby got up in crib—2 or 3 days before he was 8 mos old”); and she drew sketches of his room noting the position of furniture and the locations of his favorite toys. Her preoccupation with her son did not prevent her from hiring a Chinese nurse, or amah, to look after the child, who taught him his first words, in Chinese. (It was the amah who arranged for the family’s escape to Korea during the Boxer Rebellion, at what must have been considerable danger to herself.)23
Back in Tengchow after their fearful months in exile, the Luces became even more preoccupied with young Harry and began educating him in the home (like most other missionary families) at the age of three. By the time he was five he was already writing simple letters (almost certainly with his mother’s help) to his frequently absent father (“I will be glad when you get home…. I think the new testament better than the old”) and copying out prayers in his notebooks. The unsurprising ubiquity of religion in the home and the community shaped the child’s early life. Just as young American children in other places might imitate baseball players or cowboys, Harry mimicked the clergy, who were almost the only adult males he knew. Listening to sermons was one of the most eagerly anticipated activities in mission communities; and at the age of four Harry began delivering his own impromptu sermons occasionally while standing on a barrel in front of his house, no doubt borrowing from those he had heard in church.24
Young Harry was soon joined by two sisters, Emmavail, born in 1900 (just weeks before the family fled to Korea), and Elisabeth, born in 1904. Five years later the last of the Luce children, Sheldon, was born. Harry, however, remained the center of the family’s world. He was the eldest child and (until he was eleven and away at school) the only boy. His father was often away, and during his absences, young Harry was the only male in a family of women, and the consistent focus of their attention.25
To a notable degree, family life in the missionary compound resembled that of middle-class Victorian America or England. When the family moved in 1904 to Wei Hsien, where the college built a more substantial but still relatively modest walled compound, the Luces lived in makeshift quarters—as they had in Tengchow—until they were finally able to move into a new, comfortable two-story house (financed for them by a patron in the United States) with broad, sloping roofs and wide verandas. They filled it with Western furniture, decorative items, and household goods—including the white damask tablecoths and napkins they invariably used for their meals and for the lavish afternoon teas Elisabeth liked to prepare. Their income was small but vastly greater than that of all but a few Chinese, so they were able to afford a substantial staff of servants—at times as many as six—who relieved both the children and their mother of household chores. Instead they spent their time in lessons. Elisabeth was their first teacher, and she continued to involve herself closely with the children’s education until they went away to school. After a time, however, the Luces hired a severe German governess, a reflection of the turn-of-the-century conviction that German scholarship was the best in the world. Young Harry, who thought governesses were inappropriate for boys, rebelled, and so his mother took over much of his instruction again. When not engaged in lessons, the children prayed and studied the Bible with their parents, or gathered to hear their mother read to them from her growing library of English poetry and fiction.26
Despite the exotic surroundings it was an extraordinarily insular life. Outside the compound were the fetid villages and devastated landscapes of a desperately poor region. Harry’s sister Elisabeth later recalled being able to look out her second-story window, over the walls (on the tops of which broken glass had been carefully scattered to discourage intruders), at a barren landscape stretching as far as she could see. Virtually all the trees had been cut down for firewood or building supplies. Only in the cemeteries—sacred places where trees could not be touched—was it possible to see any greenery. Inside the compound were the neatly tended homes and gardens of a middle-class Anglo-American community. There were even rows of trees, many of them planted and lovingly tended by the senior Harry Luce. The Luce children found friends among the sons and daughters of the other missionaries. There were about a dozen boys roughly the same age as Harry, with whom he often played tennis (on the college’s one clay court) and other games.27
It was a world of greater social and intellectual homogeneity than anything its inhabitants could have experienced in America or England; a world of like-minded men and women, most of them well educated and from upper-middle-class backgrounds, engaged in common pursuits and focused on shared interests. The contrast between the ordered, harmonious world of the missionary compound and the harsh physical and social landscape outside it reinforced the assumptions driving the missionary project: the unquestioned belief in the moral superiority of Christianity and in the cultural superiority of Western culture; the commitment to showing the way to Christ, but also—for Henry W. Luce and many other missionaries—a commitment to creating in China a modern, scientific social order based on the American and European models.
Except for the servants who cleaned their houses and cooked their meals (preparing primarily Western food), the children had virtually no contact with the Chinese. Their occasional excursions outside the compound were carefully supervised sightseeing tours; and even when Harry was old enough to venture out alone or with his friends—on his own, prized donkey—he tended to ride through the countryside, not the town, exploring the landscape, not the people. Later, writing from school in America, he urged his parents to let his seven-year-old brother, Sheldon, see more of China than he himself had done. “I feel that I made a great mistake in not exploring Wei Hsien as thoroughly as I explored the meaningless wheat fields and grave mounds for miles around the compound,” he confessed. “I don’t know enough about Chinese mercantile life, and I know nothing about their social life aside from the formal feasts and holidays. For instance, what do Chinese talk about over their pipes?” He also knew little of the language. Whatever Chinese he had picked up from his amahs as a young child he had largely lost even before he left for America. He never retrieved very much of it despite his lifelong passion for the country.28
Members of the missionary community, even more than their counterparts in England and America, cherished the rituals of Western culture. The American families celebrated the Fourth of July with great exuberance, preparing large feasts (including big tubs of ice cream, a rarity in China) and accumulating large stores of Chinese firecrackers for the occasion. (Harry later expressed “utter contempt” when—away at school in another part of China—American students failed to celebrate the Fourth. “Has patriotism fallen to this degraded state?” he complained.) The British missionaries staged somewhat more sedate but similarly elaborate observances of the king’s birthday. Throughout the year Harry and his father pored over the British newspaper from Shanghai, which usually arrived in Wei Hsien many weeks after publication; and they read avidly about the dynamic presidency of Theodore Roosevelt (almost the only American news the British editors chose to report). They developed an intense admiration for Roosevelt that neither ever wholly abandoned. He seemed to embody the same energy, enthusiasm, and progressive optimism that characterized Henry W. Luce and that he sought to instill in his son.29
Missionaries were avid consumers of Western goods, despite their Far Eastern location and their relatively spartan surroundings. The Luces were passionate readers of magazines. Harry commented years later on “the importance of Ladies’ Home Journal to my mother, and the Outlook to my father, and The World’s Work, and then St. Nicholas to me.” They pored intently over the elephantine Montgomery Ward catalog when it arrived each year, spending days planning their annual order (which, because it would arrive nearly a year later, required estimating the children’s clothing sizes many months in advance). When the shipment finally came the children took a day off from lessons to open the large cases and to revel in the luxury of their new possessions. There was also tremendous anticipation at Christmas, when large crates of gifts arrived from American relatives, often weeks before the holiday. Harry’s sister Elisabeth remembered the lavish hats she sometimes received from America and the thrill she had as a little girl wearing them to Sunday services and on holidays. Harry recalled the tennis rackets and other sports equipment—and most of all the books.30
In the summers the family decamped to Tsingtao, on the Shantung coast, and vacationed in a small bungalow on a dramatic point, Iltus Huk, outside the city at the foot of sharply rising mountains looking out over the sea. Around them were other American and English vacationers, with whom the children swam on the broad, attractive beach and with whom Harry played enthusiastic tennis. Mostly, however, the family spent time with one another—reading English novels aloud, listening to the parents play music (she the piano, he the violin), and writing long letters to friends and relatives in America. Young Harry remembered these months as the happiest of his childhood, and after his return to America in 1912 daydreamed frequently about building for himself “a summer home out on the extreme end of Iltus Huk.”31
After five years in China, Henry W. Luce had established himself as one of the most assertive and energetic members of the college faculty. And because he had been the principal force behind the move from Tengchow to Wei Hsien, it was not surprising, perhaps, that his colleagues looked to him to raise money to support the expensive new venture. And so in early 1906 the entire Luce family boarded a ship in Shanghai—the first large city young Harry had ever seen—and sailed, second class, to San Francisco, where they began an eighteen-month sojourn in the United States—a trip young Harry had been eagerly anticipating for over a year. “I come to America in one year from now,” he wrote a family friend in Scranton, whom he had, of course never met. “Tell my other friends [whom he also knew only through correspondence] that I can hardly wait one year till I go to America and see them.”32
They traveled first down the California coast, spending several weeks in the still-modest city of Los Angeles, where the young Harry suffered through bouts of, first, measles (which all his sisters contracted as well) and then malaria. When the children recovered, the family headed east, stopping in Chicago to rejoin Henry senior, who had already been traveling for weeks raising money. There they visited, among others, a woman who would play a significant role in the family’s life: Nettie Fowler McCormick. She was the enormously wealthy and deeply religious widow of Cyrus McCormick, the creator of the great farm-machine company. She had long been active in the Presbyterian Church and was a significant donor to the missionary movement. She took an immediate liking to the Luces, and to young Harry in particular. At one point she proposed that he be left in Chicago with her, even (according to his parents’ later accounts) that she be allowed to adopt him, a shocking suggestion that the senior Luces politely declined and did not reveal to their son until many years later. Apparently unoffended, she found other ways to assist the family. She established a trust fund to supplement their modest missionary society income, and she paid for the construction of the comfortable home they built in Wei Hsien. She retained an interest in the family, and in young Harry, for the rest of her life.33
Harry spent most of this first visit to the United States in Scranton, living with friends and relatives of his father and attending, for the only time in his life, an American public school. His adult memories of that early visit, which began when he was seven and ended when he was nine, were luminous if not detailed. Until his visit Harry had known relatively little about America other than the idealized image of it that his father and other missionaries created to justify their own work. America to him began not as a physical place, not as the diverse and contentious culture it actually was, but as a model and an ideal. And so when he finally arrived, he seemed to view the real America through the prism of his expectations. He was “overwhelmed,” he later recalled, by the wealth and stability and comfort of the United States, by how much more “civilized” it seemed than China, by how much more educated and knowledgeable its people appeared to be. He was desperate to learn as much about his newfound homeland as he could. He began collecting and studying railway timetables, memorizing schedules and stops, even inventing new timetables of his own to get him to places he wanted to visit—part of an almost frantic effort to inhale the experience so that he could remember it all once he was back in China.34
The trip to America was the beginning of what became an increasingly important, and wholly unanticipated, part of Henry W. Luce’s life: fund-raising for the Christian mission in China. While the family stayed in Scranton he traveled almost constantly, searching for donors and presenting his vision of a Christian educational community in Asia. He was very good at it, perhaps to his surprise, and soon became comfortable befriending wealthy patrons and persuading them of the importance of his work. It was the first of many such trips he would take over the next twenty years. His frequent absences contributed to his many disappointments in China—particularly his failure to win the presidency of the Shantung Christian College, whose growth he had done so much to enable. “He had to spend most of his life as a money-raiser … which is of all jobs the worst job,” his son Harry recalled years later, “and so in this sense God was not kind to him.” But that was the son’s view, not necessarily the father’s. The elder Harry’s indomitable optimism seldom permitted regrets or self-pity.35
On his return to Wei Hsien in 1908, young Harry—eager to maintain his now-severed link with his homeland—sent a letter to St. Nicholas, the popular children’s magazine to which he had become devoted in Scranton, describing his life as an American abroad. It was his first published work. “I am a boy born in China,” he wrote. “I live in the country near Weihsien (Way Shen) city, in a compound or big yard about two blocks large. There are eight dwelling houses, a boys’ and girls’ school, a college, a big church, and two hospitals…. I think you are fine.” But Harry’s comfortable life in China was about to change dramatically, for in the fall after the family’s return he left home for boarding school.36
There were few educational options for Western children in Shantung, and Harry’s parents had little choice but to send him to the China Inland Missionary School, known to its students by the name of the town in which it was located—Chefoo (the same port city from which the Luces had fled to Korea during the Boxer Rebellion). Chefoo was a British boarding school, and the combination of the limited amenities available in Shantung and the stern educational philosophy of Victorian English schools made it a harsh, unforgiving place—with terrible food, almost no heat, and stern masters who regularly caned students for not keeping up with their lessons.37
Harry loathed it. He was ten years old, separated from his family for the first time, and distanced from his classmates by his American-ness (80 percent of the students were British) and by a painful stammer, which he had recently (and perhaps traumatically) developed. He complained to his parents about the “downright detestable loathsome filthy clammy food,” and he wrote yearningly to his mother with detailed descriptions of what he wanted her to cook for him when he came home (“1. Lintle [sic] soup 2. Roast chicken 3. Sort of a crisp potato that is served around the roast 4. Beans 5. Carrots or Beats [sic] 6. Rice (good home kind) 7. Chocolate Pudding, you know the kind I like”). He complained about the cold, about the mosquitoes, about the teachers, about the other students (his roommate, he said, was “selfish, saucy, bossy and more over ignorant”).38
Most of all he complained of loneliness. Desperately homesick, he wrote his parents constantly begging them to let him come back to Wei Hsien. “I think I could learn much more in either a small school or by myself,” he pleaded. “I would not fall behind in lessons at all,” he promised, “and I don’t think I would take up your time very much.” “There are 63 more days which equals 9 weeks exactly,” he wrote early in his second year. “How sweet twill be when there are 0 more days which equals 0 wks. It is then and only then that I will be at the least happy.” He made strained efforts to reassure his parents even as he tried to alarm them: “Don’t get worried about me, remember this chorus as I have: ‘God will take care of you thro’ every day…. He will take care of you, He will take care of you.’” Sometimes, however—as in a particularly anguished letter in 1910—his misery was so intense that he lost all restraint: “Everything is going as usual but not very well. It sort of seems to hang on not in spells of homesickness but a hanging torture, I well sympathise with prisoners wishing to commit suicide.” Weeks later, apparently in response to worried letters from his parents or to rebukes from Chefoo faculty (“Mrs. Fitch asks why I write such blue letters home”) he wrote again: “I can never forgive myself if I have in any way worried you.” The faculty’s apparent intrusion into students’ personal mail was likely another of Harry’s many grievances, and he combined the apology with bitter sarcasm: “I meant only to impress upon you how much I liked the school, its freedom, good diet, splendid and learned professors.” In another letter, he proclaimed, “I am getting that hatred of which I will never get over even tho I was here hundreds of years.” His parents naturally agonized over his unhappiness and at one point allowed him to leave school and return home for part of a term. But neither his mother nor anyone else in the compound was capable of teaching Harry at the level of Chefoo, and so he reluctantly returned.39
His willingness to go back to school was almost certainly driven by his ambition. The homesickness and the loneliness, in the end, did not paralyze him. On the contrary, they seemed to help spur the emergence of an extraordinary drive for achievement and success that would characterize the whole of his life. In his years at Chefoo he struggled constantly for distinction. He yearned to be first in his class. “I think I have again retained my place in form,” he wrote, “though am almost positive that, excluding drawing, I would be 2nd. At least I have the satisfaction that there is only one better student in the Form than myself…. I know that I ought to be content with nothing less than first place but somehow I feel its [sic] different here.” He became a stalwart debater, despite his stammer, which he was determined to conquer. “We took the side that was unanimously esteemed the worst and didn’t prepare a thing,” he boasted to his parents, “and won by a vote of 15–3. It must be remembered that we didn’t prepare a bit, that two of the votes were lost because my friend Smith drew a comparison between Jews and Scotch!” He tried to excel at sports. (“My game is tennis, so I must practis and practis [sic] to become a good player…. I am the 2 best server in the school.”) He sought positions of leadership. (“I am now permanent “leader-of-boys-to-Union-Chapel—quite a distinction is it not?”)40
He did not just strive to succeed. He also analyzed his achievements in almost obsessive detail, comparing himself with other boys and reveling in his small competitive triumphs. (“My years [sic] ambition has been accomplished, that is to lick Hayes [in class rank]…. For this year I have made the form record in going up places, that is 8 places.”) And he offered detailed explanations for his occasional failures, explanations that almost always absolved him of blame for them. “In my writing I am really 66%, not 54,” he explained after one disappointing grade. “I was cheated out of 12%.” Another low grade, he explained, was from a teacher who “gives everybody low marks.” Toward the end of his years at Chefoo he wrote of his efforts and ambitions: “I have continued in work, literature, music, about as usual getting a rub off here and taking an edge off there, each moment making me nearer or farther from man’s chief goal—perfection.”41
In later years Harry sometimes spoke warmly of the “primitive little school,” even saying at one point that “by far the most valuable education I ever got I got there.” But at the time, while he learned to tolerate the place and even to excel there, he never ceased to despise it, never stopped counting the days until his vacations, and never stopped imploring his parents—to whom his letters home must have been a source of continuing anguish—to rescue him.42
Harry had no memory of huddling in Chefoo in 1900 with his family, waiting to be rescued from the Boxers. But he never forgot his exposure to the Chinese Revolution of 1911, which raged around him during his final year at school and transformed the nation’s history.
The Qing imperial dynasty had governed China since 1644, but it had become increasingly enfeebled during the nineteenth century as European, Japanese, and American intruders seized control of more and more of China’s land and trade and wrested increasing authority from the imperial court. The dynasty’s fortunes worsened considerably beginning in 1898, when ministers eager to restore the moral authority of the court persuaded a new young emperor, Guangxu, to issue a series of reform decrees. He was quickly arrested and interned in a coup d’état orchestrated by his aunt, the powerful and devious empress dowager Cixi, who then executed six of the reform leaders. The following year Cixi encouraged the Boxers to attack the foreign legations in Beijing, and the disastrous aftermath of that rash decision—the invasion and looting of the city by Western forces—compelled her to flee the capital and to make devastating new concessions to the invaders. For the rest of her life she presided over a crippled and unstable government, rocked repeatedly by uprisings and challenged by increasingly assertive reformers. She died in 1908, having murdered her nephew, the still-imprisoned emperor, shortly before. She was succeeded by the three-year-old Xuantong (known later as Pu Yi) amid a growing clamor for a constitutional monarchy. Pu Yi’s ministers responded with some transparently token reforms but did little to restore the power of the dynasty.
The weakness and continuing intransigence of the Qing court strengthened the appeal of the great Chinese revolutionary leader of the early twentieth century: Sun Yat-sen, who helped inspire a wave of uprisings in 1911 that soon spread through most of the country. By the beginning of 1912 revolutionary forces controlled fifteen of China’s twenty-four provinces, and Sun had proclaimed himself president of a new Chinese republic. Within a few weeks the emperor abdicated—bringing to an end not only the Qing dynasty but two thousand years of Chinese imperial history.
To progressive Westerners in China like the Luces, the fall of the Qing dynasty and the triumph of Sun’s revolutionary movement (now a political party—the Kuomintang) was a sign of the nation’s emergence into the modern world. Harry watched it from Chefoo with a combination of anxiety, wide-eyed curiosity, and excitement. “How about the revolution?” he wrote his parents in October. “Don’t things go like a streak! It is about Shanghai’s turn now. I guess nothing of real seriousness will happen though.” By February the uprising had spread to Shantung and was even visible in his own school. The Chinese servants demanded a twofold increase in their salaries and walked out when the headmaster refused. “The older boys [Harry among them] have had to do all the work,” he reported home. Harry was more concerned, however, about reports of violence against missionaries in the North. He wrote his parents: “Isn’t it terrible about the burning of the mission houses at Paotingfu” (a place of unhappy significance for the Luces, since it was where Horace Pitkin had died at the hands of the Boxers). “Of course nothing of that kind will happen at Wei Hsien,” he added, probably to reassure himself as much as to comfort his family.43
But while Harry expressed fleeting concern about the “slightly belligerent tinge” of the atmosphere around him, he left no doubt as to where his sympathies lay. “The smoldering embers of this tremendous Revolution are still glowing in the obscure light of this port,” he wrote to a family friend visiting his parents in Wei Hsien. “Please excuse this poor attempt at welcoming you to a great land, peopled by a great nation, endowed with a great past, overshadowed by a greater future.” He told friends in Scranton: “This revolution sends a ray of hope down China’s broadening future.” Even three decades later he referred to the events of 1911–12 as one of the great moments in China’s (and his own) life. In the aftermath of their “long and bloody revolution,” he recalled, the Chinese did not “revolt against their civilization.” Instead, “as I was privileged to see … they embarked upon a Reformation. It may turn out to be the greatest and most stupendous Reformation in all history.”44
On the whole, however, Harry spent more time in 1912 thinking about his own future than thinking about China’s. In August he left Chefoo for good—leaving behind the “drudgery and dissatisfaction” and celebrating the arrival of what he called “the first day of freedom’s august star.” Only three months later, after a last, treasured summer vacation at Iltus Huk, he was boarding a ship in Shanghai to begin a long journey back to America, alone.45
It was common for English and American boys in China to travel home at fourteen to begin boarding school, and virtually all of Harry’s classmates at Chefoo spent much of their last year planning for the change. Harry had always expected to attend Yale, like his father, but there was no family tradition to dictate the choice of a boarding school. The senior Luce turned to one of his own former teachers for advice: Walter Buell, who had once headed the School of the Lackawanna in Scranton but by 1912 was a teacher at the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Connecticut. Almost all its graduates went on to Yale. Buell arranged for Harry to receive a scholarship, for the Luces’ missionary income was far too small for the tuition at Hotchkiss. He was invited to enroll in the fall of 1913. Hotchkiss may also have been attractive to the avid Presbyterian Rev. Luce because, unlike many other elite prep schools, it was not tied to the Episcopal Church. In the meantime, the family decided, Harry would spend the better part of a year in Europe—much of it at a school in England whose headmaster was reputed to have had great success in helping boys overcome their stuttering.46
The months before his departure must have been as emotional a period as this reticent, prematurely self-possessed boy had ever experienced. Although he repeated all the rituals of family and vacation that he had treasured through his childhood, he was almost certainly aware that he was experiencing them all for the last time: the joyous welcome home at Wei Hsien, the donkey rides through the countryside, the idyllic holiday at Iltus Huk, the family evenings of reading aloud and listening to his parents play music, the long talks with his father. Late in October he said good-bye to his mother, his sisters, and his younger brother (who was only three and who would have virtually no childhood memories of Harry: “Passing ships,” he later described their relationship). He traveled by railroad to Shanghai to meet his father, who would escort him to his ship.47
Along the way he began what would soon become an almost ritualistic chronicling of his life for his distant family, composing letters describing his experiences and, in the process, practicing his skills as a writer. “Today we saw … great quantities of beans. They must have had a fine crop here though the people have a very disreputable look, I must say,” he wrote in his first letter home, only a day after his departure. From Nanking, where he stopped for several days with a missionary family, he wrote excitedly of having seen the “various spots connected with the late Revolution—the place where Gen’l Dyang stood—the forts of the Shantung soldiers etc.” He spoke even more excitedly of having met two American boys who were, like him, “planning to go to Hotchkiss on the scholarship plan (tho’ from the appearance of their home I don’t see how they can justify a plea for a scholarship) & of course eventually I suppose they will both land up in Yale.” And from Shanghai he reported that his father had arranged for him to sail on November 9 on the Prinz Eitel Friedrich, a German steamer. He would be under the care of an English missionary family heading home, and he would arrive in Southampton “just in time to see a London Xmas.”48
No record survives of Harry’s last few days with his father in Shanghai, but it is not hard to imagine the intensity of their conversations as they prepared for this momentous parting. Already, during Harry’s years at Chefoo, he and his father had established a pattern of long-distance intimacy that would characterize their relationship for many years. While young Harry was writing his meticulous and sometimes anguished descriptions of everyday life in school, his father was responding with detailed “advice letters” about how to study, which courses to take, how to deal with his friends, and even—as the boy approached puberty—how to handle his sexual maturity. (In one letter he urged Harry to discourage “your friends” from developing the “very bad habits” of “playing with their private parts.” Such a habit, he warned, “inevitably ruins their physical and mental strength to say nothing of their spiritual life.”) “I hope you won’t think your father is preachy,” he wrote shortly after his son’s departure. “I hope you will always think of me as a dear companion to whom you may come freely with every problem or question…. It will not be easy for you to realize how I long to help you so that you will not make the mistakes that I did.”49
Nothing loomed larger in Harry’s childhood—and even through much of his adult life—than the image of his father’s moving determinedly through the world promoting good works and exhorting his son to do the same. In China the young boy had watched his father struggle, as he saw it, patiently and selflessly to improve the lives of his Chinese students and to persuade his missionary colleagues to pay more attention to the social conditions in Shantung. In America he had watched him travel constantly, exhaustingly, and uncomplainingly, raising money to support his great purpose. Even before he left China, Harry had begun to absorb his father’s seriousness, his ceaseless search for self-improvement, his energy, his ambition, his certainty of purpose. But what he wanted most to absorb—and what he spent much of his life reproaching himself for failing to acquire—was what he considered his father’s consistent virtuousness, his sheer “goodness.” Harry learned from his father to think of life as a great mission, to be judged by its contribution to the betterment of the world. But unlike his father, he also developed a considerable appetite for wealth, power, and worldly success. The tension between his own secular ambitions and the image of his proud, committed, ever-encouraging father, sacrificing himself for the good of others, was both the great inspiration and the great agony of his life.50
“I am now almost on the verge of another precipice,” he wrote his mother as he prepared to sail. “One was leaving home, another is the leaving of a homeland.” He was clearly excited, describing the new clothes he had purchased in Shanghai, the “excellent food,” the comfortable stateroom he would occupy in “what appears to be a fine part of second class,” and “the very nice crowd” of Americans, English, and Dutch of which he soon became a part. But he could not disguise the difficulty of the parting. “Well I am off at last—off the China boundaries. Sailing on the river, the one that leads to the sea,” he wrote as the docks on which he said his last farewells to his father slipped from his view. “I knew I would not be at home always & yet the parting that I know I want comes hard, it must be hard.”51
*I have chosen here not to use the modern transliteration of Chinese place-names. Instead (with the exception of Beijing and Shanghai), I have tried to use the Western place-names that Luce used in his own time. For the names of Chinese people known to Luce, I have used the traditional Wade-Giles form of Luce’s time (for example, Chiang Kai-shek, Sun Yat-sen), but pinyin for other historical names.