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My Dear Amelia: The Doty Letters from Amoy, Christian Parenthood, the Heathen Chinese, and the Missionary Enterprise

Ting Man Tsao, LaGuardia Community College, CUNY

My Dear Amelia: The Doty Letters from Amoy, Christian Parenthood, the Heathen Chinese, and the Missionary Enterprise@
Nineteenth-century Protestant missions in China, as in other regions, were essentially family enterprises composed of husband, wife, and children. Almost all of the missionaries were married, and the family became a de facto partnership in fulfilling daily responsibilities, developing and sustaining the missions. Constrained by the Victorian conception of the separate (and unequal) male and female spheres, the missionary family consisted of these key components: 1) husband engaged in such “manly” activities as leadership, exploration and publicity; 2) wife devoted to more “feminine,” more “stationary” work such as the education of Chinese women;@ and 3) children growing up to become model Christians for the heathen. Therefore, it is not surprising that following their opening by Western powers in the Opium War (1840-42), China’s treaty ports saw the arrival of married missionaries who had often brought with them children and/or later gave birth to new family members there.@
Important as it was, the family is usually not a key element of the traditional narratives of the missionary enterprise. It is usually the subplot of the stories of Western imperialism, the collusion of commercial and religious forces, the Qing government’s interferences, local resistance and acceptance, as well as cultural and linguistic barriers and assimilation.@ These accounts are certainly rich and informative, but they do not do justice to what men and women missionaries experienced as father and mother who had as much daily worry about the spread of God’s tidings as about the common things that might happen to their family (any family)—illness, death, separation, the caring of the young, etc.
One of such missing stories belongs to the family of Elihu Doty, an ordained minister of the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) in the United States.@ Following some disappointing work in Batavia (Jakarta), Singapore, and Borneo, Elihu Doty arrived in the treaty port Amoy (Xiamen), China in June 1844 with his wife, Clarissa D. Ackley, and two young children, Ferris Holmes and Clarissa Eliza. Shortly after their arrival, the Dotys lost Ferris Holmes, who was then only six years old. To compound his grief, Doty wrote in September 1845 that one of his DRC colleague’s wife had died in Amoy, and that his own wife, who had just given birth to Amelia Caroline in January 1845, was now “lying almost as helpless as an infant, on a bed of sickness, and I fear, must prove of death.”@ Ackley, who had taken advantage of her Chinese knowledge to organize meetings for women and establish an elementary school, finally succumbed to diarrhea and constant indigestion in October 1845. Her death dealt a blow not only to the family but also to the mission’s outreach to the female population.
Doty thereupon took the motherless children of his as well as those of his colleague back to America, where he arranged for Amelia’s adoption by Rev. John Dubois and left the other children with friends. Doty remarried and in August 1847 returned to Amoy with his second wife, Eleanor Augusta Smith, who gave birth to Edward Smith later in the same year. But premature deaths continued to haunt the Dotys. Barely seven months old, Edward died in July 1848. A decade later in 1858, Smith died (at 34) after giving birth to Elmira Louisa, who unfortunately survived her mother for just a few months. Before her death, Smith, who did not have any prior acquaintance with the Chinese language, had to acquire a higher level of competence before she eventually assumed the deceased Mrs. Doty’s duties. The passing of Smith thus struck another setback to the Amoy mission. Doty took his four children to the care of his wife’s parents and sister in the United States. He did not marry again and returned to China in 1861. Declining in health, Doty retired from China in 1864 and died upon arrival in America.
In what ways did the American family and the China mission relate? How did the missionaries’ commitment to their family, affected by a series of afflictions, on the one hand and their evangelism among the “heathen and wicked people” on the other intersect? These questions can hardly be answered by looking at the plethora of nineteenth-century publications by missionary societies and missionaries themselves, both of whom were, quite understandably, more interested in reporting the progress of official businesses than family affairs. It is toward the missionaries’ private writings, writings not intended for publication, that we should look. 
Culled from the dozens of letters in the Doty-Dubois Family Papers, 1846-65 (housed in the New York Public Library),@ the following personal correspondence sent from Amoy to New York should suggest some answers. Four of these letters were written by Doty to his young daughter Amelia, whom Rev. Dubois had just adopted, and the remaining letter was penned by Smith to Amelia’s adoptive mother, Mrs. Dubois. Spanning from 1848 to 1851, these archival sources, yet to be fully tapped by historians and literary scholars, document a difficult period of the Doty family. Addressed to someone as close as a daughter or her adoptive mother, the family letters were candidly written, providing a rare glimpse of how Christian parenthood actually played out in the “contact zone” between “heathen” China and Christian America.
At one level, these letters from afar are love letters showing that the Doty couple was ever thinking of their family, children, and friends in America (Letters 1-5), and providing updates on their life in Amoy and the development of their mission (particularly Letter 2). Of all their dear ones, the Dotys missed their young children the most, including the deceased ones. As Smith relates, the “precious Amelia” is “the subject of many thoughts and prayers” and the death of the seven-month-old son leaves “a cutting stroke to us, and the vacancy produced by it will long be felt” (Letter 2). And the deeper the Dotys’ love, the greater the pain caused by the separation from their far-away children, their inability to hug and kiss them but through the adoptive parents: “Give Ma and Pa Doty’s love to Pa and Ma [Dubois] and get from them many kisses from us” (Letter 5). Besides expressing his love, Doty, as absentee father, also loses no time in teaching Amelia about the importance of seeking “a new heart” and reminding her to pray for her sister in New York and love and obey “Pa and Ma Dubois” (Letters 1, 3, and 5).
At the other level, the correspondence contains evangelical statements in which Doty constructs his martyrdom, a common missionary theme, on the sacrifices that not only he but also his family and children have to make for the sake of the Amoy mission. As the missionary explains to Amelia, the reason “why Pa and Ma Doty are so far away in China” is that “the Chinese are very ignorant and wicked people who do not love God nor Jesus” (Letter 4). Much as the father “would love to see Amelia and know just how she looks, just how tall she is and hear just how she talks and reads and all these things,” he cannot do so but devotes himself to teaching “such foolish heathen” “about God and how to save their precious souls” (Letter 5).
At yet another level, the letters are replete with unequivocal distinctions between Christians and the heathen Chinese, between superiority and inferiority. For Smith, the nearly completed chapel in Amoy “contrasts beautifully with the low-dark-mud houses, by which it is so densely surrounded, and is a fitting and beautiful emblem of the superiority of the Christian religion, when compared with the moral darkness and degradation, in which so many are enveloped” (Letter 2). These Christian-pagan binaries also serve to construct moral lessons for Amelia as a “fortunate” child growing up in America. Unlike the Chinese children who “never hear about the God who made them … but only learn to worship dead idols and do just as their parents have done,” and unlike the “ignorant Chinese girls” who “are not taught to read,” Amelia, according to Doty, is “far better off” in “that happy land called America” (Letters 4 and 5). With God’s blessings there, Amelia “had not been sick and died as other children often are” but, instead, she “can read,” “grow good,” “every day pray to our Heavenly Father,” and, above all, “have a new heart” that is not like “theirs – all wicked” (Letters 3 and 5).
It is worth noting that the American missionary was not alone in constructing a happy Christian childhood in contrast to the poor lives of the heathen Chinese children. During the same period, as Henrietta Harrison points out, l’Oeuvre de la Sainte Enfance (the Holy Childhood Association) “promoted attractive images of the power of French Christian children over the pagan Chinese” in France.@ The comparison of a happy French childhood to the unfortunate Chinese abandoned child helped shift attention away from a series of domestic problems facing French children such as high child mortality and poverty.@ In the Dotys’ case, it was the pagan and illiterate Chinese child that should make Amelia feel “fortunate” despite her separation from her biological father and siblings, and despite the deaths of her biological mother and family members. It was indeed the same pagan child that helped create “that happy land called America” for Amelia regardless of the serious problems that were haunting many other American children of the time such as child labor, slavery, and poverty. Tellingly, both the French and the Dotys’ construction of a happy Christian childhood depended on a reduction of a wide range of childhoods in many different types of families in China—ranging from rural to urban, from literati to peasant, from rich to poor—into the most unfortunate pagan Chinese child as a human object to be pitied.
As we see, the levels of meanings in the Doty letters are interdependent and interrelated. In other words, parental love, family values and sacrifices, evangelism, missionary martyrdom, the Chinese other, and America “that happy land” were terms depending on one another to create meanings, meanings that in turn helped the Dotys rationalize the decisions they had made about their family and children and the Amoy mission.@ Their rationalization shows that the nineteenth-century American evangelical family was constructed as much on God-human and parent-child love as on the representation of the Chinese people as “foolish heathen.” After all, faith and family values were (and still are) part and parcel of the American political discourse as a “world leader.”
Like other manuscripts of the time, the Doty letters cannot be simply reduced to edited, type-written transcripts that appear below. What is lost from the following electronic texts or NINES exhibits is the materiality of the original handwritten letters as communication artifacts of the mid-nineteenth century. As such, the letters have two aspects that call for our attention—the method of their transmission and their physical characteristics. First, the letters were transmitted through the postal network known by contemporaries as the “Overland.”@ According to Jean R. Walton, Overland mail from China went first to Hong Kong to enter the British postal system, and from the colony “it went to Ceylon, where it transferred to a ship to Suez, traveling overland to Alexandria, thence by ship to Southampton. From there it went to London and then to Liverpool, where it was put on a ship to the U.S.”@ By reducing the sail time between Europe and India from several months to about one and a half month, the Overland Route was hailed as a communication revolution, superseding the traditional routes such as the Cape Route around Africa.@
The Dotys, however, did not share the same positive view of the Overland postal service. Unlike the wealthier China traders, the missionary family could not afford the postage rates; they had to send their private letters under cover of the bulky official mission correspondence and request that those letters be forwarded upon arrival in the United States.@ Besides the high postage, the Dotys also complained about the unreliability of the mail network. In a letter to Dubois (not transcribed below), Doty, who had been waiting anxiously for his friends’ mail, suspected a miscarriage of letters, fearing that “they have gone to the bottom of the ocean in a vessel bound from Hong Kong to this place.”@
The other material aspect of the Doty letters that needs discussing was their physical characteristics. Probably to avoid incurring extra postage for the mission, the Dotys used paper economically. All of the letters were written on thin, feather-light paper in order not to add too much weight to the mission’s package. Having less content, the letters addressed to the young Amelia (Letters 1, 3, and 4) are smaller in size than those addressed to Mrs. Dubois and Amelia when she was older (Letters 2 and 5). Approximately, the smaller letters measure 5 by 8 inches, and the regular adult letters, 8 by 10 inches. Like most other letters in the Doty-Dubois Family Papers, the letters transcribed below are completely “filled up” on both sides of the paper as though the Dotys did not want to waste any space, maximizing its use for communication with their daughter and her adoptive parents in New York. How then did all of these constraining, less-than-desirable postal and letter-writing conditions inform the Doty letters as multivalent expressions of Christian parenthood, the “othering” of the Chinese people, and the missionary enterprise? It is with this question in mind that we may begin to think beyond the shiny digitized texts on our computer screens and appreciate the following family letters in their historical contexts.