Reaping what one sows: the Swedish missionaries of Kashgar

Reaping what one sows: the Swedish missionaries of Kashgar

In the final days of the Qing Dynasty, Britain and Russian Empire contended for supremacy in Central Asia and had encroached upon the Chinese territory of Xinjiang. In the distant city of Kashgar — an important trade hub in southern Xinjiang —Britain and Russia built embassies that stood side by side, outside the city's northern gate.

As mentioned at the beginning of Chapter Three, an Englishman produced the Sketch Map of Kashgar (Image 39) in December 1908. This map is an extremely rare visual representation of the entire city of Kashgar at the end of the Qing Dynasty. It tells us that Kashgar was completely surrounded by city walls and had a shape similar to the pit of a fruit. The "Manchu settlement" (also surrounded by city walls) to the northwest of the city is an emulation of the former city of Laining from the reign of Emperor Guangxu. It is currently occupied by the Public Security Bureau of Kashgar.

Image 67: Old photo showing the exterior of the Swedish Mission in Kashgar

Furthermore, on the outskirts of the city, a little to the west of the southern gate, we can find the "Swedish Mission" and "Swedish Hospital". Unlike other Western powers, who had begun to colonize the east, Sweden had relatively little to do with China. And yet, funnily enough, a group of Swedish missionaries found their way to Kashgar, a distant hub of Islamic culture, where they would disseminate Christianity as best they could and build a hospital.

According to historical sources, the Swedish missionary N. F. Höijer arrived in Kashgar in 1892 and was followed two year later by a group of Swedish missionaries led by Reverend Lars Eric Högberg. Together, they spread the Christian gospel for 46 years, until they were finally forced to leave in 1938 as a result of warlords coming to power in Xinjiang.

Image 68: Member of the Swedish Mission (left) with an Uyghur family

In addition to being devoted preachers, these Western missionaries were also highly educated and skilled in a number of fields. During their time in Kashgar, they opened hospitals and schools, as well as printing a number of religious and cultural publications. When they weren't spreading the word of God, they would practice medicine and educate the masses.

The arrival of Western missionaries and Christianity further contributed to the multiculturalism of Xinjiang. However, one can only imagine just how difficult it would have been to preach Christianity in Kashgar, a historical center of Islamic culture in southern Kashgar. In the beginning, these missionaries felt great resistance from devoted Muslims and antagonism from the local people. Rumors began to spread throughout the community: some said that it was the missionaries' fault that there had been no rain or snow, while others accused them of poisoning the local water supply and trafficking children. One of the missionaries later recalled: "The first six year that we spent in Kashgar were undoubtedly the most arduous moments of my life. Every step we took was accompanied by hardships and resistance."

Image 69: Swedish missionary (center) at a printshop in Kashgar

Their efforts to spread Christianity could hardly be called successful. In the first ten years (from 1892-1902), they were only able to baptize three converts. By 1907 (15 years after their arrival), they had converted a total of nine people, four of whom were Muslims from Kashgar and Yarkand, while the other five were locals of Han descent. By 1912, they had only recruited 14 converts.

Given the lamentable state of their affairs, these Swedish missionaries were forced to change their methods of preaching Christianity. They took advantage of their academic backgrounds by offering medical services infused with Christian gospel. During the day, they would treat the ill at the hospital; while at night, they would read to them from the Bible. The missionaries hoped that this approach would dispel antagonism and open up new opportunities for them in Kashgar. It was with this hope in mind that they built the Swedish Hospital.

The missionaries' hospital introduced more efficient and humane healthcare to the city of Kashgar, which up until then had relatively primitive medical facilities. No one, whether rich or poor, was be turned away from the hospital. The former were asked to pay a small fee, while the latter could receive healthcare free of charge. This philanthropic approach made Kashgar's Swedish Hospital famous all throughout Xinjiang. Soon enough, the missionaries received an influx of patients and began to spend their entire days treating people. In 1919 alone, the hospital accommodated over 40 patients and treated as many as 12,000 people, while the resident doctors went on 860 home visits.

Image 70: "Southern Garrison Headquarters Currency" produced by the Swedish printshop

For instance, in Image 67, we can see several busy pedestrians in Kashgar's Swedish Mission. It is highly likely that these people have come to be treated, rather than pray. In other words, out of the Swedish expats' dual identities — missionary and doctor — the local people tended to have more respect for the latter.

In addition to providing healthcare, the Swedish missionaries also brought with them advanced printing equipment, with which they published a wealth of religious and cultural publications in the Uyghur language. From 1901 to 1911, they used a simple, hand-operated printer to print hymn books and religious propaganda, such as The Holy Story, The Path of Eternal Life and Eulogies and Songs.

However, the local population tended to be more appreciative of the missionaries' more practical texts — in particular, Gösta Raquette's calendar, which included both the Christian and Islamic systems, and featured selected passages from the Bible on each page.
In 1912, a batch of advanced printing equipment was transported from Sweden to Kashgar. This batch included a high-speed printer, an auxiliary printer, a paper cutter, a binder, as well as a number of fonts in Old Turkic, Latin, Uyghur and Chinese scripts. The press pictured in Image 69, which opened in 1912, was the only one to exist in southern Xinjiang prior to 1937.

This press printed a massive number of Christian books written in Uyghur, such as The Road to Salvation, The Doorway and the Corner, The Holy Story, An Easily Understood Version of the Holy Story, and Concise Christian Teachings for Muslims; as well as a vast quantity of basic educational resources, such as Arithmetic, Solving Arithmetic and Science (Questions), A Key to Arithmetic Textbooks, Health and Illness, Animals and People, Linguistics and Geographic Science. There were also a few texts for use in teaching industrial skills, such as Cultivating Silkworms and Production of Silk.

Many of these texts are direct translations in Uyghur of pre-existing Swedish books that the missionaries used while proselytizing. The missionaries also translated into Uyghur a song from their homeland, entitled The World is Beautiful, which they played on the piano and taught locals to sing. The charming music and useful knowledge contained in these publications were the Swedish missionaries' true gift to the local people.

Although their main mission was the spread Christianity throughout Xinjiang, the Swedish expats were also highly educated and served a number of roles. In addition to their role as missionaries, they were also medical professionals, botanists and linguists. For example, the founder of the Swedish Mission, Lars Erik Högberg, was also an architect who is credited with designing the Kashgar British Embassy. One of his important colleges, Gösta Raquette, earned a doctorate in Tropical Medicine at Liverpool University and provided medical services to the populace of Kashgar. Upon returning to Sweden, he accepted a position as a lecturer at Lund University and devoted himself to studying Old Turkic, becoming part of the first generation of Swedish people to study the language.

The influence that these missionaries with multiple identities exerted on the Islamic hub of Kashgar extended far beyond mere Christian proselytism. Compared to the "word of the Lord", the local people were far more appreciative of the educational content in which it was packaged, which introduced them to new cultures, fields of knowledge, and songs. The Swedish missionaries also contributed modern architecture, medical technologies and printing equipment. In this sense, their 46 years of hardships and painstaking work in Xinjiang were not in vain.

Main references

Macartney, Catherine and Shipton, Diana (authors); Wang Weiping and Cui Yanhu (translators): Recollections of Diplomats' Wives. Xinjiang People's Publishing Press, 2010.

Jarring, Gunnar (author); Cui Yanhu and Guo Yingjie (translators): Return to Kashgar. Xinjiang People's Publishing Press, 2010.

Zhou Xuan, Cui Yanhu: Studies of the Swedish Mission in Kashgar. Western Frontier Research. No. 4, 1998.

Heiniyati, Mulati: Appraisal of the Swedish missionaries' press in Kashgar and its publications. Beifang University of Nationalities Journal (Philosophy and Social Sciences Edition). No. 3, 2013.

He Rong: The philanthropic activities of modern Western missionaries in Xinjiang. Xinjiang Social Sciences. No. 6, 2009.