A Kiwi missionary’s adventures in war-torn China

by Julia Millen / 06 January, 2018
When Carterton-born Agnes (Nessie) Moncrieff graduated from Victoria University College with an MA in Latin and French in 1921, teaching was almost the only occupation, apart from marriage, for an educated woman.

Luckily for her, life took a dramatic turn when she became New Zealand travelling secretary and delegate to the 11th World Student Christian Federation Conference in Peking, “Under Heaven One Family”. One visit to China was not nearly enough. Keen to return, but not as a missionary, she got the chance at age 31 when the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) of New Zealand appointed her as an administrator within the YWCA of China.

In 1930, after a year’s training, including Chinese language study, she was put in charge of 70 girls – “a wild crowd’’ – in a Peking students’ hostel.

Barbara Francis has now transcribed and compiled this collection from Moncrieff’s private letters and monthly reports to the New Zealand YWCA covering 15 years (with annual home leave) of paid service in war-torn China.

As well as covering daily life, the letters show her astute awareness of such matters as overpopulation, Chinese military officials (‘‘a corrupt group’’), the Second Sino-Japanese War and British-China relations.

‘‘Perhaps one reason why Britain does not care to interfere on China’s behalf now is because the condemnation of Japan’s method would be condemnation of her own method of 1840 and 1860.’’

On the position of women she writes: “For a girl with no resources, no training and youth as almost her only asset, the way to dance halls and brothels is tragically easy.”

In 1944, Moncrieff reported that the Macau Canton YWCA was feeding 1000-2000 destitute people every day. Her 1941 account of an epic six-week journey by truck along the route that became the Burma Road, 3862km from Rangoon to Chengdu, includes fascinating detail, but because it was rewritten for publication, it lacks the freshness of her letters. Photographs and two maps help enhance the narrative.

You Do Not Travel in China at the Full Moon: Agnes Moncrieff’s Letters from China 1930-1945, edited by Barbara Francis (Victoria University Press, $50)

This article was first published in the October 28, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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