When the Reverend Halvor Ronning, his sister Thea, and fellow missionary Hannah Rorem set out in 1891 to found a Lutheran mission and school in the interior of China, they could not have foreseen the ways in which that decision would ripple across generations of the Ronning family. Halvor and Hannah would marry, and their son Chester, born in Hubei Province in 1894, would spend over half his life in China as a student, teacher, and a Canadian diplomat. Chester’s daughter, Audrey, studied at Nanking University during the Chinese Civil War and later spent decades reporting on the People’s Republic of China for the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, and many other publications. “During the last century,” Audrey Topping notes, “a member of our family was there for almost every event of importance.” China Mission presents a personal history of her family’s ties to their adopted home and the momentous events that radically changed one of the most powerful countries in the world.
The Ronnings found Imperial China at the end of the nineteenth century to be a nation on the cusp of change, and they were swept up as both observers and participants in these dramatic events. During their years as missionaries, the Ronnings witnessed the Boxer Uprising in 1898, the subsequent Palace Coup and the Siege of Peking, the death of the last emperor, and the collapse of China’s dynasty system. They also endured personal challenges—famine, births, deaths, and the almost constant threat of attack—that were countered with songs, celebrations, friendship, and a deep appreciation for the culture of which they had become a part.
Later, Chester Ronning would return to China, as would his daughter Audrey, bringing their family’s story to the end of the twentieth century. This extraordinary account, compiled from the diaries, letters, and photographs of three generations, offers modern readers a rare and remarkable look at a world long gone.
Audrey Ronning Topping is a freelance photojournalist, author, and writer of documentary films, specializing in Asian affairs. Her photos have been exhibited in numerous galleries and universities, and her articles and photos have appeared in major publications in the United States and abroad, including the National Geographic, LIFE, Newsweek, Time, Reader’s Digest, and Harper’s Bazaar. She is the author and photographer of five books, including The Splendors of Tibet and Dawn Wakes in the East. She has written scripts and been a commentator and assistant producer on six television documentaries, including Great Wall Across the Yangtze, The Forbidden City, The Tomb of the Terra-cotta Warriors, and Chester Ronning’s China Mission. Audrey is married to Seymour Topping, former foreign correspondent and managing editor of the New York Times. They have five daughters born in Saigon, London, Berlin, and Scarsdale, New York.