ANN ARBOR—Joseph Ho was working at the Chinese Historical Museum in downtown San Diego five years ago when an elderly man walked in and offered to donate a bunch of scrolls, snuff bottles and other artifacts from China.
Ho introduced the gentleman to the museum's director and listened in as the visitor explained he was born in China in 1934 and that his parents collected the items when they served as Presbyterian medical missionaries.
This piqued Ho's interest because he was working on an honors thesis about Western photographers in wartime China. So he asked the man if he had any photos.
"I've got quite a few at home," the man said. "If you'd like to see them, please come by."
Ho took him up on the offer and was thrilled to find about 200 photos. The images provide a unique view of daily life during a critical time in Chinese history—a period of warlords, Japanese occupation, civil war and revolution.
Later, the man introduced Ho to another family that shared a suitcase full of photos they shot while doing missionary work in China. That introduction led to another, and Ho eventually collected more than 2,000 images—many of them in color—and about three hours of 16mm film from the 1920s through the early 1950s.
Some of the material had been kept in less-than-ideal storage conditions and was on the verge of deteriorating beyond repair.
"Some of the most striking images were of American family life in China in the '30s and '40s," said Ho, a doctoral student in history at the University of Michigan. "The missionaries were raising families at the same time they were doing all this work. So you get an interesting mix of public and private life."
The film footage shows the missionaries having a snowball fight in Beijing with a snowman with a carrot nose in the background. They filmed their work in villages as they pulled teeth, examined eyes and treated patients with large tumors. Other photos show them at China's bustling markets, with people selling squawking geese, festive lanterns and "youtiao"—long sticks of fried dough commonly eaten for breakfast.
Perhaps the most interesting film footage shows a large group of Christians—both Western and Chinese—gathering for a 1949 Easter sunrise service on the altar at the Temple of Heaven, one of Beijing's most famous sites. Such an event wouldn't be possible in the current regime.
The material has become the focus of Ho's doctoral dissertation. He's delighted he found a way to merge his interest in photography with his research of American culture and Christianity in China—three things he never thought would intersect.
Par Cassel, an associate professor of history at U-M, said there were plenty of photos taken in China during the same time period. But what's special about the collection Ho found is the large number of color images and that they've been documented. In other words, it's known who shot the pictures at what time and at which location. If these details couldn't be ascertained, the images would lose much of their scholarly value, he said.
"The promise of digitizing the photographs and making them available to the world will also attract a lot of attention," said Cassel, an expert on late imperial and modern China.
The professor said there are historians who have studied the missionaries in China.
"But it has been neglected and seen as a branch of church history rather than Chinese history," he said.
Most of the academic focus has been on pictures taken by diplomats, businessmen and other figures. Missionaries were often shunned by many historians as agents of Western imperialism. Their photography was sometimes viewed as religious propaganda.
Those attitudes are changing in China, where there's a resurgence in religion. Many experts estimate that Christians now outnumber the members of the Communist Party.
"There is a trend in China today with people rediscovering missionaries in terms of their influence in national affairs and modernizing projects," Ho said. "They were big on building hospitals, in addition to churches and schools."
Perhaps most important was that the religious workers were deeply embedded in rural China, places most travelers didn't spend much time. Often, they were bilingual.
"These missionaries received a lot of language training, both at language schools immediately after arriving in China and during their work in the local environment," Ho said. "I've found documents about missionaries working on language all the time. They're literally living with these people, so they have a very insider's perspective."
There are periods when the picture taking stopped because of the war. One of the missionaries, Dr. Ralph C. Lewis, was held in a Japanese prison camp in Weixian, Shandong, where he treated Scottish track star Eric Liddell, whose athletic exploits were depicted in the Oscar-winning film "Chariots of Fire," before he died.
In the months leading up to the Communist Revolution, the missionaries also stopped snapping pictures for various reasons. They might have been concerned about their safety, Ho said, and it's possible they ran out of photography supplies.Their photos might also have been lost or confiscated when they left China.
After the Communists took over, some of the medical staff were asked to denounce the missionaries or resign from their positions, Ho said.
"One of the doctors I have a photograph of was thrown from a window," he said. "People said he committed suicide, but the missionaries who knew him believe he was murdered by Communist political officers for not being willing to cooperate with them. Other medical staff just went to work for government hospitals. They were fine making the transition."
The man who met Ho in the San Diego museum and showed him the photos was Dr. Richard Henke, a retired pathologist living in Rolling Hills, Calif. He said that his late father, Harold, would be happy that his pictures and footage would have so much scholarly value.
"My father was very broad-minded, and if there was any use for the photos—by the family or an institution—he would be delighted," he said.
The last scene shot by Henke before he left the country shows huge portraits of Mao Zedong and Zhu De, the army's commander-in-chief, hanging on Tiananmen, or the Gate of Heavenly Peace, in Beijing. Although the country is going through a revolution, the scene looks peaceful, with donkey carts and cyclists moving in and out of the picture.
It makes one wish that Henke and his colleagues could have stayed in China longer to document the country's next chapter.