BATON ROUGE – When the Rev. 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 about the People’s Republic of China for the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, and many other publications.
“During the last century,” Audrey Topping noted, “a member of our family was there for almost every event of importance.”
The Ronnings found Imperial China at the end of the 19th century to be a country 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 last dynasty. 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 they had become a part of.
Later, Chester Ronning would return to China, as would his daughter Audrey, bringing their family’s story to the end of the 20th century. This extraordinary account, “China Mission,” published by LSU Press, is compiled from the diaries, letters and photographs of three generations. The book offers a rare and remarkable look at a time and place that for modern readers is a world long gone.
Audrey Ronning Topping 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.