Of course, most readers do not have missionaries much on their mind today, except perhaps to dismiss them. In Lucy Sante's "Models for Being," her review of Hua Hsu's recent memoir Stay True, she writes of Hsu’s first book, A Floating Chinaman (2016), which tells the story of H.T. Tsiang (d. 1971), a Chinese immigrant to America whose novels were continually rejected by publishers. Tsiang failed not because Americans weren't interested in the Chinese, Sante states, noting that Buck was at the time a best-selling author. The American readership of the period, Sante claims, could accept only Buck's view of the Chinese, which was "missionary."  Missionary? What does that one word mean to Sante and her readers? It's a reductive statement, to be sure. Like every one of us, Buck was a complicated human being, and so were the missionaries she had come to know in China, including, of course, her father. Unfortunately, the good ones far outnumbered the bad, Buck acknowledged in her speech. Why? One reason she cited was lack of support by sponsoring agencies or the wrong kind of support from them. Nonetheless, they expected to see high numbers of converts and were disappointed and disapproving when those numbers didn't materialize. As Buck saw it, the problem was that "neither the messenger nor the message [had] been suited to the needs of the people."
And what would suit those needs? "I should like to see every missionary sent to satisfy a special need of a community -- not the artificial need of a mission station for a clerical man or a woman evangelist or what not, nay a real need of the people. ... It seems to me this is the only basis for missions. It removes from us the insufferable stigma of moral arrogance, and it gives us besides a test of our own worth. Before we can share anything with benefit we must have tried it ourselves." In other words: "Above all, then, let the spirit of Christ be manifested by modes of life rather than by preaching... Let us cease our talk for a time... and let us try to express our religion in terms of life."
In her concluding remarks, Buck goes out on a great big limb, at least by today's standards of wokeness. Speaking neither as an American nor even as a Christian, but, by virtue of the years she had spent in China, she spoke as a Chinese person. And in that persona, she, who strongly objected to the non-Asians  cast in the leading roles of the movie version of her most famous novel, delivers her challenge: "Come to us no more in arrogance of spirit. Come to us as brothers and fellowmen. Let us see in you how your religion works. Preach to us no more, but share with us that better and more abundant life which your Christ lived."
1. The speech was reprinted as an essay in Harper's, January 1933, 143-155.
2. New York Review of Books, November 24, 2022.
3. Paul Muni was born Frederich Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund in the Ukraine; Luise Rainer was born in Düsseldorf, of a German mother and German-American father.