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Ernst Faber and the Consequences of Failure: A Study of a Nineteenth-Century German Missionary in China

  • Albert Wu (a1)


In 1898, the year before his death, the German missionary Ernst Faber reflected on his forty-year career in China. The account of his early missions work was suffused with a tone of failure and disappointment. He wrote openly about his difficulties in adjusting to the climate and environment of southern China, the diminutive numbers of converts to Christianity, his frustrations with learning Mandarin and the local dialects used in Guangdong, and the overwhelming feeling of loneliness that he encountered working in rural parishes.



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1 Faber, Ernst, Theorie und Praxis eines protestantischen Missionars in China (Heidelberg: Evangelischer Verlag, 1910), 2123.

2 In Memoriam. Dr. E. Faber,” Chinese Recorder 30 (1899), 581.

3 Warneck, Gustav, “D. Ernst Faber. In memoriam,” Allgemeine Missionszeitschrift. Monatshefte für geschichtliche und theoretische Missionskunde 27 (1900), 155.

4 I am indebted to James Brophy for this term. For an example of such a biography of Gützlaff, see Lutz, Jessie Gregory, Opening China: Karl F. A. Gützlaff and Sino-Western Relations, 1827–1852 (Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2008). For such an account of Richard Wilhelm, see the chapter on “Orientalists and ‘Others,’” in Marchand, Suzanne L., German Orientalism in the Age of Empire: Religion, Race, and Scholarship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

5 Clavin, Patricia, “Defining Transnationalism,” Contemporary European History 14, 4 (2005), 422. I am indebted to Anna von der Goltz for pointing me to this reference.

6 Clavin, “Defining Transnationalism,” 424.

7 Ibid.

8 Cohen, Paul, “Christian Missions and their Impact to 1900,” in The Cambridge History of China, Volume 10: Late Ch'ing 1800–1911, Part 1, ed. Fairbank, John King (1978), 573.

9 See, for example, Cohen, Paul, China and Christianity: The Missionary Movement and the Growth of Chinese Antiforeignism, 1860–1870, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963); and Levenson, Joseph R., Confucian China and its Modern Fate: A Trilogy (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1968), especially volume 1.

10 See Jessie Lutz, Gregory, China and the Christian Colleges, 1850–1950 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1971); and Dunch, Ryan, Fuzhou Protestants and the Making of a Modern China, 1857–1927 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001); Klein, Thoralf, Die Basler Mission in Guangdong (Südchina) 1859–1931: Akkulturationsprozesse und kulturelle Grenzziehungen zwischen Missionaren, chinesischen Christen und lokaler Gesellschaft (München: Iudicium, 2002).

11 Works such as Stanley, Brian and Low, Alaine M., eds. Missions, Nationalism, and the End of Empire (Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2003); Porter, Andrew, The Imperial Horizons of British Protestant Missions, 1880–1914 (Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2003); Cox, Jeffrey, Imperial Fault Lines: Christianity and Colonial Power in India, 1818–1940 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002); Daughton, J. P., An Empire Divided: Religion, Republicanism, and the Making of French Colonialism, 1880–1914 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) show the dialogic relationship that missions had with not only the local society, but missions at home as well.

12 Axmann, Rainer, “Lebensabriss des E. Faber,” Jahrbuch der Coburger Landesstiftung 34 (1989), 395.

13 Ibid., 398.

14 Ibid., 397.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid.

17 Kranz, “Aus D. Ernst Faber's Leben,” 129.

18 Kriele, Eduard, Geschichte der Rheinischen Missionsgesellschaft: Die Rheinische Mission in der Heimat, vol. 1 (Barmen: Missionshaus, 1928), 9.

19 Pietism is a much debated and difficult concept to define, and the continuities between seventeenth- and nineteenth-century Pietism has been widely debated. The best overview of Pietism is the four volume Geschichte des Pietismus. For the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, see volume 3, Benrath, Gustav A. et al. , Geschichte des Pietismus, Band 3: Der Pietismus im neunzehnten und zwanzigsten Jahrhundert (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2000) and Lehmann, Hartmut et al. , Geschichte des Pietismus Band 4: Glaubenswelt und Lebenswelten (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2004).

20 Hartmut Lehmann, “Die neue Lage,” in Geschichte des Pietismus, Bd. 3: Der Pietismus im neunzehnten und zwanzigsten Jahrhundert, 7–8.

21 The London Missionary Society, founded in 1795, was the model that most of these Pietist societies followed. The first German speaking missionary society was the Basel Missionary Society in 1815. The three largest missionary societies formed in the 1820s were the Berlin Missionary Society, the Rhenish Missionary Society based in Barmen, and the Norddeutsche Missionsgesellschaft based in Bremen.

22 Kriele, Geschichte der Rheinischen Missionsgesellschaft, 18. The Elberfelder Missionsgesellschaft was founded in 1799, while the Barmer Missionsgesellschaft was founded in 1818.

23 Karl Rennstich, “Mission—Geschichte der protestantischen Mission in Deutschland,” in Geschichte des Pietismus, Bd. 3: Der Pietismus im neunzehnten und zwanzigsten Jahrhundert, 315–16. These festivals continued to be popular well into the twentieth century, and the successor of the Basel Missionary society, continues to put on missionary festivals today.

24 Lehmann, “Die neue Lage,” 8–9.

25 Toward the end of his life, Warneck optimistically called the nineteenth century, a “century of missions.” For Warneck, the first stage belonged to the period of the early Church, the Second Stage being the Christianization of Europe, and the Third being the expansion of Christianity into North and South America. The fourth stage would be the conversion of Africa and Asia. See Warneck, Gustav, Warum ist das 19. Jahrhundert ein Missionsjahrhundert? (Halle: Fricke, 1880).

26 The governing board of the Berlin Missionary Society, for example, was filled with Prussian officials and state administrators. Especially after 1848, the Berlin Missionary society enjoyed a special relationship with the conservative government of Friedrich Wilhelm IV, who had instilled within his government a new set of conservative politicians in order to stem the tide of liberal revolutionary fervor. Other than high-level conservative Protestant politicians, the society was also filled with important and famous Berlin pastors and spiritual leaders, who were invited to join the committee because of their “upstanding moral character.” See Richter, Julius, Geschichte der Berliner Missionsgesellschaft (Berlin: Verlag der Buchhandlung. der Berliner Evangel. Missionsgesellschaft, 1924), 21.

27 The best book on Fabri is Bade, Klaus J., Friedrich Fabri und der Imperialismus in der Bismarckzeit: Revolution, Depression, Expansion. (Freiburg i. Br.: Atlantis-Verl., 1975).

28 Ibid., 34–35.

29 Ibid., 46–47.

30 Fabri, Friedrich, Die Entstehung des Heidenthums und die Aufgabe der Heidenmission (Barmen: Langewiesche's Verlagsbuchhandl., 1859), 5153.

31 Ibid., 52–58.

32 Ibid., 77–79.

33 Ibid., 111.

34 Kriele, Geschichte der Rheinischen Missionsgesellschaft, 173–186.

35 Ibid., 185.

36 Ibid., 261.

37 Axmann, “Lebensabriss,” 397–398.

38 Ibid., 398.

39 To read the trip recounted in almost daily detail, see Faber, Ernst, “Aus Br. Faber's Reise-Tagebuch,” Berichte der Rheinischen Missionsgesellschaft (1866): 163176.

40 The British ship traveled through London and Holland, and on the way Faber improved his English and helped train a captain who “barely understood medicine.” Faber, Theorie und Praxis, 21.

41 Cohen, “Christian Missions and their Impact,” 548.

42 Ibid., 550.

43 Ibid., 552–553.

44 Ibid., 555.

45 Jessie G. Lutz, Opening China: Karl F. A. Gützlaff and Sino-Western Relations, 1827–1852, 295–296. See also Kriele, Geschichte der Rheinischen Missionsgesellschaft, 95.

46 Kriele, Geschichte der Rheinischen Missionsgesellschaft, 95–97.

47 Cohen, “Christian Missions and their Impact,” 551.

48 Cohen, China and Christianity, 45.

49 For a detailed account of both official and gentry anti-Christianity, see Cohen, China and Christianity, especially chapters 3 and 4.

50 Wakeman, Frederic E., Strangers at the Gate: Social Disorder in South China, 1839–1861 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1966), 3. For more on the Taiping Rebellion, see the new book by Platt, Stephen R., Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War (New York, NY: Knopf, 2012). Other than Wakeman's Strangers at the Gate, classic works include Kuhn, Philip A., Rebellion and its Enemies in Late Imperial China, Militarization and Social Structure, 1796–1864 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970); and Spence, Jonathan D., God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan (London: HarperCollins, 1996).

51 To get a sense of the diverse landscape in Canton, see Constable, Nicole, Christian Souls and Chinese Spirits: A Hakka Community in Hong Kong (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994).

52 For more on this “forgotten war,” see 劉平, 被遺忘的戰爭: 咸豐同治年間廣東土客 大械斗硏究 (北京: 商務印書館, 2003).

53 Faber, Ernst, “Das Losan Gebirge,” Berichte der Rheinischen Missionsgesellschaft (1866), 249.

54 Faber, Ernst, “Aus China,” Berichte der Rheinischen Missionsgesellschaft (1867), 257.

55 Faber, Theorie und Praxis, 21.

56 Faber, “Der Losan Gebirge,” 247.

57 Faber, Ernst, “Erfreulicher Bericht über Fumun-Tschei,” Berichte der Rheinischen Missionsgesellschaft (1866), 259.

58 Ibid., 260.

59 Ibid.

60 Faber, “Aus China (September 1867),” 260.

61 Faber, “Erfreulicher Bericht,” 260–262.

62 Faber, “Aus China (September 1867),” 261.

63 Faber, Theorie und Praxis, 21.

64 Ibid.

65 Faber, “Aus China (September 1867),” 266.

66 For Faber's own recollections and descriptions of the Wang Family, see Faber, Ernst, Bilder aus China (Barmen: Verl. des Missionshauses, 1877), 4748.

67 Faber, “Aus China (September 1867),” 267.

68 Ibid.

69 花之安, “馬可講義,” in 東傳福音, 第十三册, 中國宗教歷史文獻集成 (合肥: 黃山书社, 2005), 100. Wang Qianru was one of the first ordained Chinese pastors from the Rhenish mission, and he came from a family of Chinese Christians who would become active in Christian ministry. See Tiedemann, R. G., ed. Handbook of Christianity in China: 1800 to the Present (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 256.

70 花之安, “馬可講義,” 100.

71 Ibid., 102.

72 Ibid., 103.

73 Faber, Ernst, “Aus China,” Berichte der Rheinischen Missionsgesellschaft (1867), 294.

74 Ibid., 295.

75 Ibid.

76 Faber, “Aus China (September 1867),” 265.

77 Ibid.

78 Faber, Ernst, “Das Studium des Chinesischen,” Berichte der Rheinischen Missionsgesellschaft (1869), 100.

79 Ibid., 109.

80 Warneck, “D. Ernst Faber. In memoriam,” 147.

81 Faber, Theorie und Praxis, 25.

82 Ibid.

83 Ibid.

84 Ibid.

85 Bennett, Adrian A., Missionary Journalist in China: Young J. Allen and his Magazines, 1860–1883 (Athens, Ga: University of Georgia Press, 1983), 97.

86 Ibid.

87 Faber, Ernst, “西國書院,” The Church News (教會新報) 3 (1871), 213.

88 Ibid.

89 Ibid.

90 Faber, Ernst, A Systematical Digest of the Doctrines of Confucius According to the Analects, Great Learning and Doctrine of the Mean, trans. von Möllendorff, Paul Georg (Hongkong: “China Mail” Office, 1875), 1.

91 Ibid., 124.

92 Ibid.

93 Ibid., 124–125.

94 Ibid., 125–126.

95 Ibid., 126.

96 Ibid., 127.

97 Eitel, Ernst Johann, “Confucianism,” China Review, or Notes and Queries on the Far East 1, no. 4 (1873), 261.

98 Ibid., 262.

99 Ibid., 263–264.

100 Ibid., 264.

101 MacGowan, John, Christ or Confucius, Which? (London: London Missionary Society, 1889), 208.

102 Kranz, Paul, “Aus D. Ernst Faber's Leben,” Zeitschrift für Missionskunde und Religionswissenschaft 16 (1901), 131.

103 Ibid.

104 Kriele, Geschichte der Rheinischen Missionsgesellschaft, 263.

105 Archives of the Vereinte Evangelische Mission, Wuppertal, 3.087, “Acta betreffend die Faber'schen Konflikt in China I u. II.,” 252.

106 Ibid., 261.

107 Ibid., 256.

108 Ibid., 269.

109 Ibid., 269.

110 General-Versammlung der Rheinischen Missions-Gesellschaft,” Berichte der Rheinischen Missionsgesellschaft (1881), 101.

111 Ibid., 102–103.

112 Hamer, Heyo E., “Zur Begegnung von E. Faber und W. Spinner in Shanghai,” Monatshefte für Evangelische Kirchengeschichte des Rheinlandes, 1990, 294.

113 Warneck, “D. Ernst Faber. In memoriam,” 148.

114 Faber, Ernst, Civilization, Chinese and Christian (自西徂東), vol. 1 (台北市: 文海出版社, 1996), 7.

115 Ibid., 1.

116 Ibid., 2.

117 Ibid.

118 Ibid., 3.

119 Ibid.

120 Ibid., 4.

121 Ibid., 5.

122 Ibid., 2.

123 Ibid., 5.

124 Ibid.

125 Ibid., 297.

126 Ibid., 298.

127 Ibid., 301.

128 See correspondence between Zhang Zhidong and Gu Hongming, 1892, Speyer Archives, 06. 02, Abt. 180.01, Nr. 192, 74–76.

129 Gerber, Lydia, Von Voskamps ‘heidnischem Treiben’ und Wilhelms ‘höherem China’ (Hamburg: Hamburger Sinologische Gesellschaft e.V., 2002), 7477.

130 Ibid., 75.

131 Ibid., 76.

132 Hamer, Heyo E., Mission und Politik (Aachen: Verl. an der Lottbek im Besitz des Verl. Mainz, 2002), 249.

133 Langhans, Ernst Friedrich, Pietismus und äussere Mission vor dem Richterstuhle ihrer Vertheidiger (Leipzig: Wigand, 1866), 395.

134 Ibid., 24.

135 Langhans, Ernst Friedrich, Pietismus und Christenthum im Spiegel der äußeren Mission. Erster Theil: Der Pietismus, vol. 1 (Leipzig: Verlag von Otto Wigand, 1864), 23.

136 Ibid., 30–34.

137 Ibid., 459.

138 Richter, Julius, Das Buch der deutschen Weltmission. (Gotha: Klotz: 1935), 221.

139 Ibid.

140 Ibid.

141 Hamer, Mission und Politik, 426–427.

142 Ibid., 225.

143 Franke, Otto, Erinnerungen aus zwei Welten. (Berlin: de Gruyter: 1954), 61; Hamer, Mission und Politik, 217.

144 Bickers, Robert, “Shanghailanders: The Formation and Identity of the British Settler Community in Shanghai 1843–1937,” Past and Present (1998), 170.

145 In his memoirs, the influential missionary Timothy Richard described Faber as “one of the profoundest students of Chinese literature,” and a “weighty man of dry humor.” Richard, Timothy, Forty-five years in China (New York, NY: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1916), 219.

146 Hamer, Mission und Politik, 233.

147 Records of the General Conference of the Protestant Missionaries of China, held at Shanghai, May 7–20 (Shanghai: American Presbyterian Mission Press, 1890), 438–439.

148 Hamer, Mission und Politik, 426.

149 Ibid., 225.

150 Ibid.

151 Ibid., 217–222.

152 Faber, Ernst, Chronological Handbook of the History of China (Shanghai: Pub. by the General Evangelical Protestant missionary society of Germany, 1902), iii.

153 Faber, Ernst, China in historischer Beleuchtung (Berlin: Haack, 1900), 5.

154 Ibid., 10.

155 Ibid., 13–24.

156 Ibid., 27.

157 Ibid., 38.

158 Ibid., 40.

159 Ibid.

160 Ibid., 41.

161 Ibid., 43.

162 Ibid., 49–50.

163 Ibid., 50.

164 Weber, Max, The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism., trans. Gerth, Hans K. (New York, NY: Free Press, 1951). Weber cited and used Faber's translations in his work to support his thesis that China did not develop a spirit of capitalism because of its Confucian ideas.

165 Faber, China in historischer Beleuchtung, 59.

166 Ibid., 61.

167 Faber, Theorie und Praxis, 16-17.

168 Faber, China in historischer Beleuchtung, 62.

169 Ibid., 51.

170 Faber, Ernst, “Dr. Martins Charakteristik der chinesischen Zustände,” Allgemeine Missionszeitschrift (1897), 140; Gerber, Voskamps und Wilhelm, 170.

171 The history of the taking of Jiaozhou Bay has been accounted in numerous places; for the best and most succinct accounts, see Schrecker, John E., Imperialism and Chinese nationalism: Germany in Shantung (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971); Mühlhahn, Klaus, Herrschaft und Widerstand in der “Musterkolonie” Kiautschou: Interaktionen zwischen China und Deutschland 1897–1914 (München: Oldenbourg, 2000); Esherick, Joseph, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1987).

172 Despite his early death in Qingdao, he nonetheless published one of the most influential books on North Chinese botany that the German Reich would use for its survey of the Chinese colony.

173 For the best books on the Boxers, see Cohen, Paul A., History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1997); Esherick, Boxer Uprising; Xiang, Lanxin, The Origins of the Boxer War: A Multinational Study (London: Routledge Curzon, 2003).

174 Girardot, Norman J., The Victorian Translation of China: James Legge's Oriental Pilgrimage (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002), 3637.

175 Bennett, Young J. Allen, 28–29.

176 Girardot, Victorian Translation of China, 11.

177 Clavin, “Defining Transnationalism,” 424.

178 For discussion of the concept of the rooted cosmopolitan, see Appiah, Kwame Anthony, The Ethics of Identity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005). See also the collection of essays in Cheah, Pheng and Robbins, Bruce, eds. Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling Beyond the Nation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998).

Funding from the Fulbright Commission, the Academia Sinica in Taipei, and the ACLS/Mellon supported the research for this article. I am grateful to members of the 18th German Historical Institute Transatlantic Doctoral Seminar for their incisive comments. Special thanks to Ken Ledford and the anonymous reviewers at Central European History, who helped to sharpen the piece. I am particularly indebted to Margaret Lavinia Anderson, Jeremy Best, John Connelly, Andrew Jones, Stephen Milder, and Michelle Kuo, who read early drafts and offered invaluable feedback.

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Ernst Faber and the Consequences of Failure: A Study of a Nineteenth-Century German Missionary in China

  • Albert Wu (a1)


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