Reviews / March 2015 (Issue 27)

Rooted in China: The Remarkable Chester Ronning

by Emily Chow


Brian L. Evans, The Remarkable Chester Ronning: Proud Son of China, The University of Alberta Press, 2013. 336 pgs.


In the preface to this new biography, Brian L. Evans orients his readers to the Chineseness of Chester Ronning (1894–1984):

Canadian newspaper, television, and radio commentators marked Ronning’s passing as that of a great man [...] but many failed to note his greatest source of pride: he was born in China. Ronning’s Chineseness was so apparent that some of his Chinese friends called him an ‘egg’: white outside, but yellow inside.

Ronning died in 1984, after having spent a life interwoven with China and its people. He was born in 1894 in Fanchen, Hupei (Hubei), China, to Halvor Ronning, a Norwegian-American Lutheran missionary working in the region. Ronning was the first foreign child born in the area. Throughout his life, he was not only well known for his affection for China, but also for how he endeavoured to normalise diplomatic relationship between Canada and China. The relationship between Ronning and China was so intimate that he was invited by the Chinese government to a celebratory banquet and fireworks display to mark his return to his home in China in 1983.

Evans reveals that Ronning was assimilated into the Chinese culture early in his childhood. Unable to take care of three children on her own, Ronning's mother employed Chinese ladies to assist her. The Ronning children played with local children and spoke Chinese fluently with a Hubei accent. Evans points out that the parents had to force them to learn Norwegian and English as their second and third languages. However, little is revealed about how Ronning was inculcated with such Chineseness intellectually. It is hard to be not curious about what he learnt from school in China and to what extent Chinese philosophy influenced him.

When Chester was 15, the Ronnings left China for Alberta, Canada, where he completed preparatory courses to enter university. In 1921, with his wife and daughter, Ronning set out for China again, this time as the principal of a teacher's school in Fanchen. After six years there, they returned to Alberta for Ronning to take up the appointment of principal at Camrose Lutheran College. It was not until the Second World War that he would be directly connected with China again. He became the head of the discrimination unit of Royal Canadian Air Force Intelligence and was appointed to go to China to help Canada's ambassador after the war. Although Ronning's life was entwined with China, he was forced to leave the country from time to time, mainly for political reasons. Yet, his genuine fondness for China is unquestionable, as seen for example, in his description of one departure from the country:

I leave here with a heavy heart, because I have not been able to accomplish that for which I have been working and waiting all this time—recognition of the real Government of China.

Evans points out that every departure was difficult for Ronning, but particularly the very last one in 1951, as prior to this, in his role as Ambassador to China, Ronning had been advocating for the country to gain international recognition, yet was rejected by the Chinese people.

Although born to a missionary family, Ronning established himself as both a teacher and a diplomat. As Evans explicitly states, "Chester regarded himself as a teacher, not a missionary." Ronning was particularly successful as the principal of Camrose Lutheran College, a success which was rooted in his deep conviction in the abilities of his students: "The fact that he believed in students and their potential to succeed inspired them to do so."

This capacity for believing in and understanding others also illustrates why he was accepted and celebrated by the Chinese people. Evans describes how hatred towards foreigners in China was prevalent in the 20s, and how they were often addressed with the derogatory term "foreign devil." There were also cases of physical violence during the exodus of foreigners, which resulted from this antiforeigner atmosphere. Evans notes that, during that time, Ronning took part in the Lutheran Missionary Movement in his hometown, Fanchen. When antipathy towards outsiders became more radical, Ronning was advised to leave. However, while fleeing, he and his wife were confronted by hostile students:

 "Look at those foreign devils. Destroy the foreign devils. Down with imperialism." Ronning jumped on a table shouting in his Hupei accent: "You are absolutely right! Down with foreign imperialists. Let us destroy them! That is exactly why I want to go down the river and across the Pacific to attack them from the other side. Together we can crush the imperialists." Stunned, the students burst out laughing at the spectacle of a tall stranger addressing them in Hupei accent.

In this split-second, Ronning's Hubei-accented Chinese probably saved him and his wife, but what is truly unique about Ronning was so much more than the languages he spoke. Instead, it was his genuine understanding of how the Chinese were oppressed by imperialism, as well as his willingness to support them.

Evans makes clear that Ronning was even more remarkable in his diplomatic career. Ronning served as Ambassador to China for six years until he was forced to leave in 1951. He was also sent to Norway and Iceland and was appointed as High Commissioner to India in 1956. He also played important roles in other international affairs, as well. For example, he was the acting head of the Geneva Conferences on Korea and on Laos, and as a special envoy to Hanoi and Saigon in 1966, he took part in negotiations that attempted to put an end to the Vietnam War.

Ronning's sympathy and empathy towards the people around him was crucial in forging his high-flying career, but these traits were evident before his time as a diplomat. Early in 1932, Ronning was elected the Member of the Legislative Assembly for the constituency of Camrose, Alberta. Evans highlights one speech Ronning gave to Albertans of Norwegian descent, in which he boldly drew his audience's attention to the difficulties the farmers of the region faced:

Instead of reaping the logical benefits of our labors we are plunged into depth of economic distress and are surrounded by poverty destitution and want. [...] Have we placed human welfare and moral character at the top of our scale of values? Or have we perhaps sacrificed the interests of humanity upon an altar of greed?

He then moved on to the subject of education:

The lack of opportunities for our young people, who are trained to share the active life of the people, is perhaps one of worst features of the present situation. Society owes them such opportunities.

To me, these two sections of that speech appear to be some of the most significant parts in the book. Ronning undeniably was a charming politician, able to address pressing social issues in a moving manner. However, what was most astonishing in the talk was his genuine empathy for the farmers and the students, and how he was able to pinpoint what they actually needed.

Near the end of the book, Evans notes that although some of Ronning's opponents in Canada denounced him as a communist, he still bitterly addressed his reasons for wanting to go back to China in his Memoir of China:

I suppose everyone is nostalgic about his place of birth. It was twenty years since I had closed the Canadian Embassy in Nanking [...] I wanted to find out for myself what truth there was in some of the reports of newspapermen and China-watchers.

Here, Ronning once again disclosed his genuine concern for China, which he not only regarded as home, but was also the place where his mother was buried. There was undoubtedly a strong sense of Chineseness in his heart.

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