Rosa Tonkin, pioneering missionary to Shanghai, 1901

02 Mar 2022

by Julia Gilchrist

Paul encouraged the early Corinthian church to glorify Christ in all they did (1 Cor 10:31), the challenge seemingly being how to do this whilst living as Christians amongst a people and culture deeply at odds. Centuries later, Rosa Lavinia Tonkin, a 37-year-old pioneering Australian Churches of Christ missionary to Shanghai in 1901, embarked upon missioning to a traumatised but resilient people, leaving a legacy of uplifting hundreds of Chinese women and girls from poverty to promise. 

Born on 27 July 1865 to Rebecca Butcher and John Tonkin, blacksmith, Rosa was raised in Strathalbyn, South Australia, with five siblings, all lifelong members of Grote Street Church of Christ. Rosa was deeply motivated by a desire to communicate Jesus’ teachings following Acts and Paul’s journeys, saying, “From my earliest years the movements of missionaries in foreign lands had a special interest for me.” In her late teens, Rosa was invested in developing a sustainable youth ministry, helping to establish Christian Endeavour in her home state whilst fulfilling Sunday School teaching duties. Qualifying as a schoolteacher, she worked in the South Australian education system for several years.  

In China, ongoing armed conflict and foreigners challenged long-standing certainties and routines of daily life, most violently exemplified by the Huashan Massacre, where over 200 missionaries, including women and children, were killed by local guerrillas in 1895. This meant when Rosa arrived barely 60 years after the 1842 Treaty of Nanking had opened China up to foreign merchants, traders, immigrants, and missionaries; her term was immediately challenged with the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901), Nationalist Revolution (1911), 1920’s Restoration of the Republic, Nationalist purges (1927), the Japanese occupation of Manchuria (1933) and invasion (1937), and the Pacific War from 1941. 

Crucially, Rosa spent her first year acquiring language and dialect skills to develop one-to-one relationships with locals living and working near the mission site. These language skills were essential to Rosa’s entire mission venture as across the decades, traditional rural villages and urban townships had experienced immense culture shock as centuries-old values and customs were uprooted. Because China’s ongoing challenges attracted international news coverage, Rosa was fully informed of the risks before accepting her election to mission by the Annual Conference in 1900. The well-established American Missionary Society was her employer, offering supervision through Dr James Ware, a well-regarded British sailor-businessman who turned to missioning in China with his wife in the mid-1870s.

However, Rosa found it extraordinarily difficult to teach the gospel to the inner-city community, as wide scale poverty saw every family member working far beyond the Australian standard of ‘eight hours’. Densely populated, the inner-city Shanghai Mission in the British concession doubled as a meeting space as well as being Rosa’s accommodation: it was ‘a little chapel, seating about 130 people, with vestries and classrooms and small garrets, every available space being utilised for some purpose or other’.

Travelling from Hong Kong to Shanghai, Rosa observed the silk and cotton mills where 40,000 women and girls as young as eight toiled, reckoning daily with squalid living and working conditions. About 800 metres from her home, one mill employed 6000 people and were her operational field. Most families were unable to pay for the education of anyone beyond the brightest male child, and women particularly endured great neglect of their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs.

The Adelaide Advertiser noted that “Chinese women were, as a rule, much neglected, and looked upon as chattels. They have no voice in the selection of a husband or domestic matters and were at the bidding of their husbands. If a man thought his wife should go to work, he sent her, and she had to submit. Their lot was very sad. But China was waking up, and schools were being opened for the education of women. There were some splendid colleges connected with the mission work at Shanghai. It was felt that education was the only way of getting hold of the people.” 

In these conditions, Rosa needed to be highly strategic about building a gospel community, however possessing 10 years’ experience as Secretary of the South Australian and Australian Churches of Christ Foreign Missions Committees, she was skilled in managing people and making tough decisions. Using her teaching background, Rosa identified and trained suitable working-class women to visit, evangelise and offer support to poor and struggling families whilst building a network of married Chinese women to undertake Bible woman’s work, a respectable means for local women to meet with other new Christians.

Rosa also taught the needlework program at James Ware’s Door of Hope Mission, which rehabilitated Chinese girls sold into prostitution by teaching them to make, sew and embroider dolls for sale to support the missions. Now highly collectible, for the many young girls who made the dolls, they represented an alternative income stream, an opportunity to ‘sew their culture’ into being, and perhaps memorialise their lost parents, grandparents and siblings.

Rosa’s increasing protectiveness of local young women and girls at the mission saw her adopt 11 Chinese orphans, saying of her children:

These girls have come to me at various times, helpless to help themselves. I believe that the Lord has wanted me to care and help them to get their education. Three of them are young women now; one is already married and is going into Women’s Bible Training School to train as a Bible Woman. Friends in NSW are helping her through. One graduated from school this year and will help teach until she is married. Her future husband is a graduate of the Bible College at Nanking, so she will also be in constant touch with the work of evangelising. The other is a member of the volunteer band for Bible Women’s work after graduating. The other three are at present studying, and I pray to God that they also may be workers for him. The Lord has given me much joy in them.”  

On her retirement from Shanghai in 1919, Rosa continued her leadership roles in Adelaide Church of Christ as the Home Missions Superintendent, sat on the Federal Foreign Mission Board, and was elected Vice President of the Sisters Conference (SA) in 1921.

Rosa died on 14 May 1940, aged 76. 

ROSA TONKIN IMAGE GALLERY: To view, click on images below: