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The Sign of the Cross: Hope, Nostalgia, and American Missionary Filmmaking in Postwar China, 1947-1949

Sun, June 26, 3:00 to 4:50pm, Shikokan (SK), Floor: 1F, 114


This paper examines the filmmaking of American missionaries in North and East China between 1947 and 1949, looking at vernacular missionary films in conjunction with the Chinese Civil War and the post-1949 separation of local Chinese Christian communities from global church institutions. Drawing from recently rediscovered 16mm film footage in Catholic and Protestant collections in California, the paper argues that these vernacular visual materials represented nostalgic perceptions of lost possibilities for both missionary filmmakers and Chinese participants, while also embodying imagined hope for the survival of transnational religious communities split by Cold War realignments in East Asia. Produced by an American Jesuit order and a Presbyterian missionary family, these films will be examined alongside the filmmakers’ “on the ground” experiences, shifts in official perceptions of foreign missionaries from partners in "New China’s" development to "imperialist enemies,” and responses to the "loss of China" in the American domestic consciousness. Finally, the paper traces the films forward from the early postwar contexts of their creation to re-interpretations in renewed Cold War relationships between China and the US in the 1970s, concluding with their even later “disappearance” in changing historical and archival conditions. In addition to examining the films’ shifting cultural-religious meanings over time, the paper approaches them as mobile icons of loss and hope – as transnational, inherently “moving” visual materials produced and interpreted by similarly transnational historical actors in turbulent postwar East Asia.