In this well-researched and elegantly written monograph, Bernhard Ortmann presents the first detailed history of the Hildesheim Mission for the Blind in Hong Kong. Several facets combine to make the mission worthy of note—the Hildesheim Mission was a German missionary society operating in the British colony of Hong Kong; it was one of the few missionary societies created ‘by women for women’ (p.16); and it carried out the specific mission of serving blind girls. Its impact remains: in 1897, the Mission established the Ebenezer School for the Blind, which remains the only school dedicated to educating visually impaired children in Hong Kong today. In the book, Ortmann deftly covers more than a hundred years of the society’s history, and in particular, he traces the mission society’s changing approaches towards blindness and disability. Ortmann divides his historical account into two distinct periods. The first, lasting from 1890 to 1951, reflected the theology of the mission society’s founder, Luise Cooper. Born in 1849, Cooper fell ill at the age of nineteen and was bed-ridden for seven years. Touched by Pietist teaching, Cooper believed that her physical ailments had been cured by faith. As a missionary in China Cooper encountered blind children in Hong Kong, and she believed that the ‘bodies and souls’ of the Chinese could be freed through Christian conversion. Ortmann situates Cooper’s teachings within a broader colonial mindset, which viewed the Chinese as child-like and ‘disabled’, in need of the interventionist power of Western imperialism. This insight—of seeing medical missions as part of a broader colonial project—is not new, but what is new about Ortmann’s study is its in-depth reconstruction of the Hildesheim pedagogical project. For Pietists, reading the Bible was the first and most crucial step of an individual’s conversion process. Thus missionaries went to great lengths to produce Braille Bibles in both Mandarin and Cantonese, the local dialect in Hong Kong. Missionaries successfully produced the half of the New Testament in Cantonese Braille in 1912; the other half was not finished until 1970. More importantly, the Braille type that the missionaries developed laid the foundation for the system still used in Hong Kong today. The Hildesheim Mission’s other central pedagogical focus was to turn the Chinese girls into hard workers; they hoped the blind girls could gain financial independence through manual labour. Thus, before 1951, the Hildesheim children were primarily taught how to ‘pray and work’ (p.135). After 1951, Ortmann argues, the missionary society was forced to secularise its activities. Because of the impact of the war on Europe, funding for the missions began to dry up, forcing the Hildenheim Mission to work with secular actors in Hong Kong. The Ebenezer School became co-educational. It began to de-emphasise the religious character of its mission. Yet continuities between the two epochs remained. In the 1970 s, the Ebenezer School still saw its primary pedagogical purpose as vocational training, training children for Hong Kong’s expanding industrial workforce. In some of the most fascinating passages in the book, Ortmann draws upon oral histories he conducted with graduates of the Ebenezer School. One student, Chong Chan Yau, rebelled against the solely industrial training at the Ebenezer school in the early 1970 s. At first, Chong’s pleas were ignored. But Chong belonged to the first generation of students from Ebenezer who were integrated into the Hong Kong Secondary School system, and by the mid-1970 s Chong could study the subjects that he desired. While the broader historical framework that Ortmann presents is convincing, several facets of his historical narrative—especially the period from 1890 to 1950—appear as somewhat static. Immediately after the First World War, missionary societies across Europe also experienced a dramatic reduction in funding, forcing them to re-think their theology and practice in China. One wonders how the Hildesheim Mission responded and changed their practices in relation to those broader transformations in the mission field. Moreover, while Ortmann’s tight focus on the Hildesheim Mission generates fascinating detail, we also lose some valuable context. For instance, he begins the book with a tantalising discussion of how European missionaries challenged traditional Confucian, Daoist and Buddhist thinking about the place of disabilities in traditional Chinese society. One wonders whether scholars from different ethical and religious backgrounds re-considered their ideas of disability, particularly in the context of post-war Hong Kong, where Chinese émigré intellectuals rejuvenated the Confucian tradition. But these are minor quibbles to a well-written, lucid and compelling book. The book will be of interest to scholars and specialists working at the intersection of the histories of colonialism and medicine, disability studies, gender studies and religious studies. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for the Social History of Medicine. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Social History of Medicine – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 9, 2018
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