THE WAYFARERS - And the Challenge of the Great Dragon River

This work of non-fiction /war history is a dramatic and intriguing read from start to finish. The story follows a group of young Swedish men and women who travel into remote parts of China to spread the word of God with love and compassion. With her missionary parents, Ruth as a young child experienced the harsh living conditions amongst the tribal people in a remote mountain village of western Yunnan, only to be taken prisoner by the invading Japanese soldiers  during WWII.  

The horrific experience this family went through was  heartbreaking and finally watching her father being killed, caused enduring psychological scars for Ruth.

In her life now, the author has realized the negatives have become positives and all the suffering was well worth the journey. 

The book is written in three parts, the first covering the history of The Christian Mission in China and Burma, the Second World War and the Japanese invasion, the last is written as a memoir covering the time back home after the war. This is an amazing read that has a great deal of valuable documentation on missions in remote places and gives a true insight into the courage and determination of people carrying out God’s work. 

This is a work of considerable scope that would be an excellent addition to Libraries, Schools and Theological Colleges.

In Store Price: $AU27.95 
Online Price:   $AU26.95

ISBN: 978-1-921574-15-3  
Format: Paperback
Number of pages: 274
Genre: Non Fiction

Cover design: Joakim Odlander


Author: Ruth Asp-Odlander
Publisher: Zeus Publications
Date Published: 2009
Language: English


About the author

Ruth Odlander was born in Sweden in 1935. She went to China as a baby with her parents, Karl and Hanna Asp. There she grew up in a Kachin mountain village near the border with Burma and learned to speak five tribal languages. She also speaks Swedish, English and Chinese Mandarin. During WWII, the family was taken prisoner by the Japanese invading forces and her father was killed. After sixteen months living in the jungle, Ruth and her mother were finally rescued by American soldiers. Ruth was ten years old when she and her mother eventually arrived in Sweden, where Ruth experienced culture shock.

Ruth is married with three children; the family has lived in Australia since 1974. She has professional and academic qualifications from Sweden and has been working as a nursing specialist and nurse educator. She has had several books published in nursing (Sjukvårdslära; Natur och Kultur, Stockholm, 1968).

Ruth has a BA degree from Sydney University and has been involved in assisting migrant women and overseas students with developing their language skills and general health care.


One day in the early 1950s, my mother, Hanna Asp, received a very special parcel sent from Dr Martin England, a missionary at the American Baptist Mission stationed at Bhamo in Upper Burma. The package had been on its way for many months and a letter inside told the story. A couple of men from the Jingpaw village of Moshwei in Yunnan, China, had made a five-day hike over the mountains to come and ask if a basket with letters, notes and diaries could be returned to ‘Mamma Hanna’ in Sweden. The villagers had taken care of what they understood were important possessions of my missionary parents and hidden them away from intruders after the Japanese had captured us as prisoners. Some of the parcel’s treasured contents became mine to be shared with others—the readers of this book.

I was encouraged by Dr Ralph Covell of Denver Seminary in Colorado to write about the group of young people from Sweden who went to China via Burma in the 1920s, as an important part of a documentary on History of Christian Mission.

The aim of this book is to inform and encourage young people of today to get an insight into the everyday work of the pioneer missionaries. They were also young people with different backgrounds. What they had in common was their prayer life, the experience of a divine call with the following preparations for their future in Yunnan, China. They felt the vital importance of having the back up of prayer groups—the intercessors—from their home country especially when hardship struck.

From my own life, I share about my childhood years in Yunnan, China, in my village Moshwei, meaning ‘Forest Water,’ my time as a prisoner of war when captured by the invading Japanese soldiers, the rescue and the culture shock I experienced when arriving in Sweden as a ten-year-old and finally the return trip to my childhood area after fifty-six years and meeting my dear old nanny, Madom. To convince me she was Madom, she sang several songs in Swedish she had learnt from my mother. This was more than I could ever have expected.

Today there are hundreds of thousands of Christians among the minority people of Yunnan and Upper Burma. The work of the pioneering missionaries has given rich and lasting fruit.

Read a sample:

              The beginning of a great work

Christian missionary work among the indigenous people of Yunnan and northern Burma began over one hundred years ago. Around the turn of the twentieth century, an American Baptist missionary, William Young, travelled to Burma to work with Dr Josiah N. Cushing, who had already been in the Shan states for several years. Dr Cushing had been toiling on the translation of the Bible into the Shan language, spoken around the Salween plain area and reaching into the southwestern part of Yunnan province in neighbouring China.

William Young was a fervent evangelist who ventured on long and physically hard journeys over high mountain ridges. He crossed the wild streams and calm, winding rivers of the plains mounted on his white mule. In the saddle pockets, with his minimal personal items, he carried newly printed copies of the Shan Scriptures he had received from Dr Cushing and the ABM press in Rangoon. He was thrilled knowing that he was on a special journey to share the Good News about his Saviour and Lord. When he was near a village or a marketplace, he would get off his mule and lead it by the bridle in order not to offend any of the locals, as he was told that people would otherwise regard him as impolite. He prayed to God for wisdom as he burned with eagerness to share his message of salvation and freedom for these people who were bound in superstition and fear of evil spirits.

He stopped at ‘five-day markets’, ‘seven-day markets’ and ‘eight-day markets’, the names referring to the frequency of the commercial gatherings in the districts he passed through. The tall young foreigner dressed in a white suit (common in those days in the tropics) appealed to people’s curiosity. Young and old gathered around to get a close look at him and his blue eyes, which they regarded as something very strange.

At the marketplaces, there were people from all the various tribal communities of the area. Jingpaw-Kachins, Atzi, Wa, Lahu, Lisu, Shan and many more fearlessly started the downhill walk from their villages at daybreak, negotiating the winding, narrow mountain pathways to be in time for the market with their produce. They also wanted to experience some of the fun and entertainment of market day and perhaps get a glimpse of the white fellow everyone was talking about. People gathered in large groups wherever Young came, and they listened attentively to his message. They heard about the sinful human heart that had led people astray from God’s perfect plan, about how God sent Jesus Christ as a Saviour to free us from sin by grace and about his sacrificial death on the cross. They were told Christ had won the victory over death when he rose again to life and therefore it was no longer necessary to appease demons with costly sacrifices. They did not need to be afraid of the spirits in the jungle because Jesus Christ had won victory over them.

People were intrigued by this message. It reminded them of the stories about ‘the Book’ that was lost long ago. This legend said that one day a man, dressed in white, riding on a white horse, would come back with the Book and help them to return with their hearts to the Great Creator and God, and then they would become his children. The older people nodded as they recognised the message from stories they had heard carried down through the generations.

People responded wholeheartedly to Young’s message and a mass movement of new converts started. It spread like wildfire from village to village, up the steep mountain paths to hamlets shrouded in clouds and down to those in the valleys and plains. The legend stated that God would show his mercy and care and receive them back as his people. They therefore accepted the young evangelist’s message gladly and took it to heart without any hesitation.

The missionary, unaware of the folktale, was astonished at the great response to the Gospel. Before he left a village, he would baptise those who had committed themselves to follow Christ. Between 1904 and 1932, Young baptised up to four thousand people every year on his long-distance travels in remote regions.1 He sent positive reports to friends, both in the United States and in Europe, and tried to inspire churches to send out missionaries and Bible teachers for follow-up work among the indigenous people of southwestern Yunnan and the border districts of Burma.

At the beginning of the 1920s, one of Young’s friends, Pastor Rikard Friis, received such a letter. Friis was the principal of a missionary and Bible training college in Högsby, a small town in southern Sweden. In his letter, Young shared that he had baptised over three thousand people during a two-month trip in western Yunnan. He was concerned for the new converts and asked for Bible teachers to come out and assist with follow-up work in the tribal communities.

Friis immediately shared Young’s request with his students and sent letters to pastors and churches all around Sweden. A great interest and enthusiasm for the task arose among young people, especially those in the new so-called ‘Free Churches’, which had their roots in the Baptist churches. These churches were overwhelmed by the reports of such high numbers of people responding to the Gospel message among the tribal population in that part of the world. ‘Surely the fields are ripe for harvest,’ said the preachers, who also quoted from a booklet, first published in Danish and then translated into Swedish, with the title The Wonderful Work of the Lord Among China’s Indigenous People. The authors were John and Martha Fullerton of the China Inland Mission (CIM). The Fullerton’s reports were similar to those given by Young:

We had prayed for 1000 souls before the end of the year, but, hallelujah, God gave us far more than we ever expected...He gave us another thousand before a month had gone...and before the year was finished, there were three thousand souls won for Jesus our Saviour.2

The first Swedish missionaries to arrive in Yunnan were Zakris and Anna Zakrison, who came from the field in northern China to the provincial capital, Yunnanfu (now known as Kunming), in 1923. Two years later, they moved to the southwestern city of Tengyueh (later renamed Tengchong) to join up with six young missionaries who had travelled to Tengyueh via Burma. These six had left Sweden for China in November 1924. Their names were Hanna Andersson, Judith Lindblom, Frida Magnusson, Gerda Grahl, Einar Johansson and David Leffler. They travelled with two older lady missionaries, Selma Eriksson and Hulda Samuelsson. Selma and Hulda were supported from the US, while all the others were supported through the Swedish Free Mission (SFM) in Stockholm.

The friendship between Rikard Friis and William Young helps explain the close relationship that developed between the missionaries of the American Baptist Mission (ABM) in Bhamo, Burma, and the group who came from the SFM. Bhamo was the city in northern Burma that the missionaries had to pass through before crossing the mountain ridges along the ancient trade route into Yunnan. Contact with the American missionaries became quite natural as a large number of them had Swedish backgrounds. They had been migrants themselves or were children of families who had left their homeland to start a new life in the ‘Land of Promise’ on the other side of the Atlantic. Dr Ola Hanson, an outstanding linguist and evangelist, left for the United States from the isle of Gotland in the Baltic Sea when he was sixteen years of age. With his great knowledge of languages and literature, he learnt Jingpaw (also known as Kachin) and gave the people their orthography, wrote a grammar, and translated the Bible and many schoolbooks. He translated and even wrote hymns for a hymnbook that is still used. He started schools and through his work, Kachin culture was preserved in writing. Legends, stories and folklore were taken down in the people’s own language.3

Dr Gustav Sword was another Swedish-American missionary whom the group of six young missionaries met in Bhamo and from whom they would receive a lot of practical help and support during years to come. The ABM station in Bhamo became a home away from home for the Swedes.

With the agreement of the field leadership of the ABM and the CIM, the SFM was welcomed and allotted an area within the district to work. Its centre was in Tengyueh, two hundred and fifty kilometres east of Bhamo. The journey from Bhamo to Tengyueh, mostly by horseback or hiking, normally took seven days but could take up to two weeks in bad weather. For safety reasons individual travellers often joined a merchant caravan, which could consist of up to a thousand mules and hundreds of muleteers. Often these had military escorts as protection against bands of robbers in the mountain passes.

When the Swedish group came to Yunnan, a good foundation had already been laid by missionaries from the ABM and the CIM. The Bible had been translated into the main languages of Shan, Jingpaw-Kachin and Lisu. Gospel tracts, Scripture portions, songs and hymnbooks had also been produced by the American and English missionaries, who had given many of the tribes their written languages. For the Swedish group, it was a matter of plunging in and learning the commercial language of Southern Mandarin and a few local languages as soon as possible, in order to function as Bible teachers.

The missionaries were people with ordinary human shortcomings, just like anyone else. The great distance to their homeland and the slow speed of communication (a letter could take three months), along with strong pressure and expectation from home base to hear wonderful reports of success, meant that not everything printed in the new movement’s weekly magazine was in full accordance with the tough reality on the field. This often caused disappointment among the missionaries. Who would listen to them if they told the truth? One couple, for example, came under the influence of ‘New Light’ teaching from America, which stated that there was salvation to be gained after death and that one should baptise only in the name of Jesus, not in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This disagreement on doctrine caused sadness, disappointment and dissension. The missionaries wondered how they could tell those at the mission centre in Stockholm about such things. In addition, at one point disagreement arose among the leadership of the mission in Stockholm itself, with fiery speeches at conferences and articles in the Christian press, Evangelii Härold (The Evangelical Herald) and Svenska Morgonbladet (The Swedish Morning Paper). Eventually this threatened the existence of the SFM to the degree that the Director of Missions, Dr A.P. Franklin, left the leadership of the mission. Questions that often came up in letters between the Swedish missionaries were, ‘What shall we do? Will we find anyone at home who understands our situation? Does anyone care?’ The small group had to try to sort out their own problems on the various mission stations. Their friends in the ABM and the CIM proved to be their strength in troublesome situations.

The reports from individual missionaries to their home churches were also not always in accordance with the real situation on the field. One missionary said in a letter that he had translated one of the Gospels into Shan, but he ‘forgot’ to mention that it was as an exercise for his language studies. The whole Bible had already been translated long before, and printed portions of the Gospels were also available from ABM literature depots. But people in his home church were of course overwhelmed on hearing such good reports, especially from a young man who had only been in the foreign country a short time and who had no formal linguistic training.

Another difficulty for the missionaries was finances. They were sent out and supported by the ‘Free Churches’, many of which were opposed to anything that had to do with centralised organisation. Some churches did not understand the importance of a legally recognised and approved name for a mission (in this case the SFM) in order for support from the homeland to reach workers overseas. Churches that sent their support privately caused problems for their missionaries, as the money sometimes never reached them or was delayed for months. In contrast, the missionaries who had their support sent via the SFM in Stockholm had their cheques paid directly to a bank in Burma. The missionaries who had problems with their support had to borrow for their daily needs, either from the Chinese or from missionary friends. In order to solve this difficulty, some wanted to arrange a ‘joint mission account’ in Tengyueh. The ones in need were reluctant to complain directly to their home churches, where people did not understand that their stubbornness caused problems and envy instead of blessing.

With all this to contend with, along with the difficulties of living in China, some of the missionaries found that life was a lot easier to cope with in Burma, which was then a British colony. The roads were much better there than on the Chinese side of the border. Westerners could also enjoy a certain degree of social status not accorded them in Yunnan. Once in a while they would even receive an invitation to come for ‘afternoon tea’ with some of the officials of the colony.

In spite of all their human shortcomings and faults, however, these missionaries—many of whom came from simple, farming backgrounds and had only a basic education—were obedient to the call they had experienced. God had called them to be his tools in proclaiming the Good News. Some of them never returned to Sweden but gave their lives in Yunnan. They were buried in the English cemetery in Tengyueh.

What follows is the story of one of that group of eight missionaries who went to Yunnan in 1924: Hanna Andersson. She was my mother. My father, Karl Asp, who arrived in China in January 1928, was one of those who gave their lives for the Gospel in Yunnan. His grave is not far from Wanding. Follow me in this story and you will catch a glimpse of the missionaries’ everyday lives, and also of some of my own experiences as a child among the Atzi-Kachins in a mountain village on the Chinese–Burmese border.

Today, more than eighty years later, the result and importance of the missionaries’ work is there to be seen. Some of my family and friends, and I myself, have had the wonderful opportunity in recent years to meet with radiant Christians among the Chinese, Atzi, Jingpaw, Lisu, Miao, Yao, Shan and other indigenous peoples in Yunnan. They are the children and grandchildren of those who were reached by the Good News through the dedicated and unselfish work of these missionaries. 


1 Wa, Maung Shwe, 1963, Burma Baptist Chronicle, Board of Publications, Burma Baptist Convention, Rangoon, pp. 409–411.

2 Fullerton, John & Martha, 1925, Herrens Underbara Gärningar bland Kinas Urfolk, Förl.Filadelfia, Stockholm. John Fullerton was born in Bathurst, New South Wales, in 1883. He left for Yunnan in 1912 with CIM. He met Martha, a twenty-two year old Danish girl, in Yunnanfu (Kunming) while both were studying the language. They married in 1915 and were assigned by the mission to work among the tribes on the border region with Burma.

3 Tegenfeldt, Herman G., 1974, A Century of Growth: The Kachin Baptist Church of Burma, The William Carey Library, Pasadena, Calif., pp. 116–118.


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