At the beginning of the 20th century, destitute young Chinese women dressed carved wooden-head dolls in the costumes representing the various classes of people in their country. These dolls made at the Door of Hope Mission in Shanghai have captured the interest of doll collectors and are much sought after today. Like other pieces of Chinese art, these dolls have simple graceful lines and great attention has been given to the needlework in making their clothing. In the 19th century, foreign powers were trying to exploit China. Many European countries as well as Japan and Russia had been trying to separate China into spheres of influence and gain exclusive trading rights. The American interests wanted access to the country’s resources. This led to the famous “Boxer Rebellion.” The Chinese empress supported the “Boxer” uprising, which hoped to close China to all foreign influence. During this time anti-foreign feelings were directed at missionaries.
At the beginning of 1900 the “Fists of Righteous Harmony,” called by Westerners “Boxers” (because of their fighting techniques), attacked and slaughtered western missionaries and Chinese who had been converted to Christianity. Missionaries were forced to retreat to Shanghai for protection. Amid this backdrop of Chinese struggle for Confucian tradition and the resistance to entry to the modern world, some missionaries’ interest turned to the plight of Chinese women. Missionary women were shocked by the custom of early betrothal of young women, the binding of women’s feet, the kidnapping and slavery of girls and young women, the buying and selling of women as slaves and worse, as concubines and prostitutes, and the practice of killing unwanted female babies. Outraged by these conditions, five women of various Protestant backgrounds—an Episcopalian, a Baptist, a Methodist and a Presbyterian together with a China Mission woman—decided to open a mission to provide a safe haven for destitute young girls. These girls could not read or write; they had no skills. Shanghai police brought many girls to the mission. Girls as young as 5 years old were received there, and the mission also accepted young children who needed care.
The Door of Hope Mission first opened in 1901. A Protestant mission, it was not associated with any specific denomination and received little financial support from churches. Instead, it received its primary funding from charitable groups such as the Shanghai Rotary Club and the American Women’s Club, as well as the Shanghai Municipal Council and donations from residents of Shanghai. The Mission began in a single rented house but grew to include five separate “homes”—The Receiving Home, First Year Home, Industrial Home, Children’s Refuge, Love School and Hospital; here, anywhere from 125 to 200 girls were sheltered. Most girls stayed about two years, gaining self-esteem and skills that would make them self-supporting. Some chose to stay and help other girls; others went on to pursue their futures.
At the mission the girls were taught reading, writing and math, as well as personal hygiene. They learned to sew, embroider and knit. The first challenge was for each girl to make her own gee-ba, a Chinese garment, and then to make cloth shoes. In 1909, at the age of 17, Pearl Buck, daughter of Presbyterian missionaries and known to us as a prize-winning author, briefly volunteered as a teacher at the mission, instructing girls in knitting and embroidery. In 1910 Pearl entered the Randolph Macon Woman’s College. After graduating she returned to China where she spent most of her life and went on to write about Chinese life in novels such as The Good Earth, for which she won a Pulitzer Prize.
During their first year in the mission, young women were taught to dress the Door of Hope Mission dolls. They were paid for dressing the wooden dolls, but more importantly, in the process they also learned to appreciate and be proud of their Chinese heritage. The dolls were designed to be dressed in the traditional costumes of the Chinese people. The doll heads were carved of pear wood by local carvers and attached to cloth bodies, which were stuffed with cotton. Some dolls came with carved hands, others with no hands at all. After 1914, some of the dolls had feet or shoes of carved wood. The heads were simply painted with color added only to the hair, eyes, brows and lips. Since they were individually carved, no two are exactly alike; each head is unique. Their costumes were completely made by hand in tiny, carefully executed stitches. Most of the clothing could be removed, and the dolls were authentically dressed in white cotton underwear before adding the outer garments.
This pair of Door of Hope Mission dolls have a number of layers of clothing. Both have the white undergarments,
Country of Origin: China.
Size: Each 12 inches tall.
Condition: Clothing and wood have heavy patina. Some fraying to fabric.
Circa 1912, per the consignor. She said that was the year her grandmother was at the Mission.
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