The collection contains 83 letters, consisting of 81 letters from Kate Mills to her father, Samuel Wilson, one letter from Kate Mills to her sister, Fannie Wilson, and one letter from Frank Mills to Samuel Wilson. There is a journal of about 140 pages, containing newspaper articles, stories told by Kate's acquaintances, and excerpts from books that Kate transcribed. There are three photographs, two are gelatin prints from the 1920s and one is a carte de visite of a Chinese family, ca. 1880. The relation of the photographs to the collection is not clear. Finally, included with the June 5, 1885 letter, there is a meticulous drawing of the hospital at Hangchow.
The letters begin with Kate and Frank traveling across the United States to San Francisco, stopping at various attractions, including a Mormon church in Utah. They traveled across the Pacific Ocean with the Holts, a missionary family already established in Shanghai, also in the American Presbyterian Mission. After an arduous sea voyage, Kate and Frank arrived in China. Kate was not impressed with the conditions of the country, and in her first letter written from China, she wrote, "If China were not such a disgusting dirty place it would not be such a bad country to be in" (1882 December 11). Although Kate's opinion of China and the Chinese did improve over time, she always maintained an attitude of superiority over the Chinese, which frequently surfaced in her writings.
Kate and Frank's first task was to try to learn the language, which both found frustrating and challenging. They hired a tutor to teach them, but even after months of practice, Kate still felt quite inadequate in her speaking abilities: "it is one thing to be able to make them understand in conversation and quite another to be sufficiently correct to preach" (1883 August 21). Even making the Chinese understand simple requests was a problem. In her May 23, 1883 letter, Kate related how a friend of hers received a can full of dead cockroaches because her order to her servant had not been understood.
The foreign community in China was very supportive and helpful to all its members, so Kate and Frank soon felt at home. Denominations were not terribly important with such small numbers of people, and Kate and Frank went to church services and meetings with Episcopals, Methodists, and Anglicans, as well as Presbyterians. As Kate's stay in China progressed, she gradually built up a network of friends and came to enjoy missionary work enough to recommend it to others. Kate and Frank frequently traveled in the surrounding area, visiting people, going to meetings, staying with friends, entertaining house guests, and going to Shanghai to do their shopping. Kate found the prices in Shanghai to be expensive beyond belief, although later she learned the art of bargaining, which lowered the price considerably. Nevertheless, Kate had her father send things from home to try to save money. Frank's salary as a missionary was fairly modest, but the two managed to live comfortably.
Kate's letters provide an interesting foreign perspective on Chinese culture. She described the Chinese New Year, Chinese customs of eating and receiving guests, Chinese temples and religious practices, and Chinese homes. Her journal, which contains more anecdotes and descriptions from friends and newspapers, is also a rich resource. Particularly notable in her journal are quotations she took from a Chinese friend's observations of the Western world. Describing children, he wrote, "when visiting their seniors they must apply their mouths to the left and right lips of the older with a smacking noise" (Journal, p. 27).
Although Kate's comments about the Chinese often revealed her prejudice against them, she had a gentle sense of humor that offset the harshness of her words and allowed her to view things from a variety of perspectives. For example, although Kate constantly complained of the Chinese all being thieves and liars, when her house was actually robbed, she maintained her good nature, writing, "someone went through our house and helped themselves to what they wanted and unfortunately for us their wants and ours happened to be the same" (1883 September 18).
Kate and Frank's travels in China brought them to many different places. Each summer they left the oppressive heat in Hangchow, staying in Shanghai, hills surrounding Hangchow, and even in a Chinese temple. Kate was surprised at how little resistance the established religions had to Christianity, for the Chinese priests "seem to make no distinction between our religion and theirs but regard them as one and the same" (1883 March 16). Yet most of their attempts at missionizing did not result in many conversions. When they traveled around the country, flocks of people would come to see the Americans, making Kate feel that she "could almost imagine I was the principle attraction in Barnum's show," but few in the crowds were interested in the message of Christianity (1883 December 18).
During her stay in China, war broke out between China and France from August 1884 to April 1885. Kate was not directly affected, but all of the French foreigners left the country and she was concerned about native reaction toward the remaining foreigners and about a general loss of order. "I pose we have more to fear from an uprising of natives than from the French," she observed (1884 August 26). Hangchow remained relatively peaceful during the whole war, but she described difficulties that foreigners were having in other parts of China. In Canton, "foreigners cannot go out without hearing 'kill him, kill him' on all sides" (1885 January 28).
Kate's letters provide a view into the domestic side of life as well. In addition to her missionary work, Kate ran the household and cared for her family. She continually argued with her Chinese servants in her attempts to keep the household in order. One two separate occasions servants stole some her belongings. Besides servants, Kate had to battle natural forces trying to disrupt her home. The hot and damp weather brought mosquitoes and "mould" that ruined her clothing.
Kate also had to face the burden of raising her children in a foreign environment. She was very secretive about her pregnancies. In a fascinating letter marked "private," dated September 10, 1884, Kate informed her father of her pregnancy only about a month before she was due. She made no mention of her second pregnancy before the baby was born. The bulk of the September 10 letter is about her friend Jennie, who was having "womb trouble" and would not be able to bear children. Consequently Jennie "broods over it until she makes herself sick. Dr. calls the disease hysteria." Because of her illness, Jennie was returning home to Windsor, Connecticut. Kate was unsympathetic toward Jennie, telling her father that Jennie was responsible for her troubles and would do nothing to try to help herself. Her reaction is surprising especially considering Kate's own pregnancy, although perhaps she was concerned such a thing could happen to her and was upset that her close friend was leaving her before Kate gave birth. Fortunately Jennie's story ended happily. She returned to China in 1886, and gave birth to a boy in 1887.
Kate's family story did not end so well. Her second son died in infancy, and although Kate tried to accept his death, she found it very difficult. "We tried to give him up cheerfully but I never before supposed that such a wee thing could leave such a large empty space" (1888 August 4). Only a few months later her first son, Sidney, died of diphtheria, devastating Kate. "It was dreadful when Baby went but it seems now as if I could hardly endure to live day after day in our house, for his face and voice haunts very spot." (1888 November 24). Within a month, Kate and Frank began to plan their trip home, concluding their missionary work in China.