Charles Chao – Translator and Refugee

From the earliest days of Protestant missions, foreign missionaries understood the need of training local pastors. The priorities given to this task varied. In many cases, circumstances helped to hasten the process.

            This is what happened in Manchuria, a historical region of northeast China, in 1941, when the government forced all religious schools to close. This Yinkguo Bible Institute, which had become an isle of orthodoxy in a country where the siren of religious liberalism was attracting many.

            The school’s president was J. G. Vos, son of the renowned Princeton professor Geerhardus. Before leaving for the States, Vos asked his friend, assistant, and former student Charles H. Chao (Chao Chung-Hui) to be the school’s caretaker, hoping that the situation would soon change.


Translator and Pastor

            Born on August 2, 1916, Chao was raised a Christian by his mother, who had encountered Christianity in her youth. Of all her children, only Charles shared her faith. In 1935, Charles attended the first Manchurian Christian conference at the Yinkguo Bible Institute and was so impressed by the teachings of the main speaker, Wang Mingdao,[1] that he applied to become a student at the institute and dedicated his life to serving Christ.

            By then, Chao was already married. As it was customary, his marriage had been arranged by his mother. Because of the uncertain times, the ceremony took place when Chao was only sixteen. His bride, Li Yu Chen Chao (Pearl), was not a Christian but Charles’s mother sent her to a nearby Bible institute where she learned about Christianity and was baptized. Their first son, Theodore, was born in 1936.

            After an internship in Northern Manchuria, Chao returned to the seminary on the invitation of J. G. Vos, who was looking for an assistant. Vos introduced him to the writings of Loraine Boettner, lighting in Chao’s heart a desire to translate them into Chinese. Following Boettner’s advice, he started with The Inspiration of Scriptures. This was just the first of Chao’s numerous translations.

            After Vos’s departure, Chao took care of the school’s grounds for fourteen months, until the government claimed them. He then moved to Tashihchiao, where the local pastor needed an assistant. He stayed there until 1945, when the Japanese surrendered. The people of Manchuria rejoiced to see the Japanese leave their country. But their joy didn’t last long, because Russian troops soon replaced them.


Out of the Tiger’s Mouth

            This began the long struggle between the Soviet army and the Chinese Nationalist movement. It was a harrowing time for the population, who was forced to submit to the Russians’ demands for food, services, and women. In his autobiography, Out of the Tiger’s Mouth, Chao remembers one time when the Russians asked him to find them some women. He had heard of locals who had been killed for refusing to comply. Thankfully, some unexpected circumstances forced the Russians to let him go unharmed.

            Another time, right after the birth of his seventh son, William, a group of Chinese communists abducted Charles from his house and brought him to their headquarters where he and other Chinese captives were forcefully enlisted to march before their troops as a human shield. Taking advantage of a moment of confusion, Charles managed to escape.

            Clearly alarmed, the Chaos decided to move to Mukden, which was under Nationalist control. There, Charles worked as an interpreter for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), shipping American relief supplies to Chinese distribution centers. It was a demanding and stressful job. Longing to put his pastoral training to practice, he was glad when opportunities arose to teach English first in a local school and later at the Mukden YMCA, where he was also able to introduce young Chinese to Christ.

            During this time, he corresponded with Vos and Boettner, who encouraged him to continue his studies in the States. In fact, they had procured for him a scholarship at Faith Seminary of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), in Tacoma, Washington, and had helped him to get a visa.

            What’s more, Boettner was able to arrange for Chao a plane ride from Mukden to Shanghai on a Lutheran “mercy plane,” which was meant to transport refugees out of China. The door seemed wide open and Chao interpreted it as a confirmation that God wanted him in the States.


Crisis of Conscience

            His conscience, however, kept bothering him. Could he really leave his wife and seven children in a country where the Communist forces were advancing rapidly and often violently? He had been encouraged to go by his father-in-law, where Pearl and the children were staying, but doubts kept resurfacing.

            He was fully aware of Pearl’s challenges. In her own words, from the time Charles had left, their family had been suffering “separation, anxiety, and all the daily inconveniences and perils of life in the middle of a civil war between the Communists and the Nationalists.”[2]

            “Tears were never far from my eyes,” she said. Before moving to her father’s, the Communists had taken all her food from her house except for ten bags of grain that she had hidden carefully. That, and the green soy beans her children were able to pick in the fields, made up their daily rations for some time. On top of that, the emergency delivery Charles had to perform on the birth of their last child had some complications, as the umbilical cord, not properly disinfected, caused a painful infection in the child’s belly. Thankfully, some local midwives caught it in time.

            The danger of being a woman alone with young children was compounded by the fact that her husband’s connections with American pastors was seen with suspicion. Even her final escape to her father’s house in the middle of the night was fraught with danger and challenges, as they faced a hailstorm and had to wade through a large river. In spite of this, Pearl’s father kept encouraging her to let Charles pursue his calling in the States.

            It was Albert Greene who woke Charles up to the validity of his doubts. “As a Christian,” Greene said, “I think what you are doing is wrong.”[3] He then quoted 1 Timothy 5:8, which considers the failure of Christians to provide for their families a denial of their faith.

            Convinced by this verse, Chao decided to stay in China. But Greene continued to work on his behalf, obtaining permission to get Pearl and the children on a flight to Shanghai in seven days. But could Pearl receive Charles’s telegram in time to pack, make the long travel from her village to Mukden in a wooden cart, and catch the plane?

            Charles’s telegram simply said, “Get to Mukden on Thursday.” Pearl, who received it on a Thursday, didn’t know if it meant the very same day. “My heart almost failed me,” she said. “We were nervous, excited and elated, all at the same time.”[4] Once again, the trip was difficult and dangerous, but they made it to Shanghai safely and on time – partially thanks to some mechanical problems that had forced the plane to leave a few days later.


Translating Ministry

            Setting aside his dream of studying in America, Charles served as a pastor in two consecutive churches in the district of Rukao, north of Shanghai. It was there that he received a letter by Samuel E. Boyle, a missionary of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America who had been corresponding with him for some time. Boyle invited Chao to join him in Canton (now Guangzhou) in an effort to translate more Reformed works into Chinese. At first, Chao didn’t want to leave his present ministry, but when Communist troops began to threaten Rukao, he decided it was time to move.

            But even their stay in Canton was short, and the advance of Communist troops forced them to move to Cheung Chau Island, six miles south of Hong Kong. In spite of these interruptions and of a constant lack of funds, the team published their first books in 1950 under the imprint of Reformation Translation Fellowship (RTF). The fellowship’s motto was “The word of God is not bound” (2 Timothy 2:9).

            Their first publication was J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism (1951), previously translated by a university teacher, Hon Ka Lai, and corrected by Chao. The second was Boettner’s The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (1952), translated by Chao.

            Chao also started a magazine called Reformation Faith (later entitled Reformation Faith and Life). Soon, the team started to receive encouraging letters by people whose lives had been changed by reading the magazine and translations.

            Adapting first to Canton, then to Hong Kong was not easy for the Chaos, particularly because of the change in languages, but Boyle went out of his way to make the transition easy. In Canton, the Chaos also received much help from Jeanette Li,[5] a Chinese missionary who had learned to speak Manchurian while working with J. G. Vos.


On the Road Again

            But the Chaos’ peregrinations had not yet ended. In 1950, the American Board of Foreign Missions requested some RPCNA missionaries to move from China to Japan, a country that had only recently opened its borders. After a visit to Japan, Boyle accepted the call and found a home in Kobe. Once again, the Chaos followed them. Once again, the language presented a challenge, particularly for the children who struggled to find a suitable school. The only Chinese school in Kobe was run by communists and was openly hostile to religion.

            Finally, the younger children were able to attend St. Michael’s School in Kobe, which was run by the Church of England. Learning English was difficult, but they eventually managed. The older children had to travel about twenty miles to Osaka. Charles, who had been licensed to preach but was still without ordination, studied for a year at the Kobe Reformed Theological Seminary. In the morning, he and the children left home together, each with his bag of books, and boarded the same train.

            Money was scarce with ten mouths to feed (two more children were born in Kobe), but an American missionary, Rose Huston, who was born in a family of fourteen, gave the Chaos much advice and assistance. One of her suggestions was for Pearl to raise chickens. She provided the money for the first ten, and soon Pearl was caring for fifty hens, gathering an average of twenty-six eggs a day – enough for her family’s consumption and to sell.

            In 1954, Charles was ordained as a minister in the RPCNA. In the meantime, Boyle arranged for him to attend the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. This time, the situation at home was stable enough to allow Charles to leave for the States. There, he went on a speaking tour to promote the work of RTF.

            It was during one of these trips that a man asked him about his family. When Charles said they were still in China, the man offered to pay $5000 to fly them to the States – a large sum in those days. A libertarian in politics and Reformed in religion, Nymeyer was strongly opposed to Communism and willing to help people like Charles who had suffered under its grip. Besides, he said, “I believe that a wife should be with her husband!”[6]

            The Reformed Presbyterian Board of Home Missions agreed to apply for a resident visa for Charles and to sponsor the immigration of his family. Finally, Pearl and the children sailed from Kobe in August 1958, reuniting with Charles in San Francisco. The family settled in Los Angeles. The same year, Charles, who had graduated from RPTS, enrolled in Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia for a year of graduate studies.

            In 1967, Charles made a world tour to introduce the work of RTF. As a result, RTF Boards were established in Scotland, Ireland and Australia. The following year, Charles, Pearl, and two of their daughters, Lois and Rose, moved RFT’s headquarters to Taipei, Taiwan, where editing, typesetting, and printing in Chinese was naturally easier.

            Charles continued to preach, speak, translate, and write until 2010, when he went to be with the Lord at the age of 94. His ten children (Theodore, Jonathan, Helen, Jean, Samuel, Harry, Bill, Grace, Lois, and Rose) served the Lord in various capacities.

            Chao is mostly remembered for his role in RFT, which, in the words of Bruce P. Baugus, editor of China’s Reforming Churches: Mission, Polity, and Ministry in the Next Christendom,  “helped form a new generation of Reformed leadership within China and throughout the global Chinese church.”[7]

[2] Charles H. Chao, Out of the Tiger’s Mouth, Fearn, Ross-Shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 1991, 72

[3] Ibid., 71

[4] Ibid., 85

[6] Chao, Out of the Tiger’s Mouth, 128

[7] Bruce P. Baugus, ed., China’s Reforming Churches: Mission, Polity, and Ministry in the Next Christendom, Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014.


Simonetta Carr