China Meets the World (3) – Prelude to Change

by Kong Shiu Loon 江紹倫


Initial Contact

I first met Dr. Wu Yi-Fang 吳貽芳in May 1972 when I led the first group of overseas Chinese scholars to visit China. She is of small build, gentle, graceful, and widely knowledgeable. She is not famous in the popular sense. But she has contributed significantly to modern China, from the 1911 Revolution on, and through the turbulent years of the Sino-Japanese War, the Civil War, and lately the Cultural Revolution 文化大革命. (1928年,吳貽芳任金陵女大第一任校長時在校園內留影)

The reason and purpose of our group’s visit was educational, in a broad sense. It was for us to see the new education which was attracting wide international attention and, from behind the scene, for leaders in China to hear from us what was happening in the outside world. I had met with many scholars and administrators, including the then Minister of Education, and Dr. Charles K. Kao, a member of our group and future Nobel Laureate, was invited to give a talk at Qing Hua University.

I asked to meet Dr. Wu who was then the President of Nanjing University. In my mind, she is one of the three great ladies in modern Chinese history. The other two are Deng Ying-Chao 鄧穎超 and Kang Ke-Qing 康克清.

The meeting was in her residence. It was at five thirty in the afternoon, right after super which was at 4:45pm. It was, therefore, meant to be a brief courteous call, because bed-time was seven o’clock in those days. “When in Rome do as the Roman do” is a good rule to follow in visiting a special environ, as we know in our Chinese sayings 入境問俗 or 入鄉随俗.

It is not easy for the average person to imagine what a closed society is like. But, we knew it was important to simply follow any arrangement that our escorts had made for us. We were very lucky to be able to make that eventful trip. As it turned out, we were involved in making history, in more ways than one.



There are numerous sayings explaining the meaning and working of history. Aristotle said it was a systematic account of a set of natural phenomena. The trouble is that he did not say who made the account. So it is not an inspiring explanation.

Rabbi Chaim Stern took a personal approach when he designed a prayer for retirees in a seminar in 1977. The prayer is: “O Lord, I have but this single chance traversing this world. If I can do any good deed, or be friendly with anyone, let me do them now. Let me do not delay nor neglect, because I will not be here again.”

It might have been Bernard Shaw who said that “history is the experience of all simple men”. I could not be too far off because the statement is true, tinted with humour, a trademark of Shaw.

Another writer takes the same approach in placing the individual in the grand picture of history. Gao Xing Jian 高行健, author of Soul Mountain, said in his speech when he accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature: “Literature is a supplement of history. (When) the grand rule of history imposes its power on man giving no room for self-defence, man has to leave his own voice. Man has not only history, but also literature as legacy”.

I like something more practical, action that I can follow. The best expression of history, from the standpoint of what one could do for it, is what Dag Hammarskjold said when he was Secretary General of the United Nations: “To let oneself be bound by a duty from the moment you see it approaching is a part of the integrity that alone justifies responsibility.” Underlying this perception is that history is not made by heroes, but by ordinary men working to fulfill the traditional sense of responsibility.

President Wu began the meeting by apologising that she could not greet us at the university campus, because she had to attend important meetings at the provincial legislature. I knew, in my own mind, that the university was closed, and the government was interested only for us to visit the National Tomb of Dr. Sun Yet Sen and the Yangtze River Bridge. The latter was a showcase of the success of the country because it was built entirely by local engineers. I responded by saying how much our group appreciated the opportunity of visiting Nanjing, capital of so many dynasties in history. Then I moved on, trying to accomplish my own mission, to make friends with her.

“President Wu, you and I have quite a few friends in common, even though this is the first time we meet.” I began, seeing her eyes brightened up as she heard me.

She responded without showing any surprise, simply saying, “That is very interesting. This famous city of history is indeed witnessing history everyday.”

I continued by giving the names of Pan Su 潘菽, Zhou Fa Gao 周法高, Li Choh Min 李卓敏 and four more other names, all my colleagues at one time or another. I watched her face shone with increasing amazement as I went on. I then told her how, in 1961, Professor Pan and I were next door neighbours at Nanyang University, where he was Dean of the Faculty of Science and I, a beginning Associate Professor with the Faculty of Arts. Further, my Dean was Yan Yang Zhang 嚴元章, one of her colleagues during the war. I also relayed the greetings of Dr. Li, Vice Chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, with whom I was serving.

“I know Mr. Pan very well,” she replied, her voice filled with joy, “He was President of our university in 1951-57. Then he left China, and I have not heard of him until now. It is indeed interesting that you two were together in Singapore. I had also the pleasure of working with the Li brothers, especially Choh Hao卓皓, a wonderful scientist. Please do return my greetings to your Chancellor for me”

There was not enough time to exchange information about so many mutual friends across such a wide expanse of time and events. I was also mindful that other people in my group were not involved in our conversation. So I called the meeting to an end after expressing my wish to visit her again in the future. We said a very warm goodbye.


Prior Linkages

I went to see Dr. Wu again in the winter of 1976. It was a private visit. We had dinner together at her residence. It was an exquisite meal cooked by her maid who had been with her for half a century. Only one of the four dishes was meat. The soup was a delicate broth made with chicken, bamboo shoot and fresh vegetable. And we had white dumplings for staples. There was plenty of time to chat after dinner, punctuated by the famous flower tea of Nanjing.

I set a nostalgic mood for her by telling her how much I admire her mentor Mrs. Matilda Thurston, who had devoted her whole life for Chinese education, beginning with the founding of Ginling College in 1915. I also enquired about her earlier experience which was an intricate part of Chinese history.

The following are brief exerts of our conversation.

“I know the history of the development of public education in the United States well from my graduate studies. The visions of the early giants like Horace Mann and Elizabeth Peabody had laid a solid foundation for American schools to thrive until today, balancing the often contradictory factors of fairness and excellence for all. I did not dream that I would befriend these people’s second generation relatives and, through talking with them, get to know how the first college for girls was set up in China and your name stitched to it. It happened when I was doing research at the Hoover Library of Stanford University.” I said in one gulf.

“How interesting indeed. It shows that the world is a small place, even across oceans. It is all very interesting how things happened, evolved, and after a long time, people in these events meet, quite by chance, but in meaningful ways. Perhaps that is how history developed”, she said, half in reply, but more like reminiscing.

“I had often wondered how you began school. And how you became the President of Ginling College when you were barely 30 years old? That should be the youngest college president anywhere in the world.” I asked.

“It is all by chance. My cousin had very progressive parents who agreed with her plead to unbound her feet and let her attend boarding school in town, 12 miles from our village. She was nine years old. I was two years younger and we were very good friends. She persuaded me and my parents to do the same. It was a one-room school that also taught English, one of its kinds in China then, run by American missionaries. After five years, I graduated and took two years of business school to learn typing and shorthand. I worked for one year. Then came Ginling College. China was in fervent, with the 1911 Revolution辛亥革命putting the Qing Dynasty and feudal rule to an absolute end.”

“I know what you mean. It must have been a very big change for you, and for China, especially during the confusing aftermath of the Revolution. From my reading, the Emperor had issued an edict favouring education for women in 1907. Miss Matilda was already in China. She married her husband Lawrence Thurston in 1902. He had established the Yale in China Mission a few years earlier. They fled the north to settle in Changsha. Unfortunately, he died a year later. Mrs Thurston carried on for 41 years, through the turbulence of the Northern Expedition and the Japanese War. She returned to the US in 1943 and died peacefully in 1958, at age 83, contented in what she had done for women education in China. That was what her niece told me. She was with her in her final days.”

“I am very pleased to hear that. She has been a very loving mentor to me and all her students.”

“Knowing her and working with her must have been an inspiring and nurturing experience. But being a part of history, you might not know the larger picture. You said earlier that much of history happened by chance. That is true. But history is also made by people who cherish life and love. Here is what I learned from the piles of documents I found at the Hoover Library. Mrs Thurston and several American women teachers were stranded in Shanghai at the unsettling time of the l911 Revolution. Correspondence with the US was very slow in those days. But they believed that it was time to establish a college for women, along with all the new expectation of the new Republic. So they persuaded five mission boards across the US to support their idea, and got their supports. I have read all the letters back and forth, with each board giving from US$500 to US$10,000 for the project. They chose the new capital Nanking to build Ginling College 金陵女子大学 in 1913. It was opened in 1915 with 6 professors and 11 students. Mrs. Thurston served as the first President until she passed it to you in 1928. It was in many respects a landmark in Chinese tertiary education.”

“Well, when you are involved in it, it is only a part of daily life.”

“I believe that some facts should be recorded for dissemination, else people take things for granted, as if they just emerged, without effort and personal sacrifice, led by vision. Smith College (which conferred you a LL.D degree in 1943) adopted Ginling College as her foreign project and sister in the Orient in 1921, so your college was recognized in the United States with the highest prestige. Japan attacked China in l937. Your college went to exile in Chungking the following year, joining the Southwest Union University 西南联大, another landmark institution that had produced so many great scholars for our country, including no less than three Nobel Laureates.”

“What do you know and how do you feel about 南京大屠殺 the Nanking Massacre?” She asked.

“That happened when I was only three years old. But I hate it and believe it is the utmost shame for mankind. When a highly educated nation can do something so brutal and without remorse, it speaks of its total corruption in conscience. I have read a lot of testimony about it at Stanford, including the Diary of John Rabe, a Nazi businessman who was the leader of the Nanking Safety Zone for Foreigners. He wrote on December 17, 1937: “….last night up to 1000 women and girls are said to have been raped, about 100 girls at Ginling College alone….What you hear or see on all sides is the brutality or bestiality of the Japanese soldiers.” History had recorded that Prince Asaka flew to Nanking to supervise the attack, and he ordered the army to “kill all captives”. That meant, according to the International Military Tribunal of the Far East, an estimated twenty thousand rapes and more than two million casualties, done in a period of six long weeks.”

Dr. Wu had moisture in her eyes. And she told me that the suffering was more. “China had its pride and jubilation of the 八百壯士 in the Battle of Shanghai in August 1937. But, Chiang Kai Shek knew that the fall of Nanking was imminent. He fled to Hankow, having issued an order to turn every inch of soil into ashes before the Japanese arrived. Villages were burned and people fled, leaving all they had for systematic arson. I need not tell you the loss and sorrow…..But I am glad that you remember and feel for those tragic and unfair events. History should not be just recorded. It should be written with people in it, and with feelings for justice.”

We turned to other historic events and figures, such as Tao Xing Zhi 陶行知, Xu Zhi Mo 徐志摩, Chiang Kai Shek 蔣介石, Chairman Mao 毛主席 and others. I asked her if she knew Tao well. She said yes, because the Dawn Village 曉莊 that he established was near by, a successful experimental school. She asked me what I thought of it and Tao.

“He certainly had a big influence in modern Chinese education, especially in the leftist areas in rural China. To me he went to Columbia University, a mine of ideas and vision, but he came home almost empty-handed. He altered his teacher, Dewey’s vision that ‘school is life’, and preached that ‘life is education’. Such a slogan could mislead people, as it became the philosophy of ‘learning from the peasants’ in Chairman Mao’s drive to send university students and professors to learn in the countryside.”

I noticed that I might be treading on a sensitive issue, and changed our conversation to share in other safer topics


Progressive Tradition

We made a quick run on the development of Ginling College and Nanking University, the many epoch achievements made. From the start, Ginling College used English to teach all subjects, a first in China. Parallel to it, Nanking University was one of the oldest universities, and it became the first:

- to begin training teachers for art and physical education, 1906

- to begin a program for business studies, with Ma Yin Chu 馬寅初 as dean, 1921

- to admit female students under the administration of Tao Xing Zhi in 1920, the first university to do so in China, except Ginling College

- to begin studies in the humanities and a revival of Chinese culture, 1922. The program attracted the visits of many international educators and scholars, including Paul Monroe, John Dewey, W.H. Kilpatrick, Edward Thorndike from America; Bertrand Russell and Bernard Shaw from England; Hans Driesch from Germany; and Rabindranath Tagore from India

- to begin the Chinese Academy of Science, 1928

- to begin a Forum for the Natural Sciences, initiated by Pan Su in 1939. It evolved to become the Nine Three Institute 三九學社, and the Chinese Democratic Party of today

- to begin the first Professional Journal Studies Department, 1940. It launched the New China Daily 新華日報 established by Zhou En-Lai 周恩來, and printed Mao Tse-Tung’s famous poem “Snow(沁園春. 雪)

- In association with Ginling, it first introduced teaching methods in China and established the Teachers’ Festival 中國教師節. It was also the first university to teach General Education, as well as the Ph.D. degree program in China.


After the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, Dr. Wu was recognized by the new government as a leader in many fields. She was charged with the responsibility of leading committees of education, women’s rights, community service, and international relations.

At the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 the United States and China cut off all financial transactions. By 1951, Ginling College was combined with Nanking University with Pan Su serving as President. Dr. Wu helped to reorganize the curriculum and the administration to suit the new needs and policies. Pan Su carried on until 1957 before he left China. Smith College turned its resources to aid Tunghai University in Taiwan in 1954, continuing its tradition.

Back to our conversation, I realized the evening was wearing off quickly. I asked Dr. Wu about the present situation when she was taking more responsibility as Vice Governor of Jiangsu Province. The Cultural Revolution had lost its reason to persist with the death of The Great Leader. But the Red Guards 紅衛兵 were not giving up. In fact, they were escalating their struggles. The new problem was that different factions were fighting with one another, often resorting to arms and killing. “How will these end?” I asked.

“I am getting tired of this nonsense now, and I can use my limited energy for more positive activities. I don’t go out too often these days because some of the Red Guards are ruthless. There is no telling who they are and what they want. Our government is calling for calm and unity. We will succeed.”

“If I may suggest, I believe education is the key to solve the problems, even the political ones. Our traditional values are still in people’s hearts. We need to rekindle those values which are universal to human conscience. The university must lead.”

“Yes, it will.”

We ended the meeting wishing each other well and our motherland to honour our traditional wisdom. We both believed in the cyclical rhythm of history and the conscience of man.


Prelude to Change

Behold, the Faculty and students of Nanjing University was already leading for change. They protested against the Cultural Revolution and called for it to end in the famous March 29 Event 三.二九事件. It signalled the beginning of a new march for change, from ignorance and selfishness to knowledge and consciousness for others. The foolish slogan of “No destruction, no new establishment” (不破不立) would soon be replaced by the Confucian mindset of 仁,義,禮,智,信.

By 1978, the winds of change were blowing in many directions, gathering force. Intellectual youths were holding their heads high and their aims far. At Nanjing University, a lecturer of the Philosophy Department, Hu Fu Ming 胡福明, published an article Practice is the Sole Standard for the Validation of Truth. (實踐是檢驗真理的唯一標準). It immediately set off a countrywide debate, resulting in the repudiation of the then prevalent slogan of Two Is (兩個凡是). They were “Whatever Chairman Mao said is right”, and “Whatever agrees with the policy of the Communist Party is right”. The name of that article became a slogan that set the theoretical stage for Deng Xiao Ping 鄧小平 to launch the Era of Big Reform 改革大時代.

China was finally on her way to meet the world, in knowledge and wisdom, for prosperity and peace.