Foreign Puppets, Christian Mothers or Revolutionary Martyrs? The Multiple Identities of Missionary School Girls in East China, 1917-1952

Dr Jennifer Bond is a Lecturer in East Asian History at Durham University. Her research spans the fields of Chinese History, Mission Studies, Gender and Education. Her PhD (SOAS, University of London), explored the intersections of Nationalism, Christianity and Feminism in the identity negotiations of girls who attending missionary schools for girls in early twentieth century East China, based on 75 oral history interviews conducted with missionary school albumen along with archival sources from China, UK, USA and Taiwan. She is the Co-founder of the China Academic Network on Gender (CHANGE), a transnational interdisciplinary network for graduate students and Early Career Researchers who are working on Gender in China from humanities and social science perspectives:


On a sunny day in February 1992 a group of McTyeire alumnae, dressed in blue to represent their class colour, gathered to pose for a photo in front of their old dormitory, Lambuth-Clopton Hall, a neo-gothic style building built in 1922, and today known as May First Hall (Wuyi Tang 五一堂).

McTyeire Alumnae (Class of 1946) gather to pose for a group photo at the centennial anniversary of their school in 1992. Alumnae wear their class colour (blue) and a jumper emblazoned with the school motto ‘Live, Love and Grow’. Photo courtesy of Xu Meizhen (McTyeire class of 1946).

This was an immensely special day for the alumnae, who had come from all over the world to the Shanghai Number Three Girls’ School (Shanghai shi di san nüzi zhongxue, 上海市第三女子中學) to celebrate the centenary of its missionary school forerunner, McTyeire (Zhongxi nüzhong中西女中), founded in 1892 by the American Methodist Missionary Society.[1] Earlier in the day they had once again assembled in Richardson Hall, now May Fourth Hall (Wusi Tang五四堂), to remember their school history. A baby grand piano, their gift to the school, stood proudly covered in velvet, untouched on the stage, while their old headmistress, Xue Zheng 薛正, now ninety-three years old and honorary principal of Number Three Girls’ School, beamed proudly at the achievements of her old girls. After the ceremony they filed outside through the entrance hall, where the stained glass windows pooled yellow and orange light onto their whitening hair, out onto the immaculate lawns for the photoshoot. Alumnae clutched at the green and gold gas-filled balloons emblazoned with the McTyeire coat of arms and motto: ‘Live, Love and Grow’ while current pupils of the Number Three Girls’ School stood around, shyly watching and offering help to the alumnae who were their counterparts of a different age: honoured bearers of the school’s newly prestigious missionary past. Rosalyn Koo (McTyeire class of 1947) remembered: ‘It was an all-day affair and at night we had glow sticks. And we walked around, singing music. Xue Zheng was so happy.’[2]

Lambuth-Clopton Hall, built in 1922, was originally the dormitory for McTyiere Girls Middle School. In 1952 McTyiere and St. Mary’s were merged to become the Shanghai Number Three Girls School. Photo by Jennifer Bond, Shanghai, 15 April 2016.
McTyeire Class of 1946, Graduation Photo. Image from The McTyerian (Shanghai 1946).


Rosalyn Koo, (McTyerie Class of 1947). Photo by Jennifer Bond, San Mateo, 5 November 2017.

Sitting in her comfortable living room in a San Mateo retirement community inNovember 2016, Rosalyn Koo explained to me how the centennial celebration of McTyeire had come about. In 1977 Rosalyn, like many other overseas Chinese who had left before the Communist takeover in 1949, returned to China to try to find relatives who they had not seen in almost three decades. On her trip, she encountered not only her family members, but also her old principal, Xue Zheng, in Shanghai. Rosalyn recalled:

I found my favourite uncle, the radio operator, looking so old. Like my principal, Xue Zheng, looked so old. Everybody looks so old, a terrible life. And I just opened the suitcase, and I said ‘take everything.’ And then I said okay, nothing I can do, except I can do something for Xue Zheng. And she was down in the mouth, you know, not married, no kids. And I decided, well, she was abused during the Cultural Revolution, they broke her legs and all that. And so I thought, well the time has changed. So, somehow, I am going to restore your old glory. [3]

After being invited by Rosalyn to visit the McTyeire San Francisco Alumnae Association in 1979, Xue Zheng was given the position of honorary principal of the Number Three Girls’ school on her return to China. In the era of China’s reform and opening up, both headmistress and alumnae saw a unique opportunity to recapture their school’s history and direct its future through their financial investment in the school. The first step was to reinstate Music and English, and then crucially to restore the school to being an all-girls’ institution. Rosalyn explained:

I said [to Xue Zheng], ‘alright from now on, whatever you want I will go and find it for you’. And I said ‘okay, let’s restore Music and English. Take my word for it that is what you must do, and get rid of the boys…Now if you get rid of the boys, I will bring the alumnae in.’ And so we hurried up and got organised, and I had my draftsman design some stationery with a letterhead. I went in 77, in 79 she [Xue Zheng] came, and in 81 the boys left and the school became a girls’ school.  They called it an experimental school.

Did the boys go to another school?

I don’t care, just go! (Laughing)

The Alumnae were getting ready to return and we organised the centennial, and the first thing we did was to repair the gymnasium. And then what do you want? Okay, A computer. Wang Laboratory, Wang’s wife was class of 1936. Okay, what else do you want? I said I want to restore Music. So, in Taiwan this lady, class of 1934 I think, gave a hundred thousand USD, and the principal Mr Chen was so flabbergasted. And so they brought brass instruments to form a band. And then in 1992 all of us went back, for the centennial.[4]

Through their financial support the McTyeire alumnae thus succeeded in reclaiming their school history, restoring it to an all-girls’ school. It is today the only government-run all-girls’ school in Shanghai, and one renowned for producing girls who are both academically and musically outstanding, much like the guixiu 閨秀 or accomplished upper-class young ladies who graduated from the school before 1949.

What was it about their experiences at school, or their memories of those experiences, which drove alumnae to want to recapture their school history and determine its future? A sense of pride in their school history is palpable in the reunions that take place annually in alumnae chapters across the world from Shanghai and Beijing to New York and San Francisco. A desire to capture and preserve their school’s prestigious past for posterity has recently resulted in the publication of a three-volume school history, composed of memoirs written by alumnae themselves.[5] This history is by no means a straightforward one, and many different versions of their story could be told. It is also a highly political and personal one, as every member of the school had different experiences and took a different path upon graduation. Collectively, alumnae’s memories allow us a unique insight into how girls experienced mission education in Shanghai at the beginning of the twentieth century and how these experiences influenced their lives and later careers.

From missionary claims of ‘uplift’ and ‘enlightenment’, to Maoist-era accusations of ‘foreign occupation’ and ‘brainwashing’, to nostalgia and commercialisation in the era of economic reforms and opening, the story of missionary schools in China has been reinvented many times with the momentous political and social changes that have marked China’s twentieth century. In much of the early literature on missionary education in China, missionaries themselves have taken centre stage, and Chinese women were presented as the passive recipients of a ‘modernising’ western education, which unbound their feet and raised them from their traditionally portrayed ‘downtrodden position’ within the Confucian family system. For example, in 1911 Margaret Burton praised efforts of Mary Anne Aldersey, founder of the first school for girls in China (1844) and other pioneer missionary women: ‘with rare courage they undertook the seemingly impossible task of persuading the Chinese that they meant any good to their daughters, and of convincing them that these daughters were capable of education and well worthy of it.’[6] At the turn of the twentieth century, as Chinese reformers such as Liang Qichao 梁啟超 (1873-1929), Kang Youwei康有為 (1858-1927) and Song Shu 宋恕  (1862-1910) started to advocate female education as a means of national strengthening, reform-minded members of the gentry-elite started to send their daughters to missionary schools or set up their own schools for their daughters and those of their friends and relatives. The desirability of female education gained ground in the first few decades of the twentieth century during the social, cultural and literary awakening of the May Fourth period, and western-style mission schools became popular with the upper classes. By the 1920-40s the most wealthy and influential families of the Republican society sent their daughters to missionary schools, where they could receive a western-style English language education. Graduates such as the Song Sisters, and daughters of other leading businessmen and politicians, earned missionary schools such as St. Mary’s (an American Episcopal School for girls founded in 1881) and McTyeire the reputation of being ‘elite’ or ‘aristocratic’ schools. In 1946 a Shanghai newspaper described McTyeire as ‘Shanghai’s most aristocratic school for girls.’[7]  However, after 1949 this elite image has contributed to the most enduring negative narrative of missionary schools since their foundation (which has persisted throughout the twentieth century, and particularly during the Mao years): that they were tools of cultural imperialism and foreign brainwashing.[8] In more recent decades, as China has opened up to the West, missionary schools have again become legitimate objects of scholarly enquiry in the People’s Republic of China, being celebrated as early sites of Sino-foreign cultural interaction. The western-style architecture of formerly dilapidated missionary school compounds in East China has been spruced up, rebuilt and commercialised as shopping centres, pubs and museums, as local governments strive to highlight the global history of their cities and preserve and repackage their cultural heritage.[9]

Xu Xin (St. Mary’s class of 1950) and her classmate riding bicycles on St. Mary’s campus. ca: 1948. Photograph courtesy of Xu Xin.
St. Mary’s Church is now the only remaining original building left of the St. Mary’s Campus. The other school buildings have been rebuilt in imitation of their original Spanish style as a German pub and shopping outlet (adjacent and opposite). Photo by Jennifer Bond, June 2017.

The history of these interpretations is a cyclical one, as Chinese society oscillated between hostility and openness to foreigners and foreignness in the process of nation building and resisting imperialism throughout the twentieth century. Missionary schools provide an important lens through which we can explore the self-searching modes in which Chinese society has grappled with its relationship to different forms of western modernity, welcoming, rejecting, appropriating and experimenting with their relationship to ‘others’ in a self-conscious search for what it means to be ‘Chinese’, a negotiation that is still going on today. The accusation or fear that Chinese citizens who come into contact with western ideas either through Christian churches or international schools have become ‘denationalised’ by this exposure is still current and perhaps growing in China today. This study which highlights the history of these identity negotiations is therefore of contemporary relevance to churches and Sino-foreign schools in China, whose members tend to defend their identity as Chinese citizens through overt displays of patriotism much as missionary students did in the 1920s. Although these narratives have swung from left to right, from colonial to post-colonial in their political interpretations, very few have sought to understand and put at the centre the stories and identities of pupils who attended mission schools themselves.

My thesis is an attempt to discover the voices of missionary school pupils, placing at its centre their own understanding of what it meant to be female, Chinese and sometimes Christian during the first four decades of China’s turbulent twentieth century. In particular, it pays attention to how Chinese women had agency to make use of the many different influences and experiences they were exposed to at these schools including Christianity, feminism and Communist ideology. They rejected, combined and assimilated different aspects of these for their own ends, forging in the process their own unique understandings of Chinese modernity. I argue that although founded on conservative Victorian notions of femininity for the purpose of creating Christian wives and mothers, the missionary school in the hands of later generations of students, unintentionally became a ‘laboratory’ or free space where girls could experiment with new and more fluid gender identities, which helped them to negotiate and redefine their place as Chinese women in the early twentieth century.

[1] In 1952 St. Mary’s, an American Episcopal School for girls founded in 1881, was merged with McTyiere to form the Shanghai Number Three Girls School.

[2] Interview with Rosalyn Koo, 05.11.16, San Mateo, USA 02:56.

[3] Interview with Rosalyn Koo, 5 November 2016, San Mateo, USA, 1:57:00.

[4] Interview with Rosalyn Koo, 5 November 2016, San Mateo, USA, 1:57:00.

[5]Chen Jingyu, Zhongxi nüzhong 1892~1952, 3 vols (Shanghai, 2016).

[6] Margaret Burton, The Education of Women in China (London 1911), p. 38.

[7] Sha Luo, ‘Zhongxi nüxiao hao fengguang,’ Shanghai Texie 1946 (20), p.7.

[8] See collections such as: Li Chucai (ed.), Diguo zhuyi qin Hua jiaoyu shi ziliao: Jiaohui xuexiao (Beijing, 1987)

[9] For example the only surviving original building of St. Mary’s School for Girls in Shanghai has been renovated and in 2017 the school compound was rebuilt in its original Spanish style and now serves as a shopping centre and pub located on 1191 Changning Road, Changning district, Shanghai.

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