The Soong Sisters - An Historical Footnote to a Noteworthy Family

Robert A. Hageman

In the summer of 1907, two sisters, Ching-ling Soong (15 years of age) and Mei-ling Soong (9 years of age) were brought by their aunt and uncle to attend and board at the Miss Clara Barton Potwin School in Summit.

For those of you who may not have heard of the Soong sisters, perhaps you know of them from the in- ternational notoriety they received in their later years. Madam Sun Yat-sen's (Ching-ling) hus- band was the founder of the Chinese Republic and is often called the George Washington of China. She served as a vice-chairman m the Chinese Commu- nist government from 1949 to 1975. Madame Chiang Kai-shek (Mei-ling) and her husband were named "Man and Woman of the Year" in 1938 by Time magazine. The Chiang Nationalist government ruled China during World War II and then established a government on the island of Taiwan when the Communists took over the Chinese mainland in 1949.

What brought the Soong sisters to Summit? Just how were these two sisters able to leave China to be educated in the United States, when most Chinese girls at that time were not formally educated and were bound to their parents homes until marriage? Who were their parents? What drove these girls throughout their lives?

To understand the answers to these questions one must go back at least 140 years. The Soong sisters' father was born in 1866 on South China's Hainan Is land and was named Soon Yao ju (the family name is first in Chinese custom and the "g" was added when he was older). At the age of nine and the youngest of three boys, he was adopted (given) to an uncle (a common practice in Oriental society at that time was to give away a child to a childless relative). This marked the beginning of an unparalleled history of the Soong family.

About this time the boy's uncle was opening a tea and silk shop in Boston, Massachusetts and paid for Yao ju's passage. During his few years of apprentice ship, he came into contact with several Chinese students who had been sent to America on an educa- tional mission. Their stories were filled with their ex- periences at American schools and summer activities as well as criticisms of their homeland. The young boy began to dream of an American education. He asked his uncle, but was refused again and again.

Shortly thereafter, the boy went down to the Boston Harbor and slipped aboard one of the ships as a stowaway. Fortunately, when he was found after the ship had been at sea, the captain turned out to be kindly and religious. The boy claimed his name was Chiao-shun, which to American ears sounded like Charles Sun. The name was written into the ship's log. Later the spelling became Soon, then Soong.

A strong bond developed between the two of them over the next two years and before long the captain began to school Charlie in the ways of Christianity. He met the captain's family while ashore, often vis- ited their Methodist Church on Sunday mornings when in North Carolina, and local church friends took an interest in the boy's future. Eventually Charlie was baptized and it is believed that since the baptismal form required three names to be completed, the name Jones was taken as the middle name. His official name became Charles Jones Soong.

Charlie began to express an interest in returning to China as a missionary. To do this he had to get into school. The church contacted Trinity College which was supported by Methodist congregations and wealthy in- dividuals. It was one of the few southern colleges to survive the Civil War, later becoming Duke University. Charlie was enrolled as a "special preparatory" student at Trinity.

After a year at Trinity he transferred to the theological seminary at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee graduating in 1885. He was ordained and assigned to a mission in Shanghai arriving in January, 1886.

At the mission he was regarded as just a Chinese minister and therefore did not have a salary or the sta- tus of an American ordained and trained minister. A conflict ensued with the head of the Methodist Mission in China. Soong requested a transfer. But it was de- nied.

Charlie continued to do missionary work and preach, but eventually resigned from the mission, al- though he always considered himself "an independent missionary".

He then turned to industry in 1889 becoming the first to import foreign machinery into Shanghai. He also managed a flour mill and founded a printing company which began by printing Bibles. By the turn of the cen- tury he had become a wealthy and influential man who helped finance the revolution of Sun Yat-sen in 1911.

In 1887 Charlie married Miss Ni Kwei-tseng. She came from a family of scholars and government officials and her family had been converted to Christianity in 1601. Unusual for that time, she was formally schooled and is described as an evangelist Christian. She was a believer in prayer, acknowledged the importance of good works and became a strict disciplinarian with her children.

Charlie and his wife firmly believed that each of their children (three girls and three boys) should be well-educated and well-prepared for their lives. It was a family oriented to succeed. This was especially important for the girls because they received the same educational preparation as the boys.

The girls studied at the McTyeire School for Girls. which was the most exclusive foreign school in Shang- hai. Ai-ling (the oldest) means "Friendly Life" and she was born in 1890. Ching-ling means "Glorious Life" and she was born in 1892. Mei-ling (youngest daughter and fourth child) means "Beautiful Life" and she was born in 1898.

In 1904, through his Methodist and Vanderbilt contacts, Charlie was able to enroll Ai-ling at Wesleyan College for Women in Macon, Georgia leading the way for all of the Soong children to eventually study in America. Supposedly she is the first Chinese girl to study in the United States, graduating in] 909; After graduation she returned to China.

She is often described as the daughter who "loved money". The socially outgoing Ai-ling married into wealth. Her husband's name was Hsiang-his (H.H) Kung, a Descendent of Confucius and a member of one of the wealthiest families in China (banking). He had studied at Oberlin College in Ohio and had re-ceived a Masters' degree at Yale. Eventually, he was finance minister of China from 1933'to 1944 and served briefly during that period as President of the Chinese Republic.

With some of the social and political disruptions going on in China, Charlie would often go to the United States on a fund raising mission for Dr. Sun Yat-sen. While on such a venture in 1906, Charlie was taken to the Clara Barton Potwin School in Summit by his brother-in-law Wen Bing-chung. The purposes of Wen's sojourn to Summit were educational. He headed a commission sent by the Empress of China to study America and its economic conditions and to enroll his godson at the Potwin School to prepare him for the University of Pennsylvania.

Wen knew Clara Potwin through her father and a friend from Summit named William Henry Grant who lived at 87 New England Avenue. Grant was an Ameri can educator who had worked for years in Manhattan as a librarian. He was active in Central Presbyterian Church, involved in mission work and had traveled to China many times touring missions.

The Miss Potwin School was located in a brown shingled house on Locust Drive behind the present Grand Summit Hotel between Lamed Brook and Tulip Street. Charlie was so taken by the atmosphere of Summit and the college preparatory qualities of the school that he asked Clara if he could enroll his two daughters the following year.

In 1907 Wen, while on another educational visit to the United States, brought Ching-ling and Mei-ling to the Potwin School. Henry Grant joined the three on the voyage from China. The girls spent one year at the Potwin School before journeying to Wesleyan College to join their older sister Ai-ling.

There are some who have expressed the view that the Soong sisters attended Kent Place School. But this was not the case. There is an interesting twist in the relationship between the two schools, however. Miss Potwin originally taught at the Summit Collegiate Institute for Girls in Summit which was founded by Martin Baehler. In time Baehler decided to make the school coed. This so disturbed some of the parents that theyremoved their daughters and founded the Kent Place School. Baehler left Summit shortly thereafter and turned the coed school over to Clara Barton Potwin - hence a new name for the school emerged.

Why did the Potwin School have some Chinese students? Clara's father had tutored some wealthy Chinese students at Yale in the 1890's. Over the years they maintained contact and Clara and her father had traveled together visiting them in China. When her father died she began to take in a few Chinese pupils to prepare them for American colleges.

When the girls arrived at the Potwin School in 1907 a Miss Margaret Barnes was a member of the Potwin household and the school's music teacher. According to her recollections, Ching-ling at fifteen was a shy girl who called herself "Rosamond", read serious books and was very studious. Nine year old Mei-ling was playful and often homesick. She would often visit Miss Barnes "to talk of her family or to tell about life in China". Both girls loved the American hair style with ribbons and bows, and each morning Mei-ling would tap on Miss Barnes' door to tie two bows in her hair. Each of the girls spoke perfect English and they at- tended Sunday School at the Central Presbyterian Church.

At the time Louise R. Morris (the first profession- ally trained librarian in Summit) headed the Summit Library. She writes of her fond memories of the two Soong sisters. "The library was evidently a great boon to the Soong sisters. The elder, Ching-ling, was a shy, pretty girl... and a great reader. She selected books of a serious character, far beyond the taste of the aver- age girl of that age."

" Mei-ling ... used the library for purposes both seri- ous and playful. Her book selection ranged from Peter Rabbit to Dickens, but chiefly she loved to just drop in to see what I was doing. She developed a system of watch- ing outside until she was sure to have me and the library to herself. And because Mei-ling found me and my activities in the library hugely entertaining, I treasure a store of memories of a fascinating little girl."

In 1942 Madame Chiang Kai-shek sent a telegram which was read at the Summit dinner for United China Relief. Part of the telegram read as follows:


After one year at the Potwin School Ching-ling was ready for Wesleyen College and the two girls joined their older sister in Georgia. Mei-ling was still too young for college, so she stayed at a Methodist school called Piedmont in Demorest, Georgia. Ai-ling gradu- ated from Wesleyan in 1909 and Ching-ling in 1913. Mei-ling graduated from Wellesley College in Massa- chusetts in 1917.

Although the girls' stay in Summit was a short one (an historical footnote in their lives, if you will), some of their personal characteristics were apparent even then: charming, determined, courageous, vibrant and extremely intelligent. Later, as their lives took various twists and turns, each could always be described as charismatic and controversial. But more importantly, their existence was characterized by helping to mold political thought and action inside and outside of China on both sides of the political spectrum. With the lives of Ai-ling, Ching-ling and Mei-ling, the world became more focused on China, its problems, its people and its institutions.

I wish to thank the Summit Historical Society, the Summit Public Library Rutgers University Library and the Morris County Public Library for their help in seek- ing source materials for this article.