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The Paths That Led From China

In London and San Francisco, sisters found contrasting ways to show their feminism. 

Courtesy Sasha Su-ling Welland

THE FOLKS AT HOME: The sisters’ mother, Li Ruolan was a concubine of government official Ling Fupeng, who holds one of his grandsons. In this 1924 photo, Shuhua stands on her father’s left and Shuhao, also known as Amy, is on his right.

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By Charles Matthews

Once there were two sisters. Both were “modern girls” who wanted an independence that their culture wasn’t inclined to grant. One was a writer and artist who met some of the most eminent intellectuals of her day, including members of the Bloomsbury Group. The other was a scientist who dreamed of becoming a pioneering physician. With their very different ways of looking at the world, they told very different stories about their own family.

And it fell to Sasha Su-Ling Welland to sort out those rivalry-laden differences in A Thousand Miles of Dreams: The Journeys of Two Chinese Sisters (Rowman & Littlefield), which examines the lives of Welland’s grandmother and great-aunt. Part scholarly biography, part memoir, the book illuminates the many, many ways that the role of women changed profoundly, not only in China but also in the West, during the century spanned by the sisters’ lives. “The story came to me in a very personal way,” says Welland, ’91. “It was the conundrum of trying to understand my own family that, in essence, led to my re-education in 20th-century history.”

After her grandfather died during her sophomore year at Stanford, Welland made frequent visits to her grandmother, Amy Ling Chen, in San Francisco. “She began to tell me stories about her childhood and youth in China,” Welland says. “I was especially drawn to her stories about struggling as a young woman to get an education and have a say in society. She came from a generation of women who, swept up by a larger social revolution, emerged as real fighters. This personal history really undid for me the stereotypes of weak, passive Asian women.”

Amy was born in 1904, the daughter of Ling Fupeng, a scholar and government official. She was given the name Shuhao, but was dubbed Amy by an English teacher at the women’s college at Yangjing University, which she and her sister, Shuhua, entered in 1921. She kept the name when she left China to study medicine at Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Amy planned to return to China to open a women’s clinic, but in 1929 she married K.K. Chen, a pharmaceuticals researcher for Eli Lilly, who had been one of her instructors at the Peking Union Medical College. She practiced medicine only briefly in the United States before giving it up to help Chen with his research and to raise a family. Amy returned to China only once, in 1936, to visit her mother.

Welland never met her great-aunt, Ling Shuhua. She had left China in 1945 with her husband, Chen Xiying, and their daughter, Xiaoying, to settle in England. Only in 1989 did Shuhua return to China, where she died the following year at the age of 90.

When Welland went to Oxford University in 1990 on Stanford’s overseas studies program, she visited Xiaoying, who was living in Scotland. Welland was surprised when Xiaoying gave her a copy of Ancient Melodies, a memoir in English by Shuhua that had been published by Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press. “My grandmother had always told me that her sister was a painter,” Welland says. Instead, she discovered that Ling Shuhua had been a prominent writer of modernist fiction in China in the 1920s. She was known as “‘the Chinese Katherine Mansfield,’” Welland says. “My grandmother had hidden this fact from her family in the U.S., I think, because she didn’t like what her sister wrote.”

From Shuhua’s memoir, Welland learned things about the family that Amy had not disclosed, perhaps intentionally concealed. Amy had described her family as something like “an American nuclear family with one father and one mother,” Welland says. “Her sister’s memoir opens with a family tree that includes one father and six mothers.” Shuhao and Shuhua’s mother, Li Ruolan, had been a concubine in Ling Fupeng’s household. Fascinated by the differences between Amy’s oral history and Shuhua’s written one, Welland decided to write her Stanford senior thesis on the sisters and what they revealed about “women’s history in China and about the conundrums of history and memory.” One of her Stanford professors, cultural anthropologist Renato Rosaldo, suggested that Welland turn the thesis into a book.

“One of the challenges about biography is that just when you think you understand someone’s life, you learn some new fact about her that completely changes the picture.” Welland says her picture of Amy Ling Chen and Ling Shuhua changed many times over the “16 or 17 years” that she spent exploring their lives. Her first step after Stanford was to teach English in China from 1992 to 1994 so that she could learn Chinese.

“I wanted to learn Chinese in order to read my great-aunt’s stories that she had published before leaving China for England,” she says. Many of Shuhua’s stories are evidently autobiographical. “It took me a long time–I still struggle–before I was able to understand some of the subtlety of her language.” Welland also began work toward a doctorate in cultural anthropology at the University of California-Santa Cruz. She returned to China in 2000 to conduct fieldwork for her dissertation. “Working on this book and a separate dissertation project—about gender and the contemporary Chinese art worlds—at the same time prolonged the time it took me to finish both, but the two projects informed each other,” Welland says.

Perhaps the trickiest aspect of the project was material that seemed likely to upset some members of her family. In 1935, Julian Bell, the son of Vanessa Bell and the nephew of Virginia Woolf, came to China to teach at Wuhan University. Shuhua’s husband, Chen Xiying, was dean of the foreign languages faculty there. Julian felt at home with the Chinese intellectuals, describing them as “very much a Chinese Bloomsbury.” In turn, Julian gave Shuhua an entrée into the English Bloomsbury. She corresponded with Julian’s mother and his aunt. And she and Julian became lovers.

The affair was treated with discretion by Stanford history professor Peter Stansky in his biography of Julian Bell, Journey to the Frontier, published in 1964. Julian had died as an ambulance driver in the Spanish Civil War in 1937, but at the time of the biography’s publication many of the women in his life, including Shuhua, were still alive. The Bell family asked Stansky to disguise these women’s identities, so he gave Shuhua the initial “K.” It was easy, however, to identify her by consulting Julian’s published letters. In 2000 author Hong Ying wrote about the affair in a novel titled K. (In its English edition, the book’s eroticism provoked a subtitle—K: The Art of Love.) Shuhua’s daughter, Chen Xiaoying, angered by what she considered a slanderous characterization of her parents, sued Hong Ying. A Chinese court ordered the novelist to pay a fine.

Welland, eager to avoid such problems, sent her cousin Xiaoying a draft of the manuscript. “She was quite upset at certain things that she thought I’d gotten wrong,” Welland says. “Some were factual mistakes, easily corrected, but many were errors of emotional omission. She really wanted me to understand her mother from her perspective and the negative impact some of her mother’s decisions had had on her life.” But the revisions, and the chance to have her say, pleased Xiaoying, and Welland says she “has been very supportive of the final book.”

Welland had some trepidation about giving her grandmother the book, “because it presents an interpretation of her life in which she is not the hero of every story, as she often was in her own narration of her life.” On the other hand, “she wanted, I think, to know that she’d left her mark on the world. I feel extraordinarily grateful that I was able to give her a copy of the book [in October], about a month before her 102nd birthday and only several weeks before she passed away. She ran her hands over the photographs of her and her sister on the cover and said to me, ‘I knew you could do it!’ ”

In writing A Thousand Miles of Dreams, Welland often uses devices drawn from fiction, imagining the sisters’ feelings and reactions to circumstances and narrating events with a novelistic detail. The book, she says, “is deeply researched in a historical sense, has been informed by narrative theory, and has moments of literary analysis, but I didn’t want it to be a strictly academic book. I wanted to make the story accessible to a more general audience, while also showing some of the tracks of my detective-work . . . because I think they are techniques that many people can use to understand their own families.”

Now an assistant professor of anthropology and women’s studies at the University of Washington, Welland says what most surprised her in researching the book is “that the conventional Western story about women in China or Asia, as well as many other parts of the world, is so blatantly wrong. Feminism didn’t start in the West and then spread elsewhere, liberating poor, oppressed Third World women in its wake. This is a self-congratulatory story, but the truth is much more rich and complex and heartening. Feminism from the get-go has been a resolutely international phenomenon.” She recalls the time her father asked Amy, “Were there suffragettes in China when you were young?” “She looked at him incredulously, as if he’d asked a ridiculous question, and declared, ‘You’re looking at one !’ ”

At one point in the book, Welland suggests that the sisters’ achievements stemmed at least in part from a desire to prove “that the daughters of a woman with no sons could succeed in a changing world.” This desire, Welland says, drove her great-aunt and her grandmother “out into the world with dreams that were sometimes bigger than what the world could accommodate. And it’s because of those journeys that I am where I am today.”


CHARLES MATTHEWS is a freelance writer and former book editor of the San Jose Mercury News.

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