Wang Liming (also known as Liu-Wang Liming) was the leader of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in China for over thirty years and one of the nation’s leading female social reformers of the Republican period. She was born on the first day of January 1896 in Taihu county of Anhui Province. Her father, Wang Langzhong, was a Chinese doctor from a long line of locally renowned physicians, but sadly he passed away when Wang was only nine years old, reducing the family to poverty. This tragic development was followed by a stroke of good fortune the following year when American missionaries who had recently founded Taihu Gospel Church decided to open a free girls’ school called Chengmei nüxue (Become Beautiful Girls’ School). Wang’s mother, despite her Confucian outlook, decided to send her daughter to the school, opening up a whole new path for her.
Wang Liming was shaped in powerful ways by her mission school education. For one thing, she became a Christian, though there is no clear record of exactly how this happened. As a result of what she learned there, she refused to have her feet bound any longer. In addition, Wang developed strong convictions about the value of women and a desire to improve their position in Chinese society. As an exceptional student, Wang qualified for a scholarship to continue her education at Ruli Academy, a Methodist girls’ high school in Jiujiang, Jiangxi. At one point, a guest speaker representing the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union—a women’s group started in the United States in 1874 and devoted to protecting the family against alcohol and tobacco abuse—addressed the students on the threat of opium to Chinese society. Wang and other students were so moved by the speaker that they decided to form a student chapter of the WCTU. Wang, because of her leadership abilities and upright character, was chosen to head the group, and thus her lifelong tie with the WCTU was born.
Wang Liming won a scholarship from the organization to attend Northwestern University in Chicago at a time when there were almost no opportunities for women in China to gain a university education. From 1916 to 1920, Wang earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in biology. During this time, she also became engaged to Liu Zhan’en, a Chinese Christian who was studying for a master’s degree in education at the University of Chicago. In 1920, Wang returned to China, where she turned down many lucrative job offers in order to continue her work with the WCTU. Liu Zhan’en stayed to complete a Ph.D. in education at Columbia University under renowned educator John Dewey and then returned to China to work with the YMCA. Liu and Wang were married on 1 September 1922.
Wang started a student division of the fledgling WCTU and for two years traveled all across China to challenge both women and men to embrace temperance. Of the more than 100,000 people she addressed, ten thousand signed temperance pledges and she increased the number of student members from two thousand to five thousand. When the WCTU formed a new national structure in 1922 to unite its disparate local chapters, Wang was chosen head of youth work, while the American-trained physician Shi Meiyu was president. Then in 1925, Shi Meiyu resigned, along with her main associates, as part of a larger philosophical and generational shift in the WCTU. Wang was chosen to lead the restructured WCTU with a broader vision. Instead of focusing only on fighting against the vices of alcohol, opium, tobacco and gambling, the group adopted as its slogan “promoting the blessing of the family” and made issues such as poverty and illiteracy part of its enlarged mission. By the late 1920s, the WCTU had expanded to well over ten thousand members, making it the largest Christian women’s organization in China during the Republican period, and second in influence only to the Young Women’s Christian Association.
Wang’s marriage to Liu Zhan’en was a strong one. Despite her many responsibilities with the WCTU, she raised three children with Liu—a son named Guangsheng born in 1924, a second son named Guanghua in 1926, and a daughter named Guangkun in 1928. Wang found great enjoyment in motherhood, though often not easy to balance with other duties. She credited the support of her husband with making it possible to be so actively involved in women’s causes while still having a family. Wang also had a very close relationship with her mother-in-law, who lived with the family from 1923 until her death in 1926.
Wang’s work with the WCTU sought practical reforms of Chinese society, advocating monogamy and strongly opposing the practices of polygamy and prostitution. She rejected the Chinese tradition of arranged marriage as a source of many broken marriages, believing that young people should be free to marry the person of their choice, with guidance from their families. Wang argued for the adoption of a nuclear family structure on the grounds that it would reduce the constant conflict associated with the Chinese extended family structure. Finally, while she believed that women should make family their priority, she also encouraged them to work outside the home.
Under Wang’s leadership, the WCTU became a powerful force for building civil society in China during the 1920s and 1930s. A network of local chapters conducted temperance activities, with occasional large-scale activities such as a three-day anti-smoking campaign in the city of Ningbo in 1923 that involved parades, open-air lectures, and public rallies, all conducted by women. The founding of the Settlement House in Shanghai in 1924 was a pioneering effort to tackle the problem of begging in the city by providing shelter and training in basic skills to poor women and children.
Wang Liming was also an important leader in the general women’s suffrage movement in China. In 1922, she joined the Women’s Suffrage Association (WSA), which sought to have women’s rights enshrined in the nation’s new constitution, then under discussion. Later, she turned the WSA’s Shanghai branch into the Chinese Women’s Suffrage Association, one of the women’s groups responsible for getting the equality of men and women written into the Tutelary Constitution adopted by the Nationalist Party in 1930.
Together with her husband Liu Zhan’en, Wang Liming was active in leading resistance to Japanese aggression. She helped to organize the Women’s National Salvation Alliance after Japan annexed Manchuria in 1931, and along with Liu signed a public proclamation rejecting Japanese demands on China as part of the December Ninth protests of 1935. After Japan invaded in 1937, Liu and Wang continued their efforts, working out of the International Settlement in Shanghai, which was still under the control of the Western powers. As one of the leading anti-Japanese intellectuals, Liu was a major target of the Japanese, and in 1938, to Wang’s great grief, he was assassinated.
Wang fled with her three children to the wartime capital of Chongqing and continued her activities with the WCTU, though on a much smaller scale, starting a childcare center and orphanage. She was also appointed one of the few female members of the People’s Political Council (PPC), a quasi-democratic consultative body founded by the Nationalists to promote public support for the war effort. Wang helped get a guarantee written into the Double Fifth Constitution (adopted after the war) that women would have at least ten percent of the seats in the National Assembly. She was very critical of the Nationalist war strategy, however, so much so that she was expelled from the PPC in 1943. She joined the Chinese Democratic League, a political party favoring democracy and socialism.
When the war ended in 1945, Wang moved back to Shanghai to continue her work with the WCTU and CDL, but had to flee to Hong Kong during the civil war. After the Communists took control in 1949, Wang returned to China and was appointed to high posts in the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress (CPPCC) and the All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF). But rather than get heavily involved in politics, she continued to make the WCTU her main focus. This state of affairs continued until 1957, when during the Anti-Rightist movement, Wang was attacked for refusing to criticize two of Mao Zedong’s main targets. She was removed from all her posts.
In 1966, while Wang was staying with her daughter in Shanghai, the Cultural Revolution broke out. On 1 September, Wang was arrested as a spy of the CIA. The “evidence” consisted of letters she wrote to her “Rightist” son when he was in labor camp and also a typewriter alleged to be a secret transmitter. As she was taken away, Wang said to her daughter in English, “I am carrying the cross of Jesus Christ.” Her family never saw her again. After three years and eight months of suffering in a labor camp, she died on 15 April 1970.
In 1980, a memorial service was held for Wang that was organized by the CPPCC, CDL, and AWCF and which recognized her as a patriot. She was also given a Beijing burial plot in Babaoshan, a cemetery reserved for important leaders. Since the family had never received any of Wang’s possessions, or even her ashes, the only thing they could put in the tomb was a comb that Wang had left behind at her daughter’s home.
Wang Liming was a woman of courage whose Christian convictions led her to devote her life to improving the lot of women and the weak in Chinese society. She did this with great effectiveness as leader of the WCTU and in cooperation with other organizations. That she was able to do so much and still raise a family of three testifies not only to her abilities, but also her commitment to family and motherhood. The sacrifices she made to serve were significant, from giving up lucrative career options to her constant toil to the loss of her husband. In the end, her unjust and tragic death highlights even more the honorable reality of a life well lived.
- John Barwick, “Wang Liming: Promoting a Protestant Vision of the Modern Chinese Woman,” in Carol Lee Hamrin with Stacey Bieler, eds. Salt and Light 3: More Lives of Faith that Shaped Modern China (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2011), 136 – 157.