Wu Yifang was born in Wuchang, Hubei Province. She received a traditional education at home, and then in 1904 she and her elder sister were sent to live with relatives in Hangzhou and attend modern girls’ schools that offered Western learning.
Only a few years later, however, Wu’s life was changed forever by a shocking family tragedy involving financial ruin and suicides by her father and elder brother, and then also by her elder sister when their mother died. Yet with the help of an uncle in Hangzhou, Yifang managed to continue to study while also working to support her grandmother and younger sister, strengthened by a new-found faith in Jesus Christ. She graduated in 1919 from Jinling Women’s College in Nanjing, a Christian mission school that was one of the first to offer a full college course to Chinese women.
In 1922, Wu obtained a scholarship to enroll in the University of Michigan for a graduate course leading to an M.A. and Ph.D. in biology. She served as president of the national Chinese Students’ Christian Association in 1925-26. The next year, she was unexpectedly invited to become Jinling’s president — in response to new government requirements for Chinese leadership, and she served in that capacity until 1951.
During the 1930s and 1940s, Wu Yifang became famous in China and well-known overseas for her outstanding leadership at Jinling and in other social organizations. She was the first female chair of China’s National Christian Council, serving from 1935 until 1947, and was one of only four women to sign the U.N. Charter in 1945.
After 1949, Wu Yifang held positions at the national level of the officially sponsored Protestant Three Self Political Movement (TSPM), the People’s Congress, the Women’s Federation, and the Association for Promoting Democracy. After serving as education commissioner for Jiangsu Province, she became the first woman vice chair of the provincial government.
All these activities ceased during the late 1960s and 1970s Mao era, but she resumed similar honorary posts thereafter until her death in September 1985.
- Mary Jo Waelchli, “Wu Yifang: Abundant Life in Training Women for Service,” Carol Lee Hamrin, ed., with Stacey Bieler, Salt and Light: Lives of Faith that Shaped Modern China(Eugene, OR., Wipf and Stock Publishers, Pickwick Publications, 2008).