Helen Xu was born June 24, 1899 in New York City. She was the fourth daughter of Xu Qin (Huie Kin), pastor of the Chinese Presbyterian Church in New York City’s Chinatown, and Louise Van Arnam. She went to Julia Richmond High School and entered Cornell University in September 1916. She joined several clubs, participated in at least four different sports, and was active in the women’s dramatic club. Helen also served as president of the campus YWCA her fourth year, graduating from Cornell with a BA in 1920.
Helen married Gui Zhitang, who received a PhD in physics from Princeton. Gui returned to China to teach physics at Yale-in-China (Yali) in Changsha in 1921. After attending Beijing Language School, Helen married Gui on July 22, 1921, in Shanghai and together they had six children.
During the Northern Expedition in 1926, the communists in Changsha directed an attack on Yali’s middle school, Gui and his family moved to Central China University (CCU) in Wuhan. After serving as head of the physics department there, in the fall of 1935, Gui and family left for a year’s study in the United States.
When the war with Japan started in northern China, Wuhan at first was a place of safety for the refugees. But by January 1938 Wuhan too had become a place of danger. The Gui family did not leave immediately because Gui’s mother, age seventy, could not travel in the winter. But Helen put things in order so that they could pack a few suitcases and leave on very short notice, if necessary. “The cheerful and almost happy-go-lucky natures of both Paul and myself stand us [in] good stead in these days,” she wrote to a friend. Even when they spent time in the family shelter during air raids, they kept the children cheerful rather than fearful. Much of their time was spent in relief work because two hundred and fifty refugees were living on the campus. Helen also made clothes for the wounded soldiers and padded clothes and mittens for the soldiers at the front.
After successfully moving Central China University to Guilin, Guanxi province, Gui headed back north and west to join Helen, the children and his mother who had traveled with others from Wuhan University to take refuge in Leshan, Sichuan. He took up his new post as head of the college of science and he and Helen helped to lead Christian activities for students exiled in the remote region. Helen taught English and served as the chair of the foreign language department at Wuhan University. While Gui was in the United State trying to help Americans understand China’s plight and ask for assistance, the family home was bombed several times and Helen and the children had to move from place to place.
Even after her husband died in 1961 after being libeled and mistreated as a “rightist” during political campaigns, Helen continued to teach English at Wuhan University until she retired. In 1979 was she was able to meet again with family members in the United States, when she attended a reunion there.
Helen Xu Gui died from a heart attack at the age of 95 on March 23, 1995 in Wuhan, where she was living with her youngest son and his wife. She was buried next to her husband.
- Stacey Bieler, “The Xu Family: A Legacy of Service” in Salt and Light: More Lives of Faith That Shaped Modern China, edited by Carol Hamrin with Stacey Bieler (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2010), 98-102.