In 1893 Zeng Baosun was born into a prominent family in Xiang Xiang (Hsiang Hsiang), descended from the famous Zeng clan of Hunan Province in central China. She was the great granddaughter of Zeng Guofan (1811-1872), the famous 19th-century statesman-scholar who has enormous status in modern Chinese history—- an influential figure in his clan as well as in late 19th-century politics, official life, military campaigns and the literary world. He was one of a handful of men who dominated Chinese public life in this period through holding top official posts in the Chinese capital, his home province and in other parts of China. Several of Zeng Guofan’s brothers and sons also excelled in first, the civil service examinations, and then in official or military positions.
Zeng Baosun was exemplary in fulfilling her great grandfather’s admonitions. In addition to her illustrious ancestry she was respected and recognized in her own right for her contributions to Chinese politics and society. She was intellectually and politically active during many of the major events of modern history of China. She was one of the first Chinese women to receive a higher degree from an English university, and early feminist, delegate on international and national committees during periods when female representation was unusual, and in her later years she acted as historian and gatekeeper to the history of her clan.
Baosun’s father was Zeng Guangjun, the eldest son of Zeng Jihong, who, in turn, was the second son of Zeng Guofan. He was the youngest man ever inducted into the prestigious Hanlin Academy. Baosun knew little of her father or paternal grandfather for they had both died when she was young. She received the benefits of a western education alongside a Chinese education—-schooling by western teachers, which was combined with her Confucian schooling at home. In 1908, Zeng was enrolled by her parents in Mary Vaughan High School for girls in Hangzhou. Her involvement in a student protest actually led to a close relationship with two teachers at the school, Miss Louise Barnes and Miss Stuart, of the Church Missionary Society, and she began to meet with them for Bible study and prayer. Zeng was deeply moved upon learning that Miss Stuart had been lamed and orphaned by the Boxers, and that though Miss Stuart had hated Chinese for a time, her faith in Christ had not only given her the power to forgive, but to return to China as a missionary. In 1910, Zeng attended several revival meetings conducted by Rev. Ding Limei and finally converted to Christianity and was baptized in 1911. She was instrumental in the conversion to Christ of an opium-addicted uncle that year,, and after he broke the habit, he started one of the first self-supporting indigenous churches in Hunan.
In 1912 Miss Barnes accompanied Zeng to London. After one year’s schooling at Blackheath High School in London, she entered Westfield College, which was founded for the higher education of women on Christian principles, in October 1913. There she studied science, botany, chemistry and maths. Her cousin Yuenong studied mining while in England. She graduated with a BSc (Hons.) in Botany in 1916. She became the first Chinese woman to receive the Bachelor of Science degree with honors from Westfield College of the University of London.
While in England, Zeng decided that she should open a Christian school run entirely by Chinese in Hunan. After a year of teacher’s training at Oxford and Cambridge, she returned to China in 1917. In 1918 she established Yifang Girls’ Collegiate School in Changsha, the capital of Hunan, along with her cousin Zeng Yuenong. The name Yifang means Culture and Prosperity and was taken from her grandmother’s studio, thus reinforcing her recognition of the value of women in her own life. The philosophy that Zeng brought to the school was derived from her experiences at the residential colleges she had attended in England. The provision of pastoral care and a pleasant living environment would instill a sense of self-worth, refinement and morality in the students. The school was unique in having a Student-Faculty Association that governed the affairs of the school.
Although the School was occupied by the Communists in 1927, and ruined in 1938 by the Japanese army, Zeng reorganized it several times. Despite sometimes going through turbulent times, the establishment of Yifang Girls’ Collegiate School was a defining point in her life. Her commitment to Christian education for women in Hunan’s anti-foreign environment ensured her a notable figure in educational history, provincial history, and world-wide humanitarian and Christian history.
Zeng was also active in wider educational circles. From 1919 to 1920 she was President of the Government Normal School for Girls in Changsha and from 1931-32 she was Principal of Hunan Provincial Second Middle School.
Some of Zeng’s writings and actions suggest that the term “early feminist” could be used to describe her. At any rate, she was an early activist for advancing the status of girls and women. This can be seen by reading her speech “The Chinese Woman Past and Present” prepared for a symposium on Chinese culture, held during the fourth Biennial Conference of the Institute of Pacific Relations, Hangzhou and Shanghai, 1931. This speech essay indicates that she was an accomplished, lucid thinker. She made a convincing argument in it for the improved status of women in society, which was based on four points: traditional views of women had no religious or legal foundation, the Chinese mind was “tolerant and conciliatory,” emancipation of women would be just and advantageous to society, and the higher-class of women were educated. Concern for women’s status in China, motivated her involvement in promoting women’s education.
Zeng was engaged in many church activities and an international delegate on women’s and Christian committees. Between 1923 and 1928 she was chosen as member of the National Christian Council of China and she was a delegate to the International Missionary Council Conference, Jerusalem in 1928 and the Madras IMC meeting in 1938. She worshipped in the Garden of Gethsemane on Good Friday while in Jerusalem. She called it the most moving religious experience of her life. In 1936, as a member of the Youth and Religion Movement team of the national YMCA, she went on a lecture tour about Christianity to twelve cities in China. She wrote of the exhilaration of bringing the Christian message to thousands of young people.
Knowledge of her expertise took her into politics. Zeng attended the Institute of Pacific Relations Conference at Kyoto in 1929. In 1948 she was a delegate on the First National Assembly in Nanjing. Only thirty-eight women sat on the Assembly, out of the more than one thousand delegates chosen to represent the provinces and cities of China.
Zeng left China in 1949 and finally settled in Taiwan. From 1950 onwards, Zeng’s relations with Song Meiling (Madame Chiang Kai-shek) and other high-level officials continued, through her involvement in political and cultural organizations. She served as a member of the government’s women’s commission and represented the Republic of China on the women’s committee of the United Nations in 1952. She published an autobiography and several essays on women’s issues.
Zeng also made significant contributions in Taiwan. Two should be mentioned. The first was her involvement in the establishment of Donghai University in Taizhong. She was a member of the Board of Directors of the University which had been founded and funded by Luce family of Time magazine. Her cousin Yuenong was the founding president in 1952. The establishment of Donghai University can be seen as an important step taken by Baosun and Yuenong to both further their ideas on education and to demonstrate their moral worth to society.
The second was the presentation, with her cousin, of several boxes of original documents and paintings belonging to Zeng clan. These documents had been in the care of Baosun and Yuenong since they had escaped from Hunan during the period of Japanese occupation. The donation of this collection of original historical documents of the Zeng clan to the National Palace Museum was a significant moment in Taiwan’s intellectual history. In February 1972 historian and museum curators, representing the elite Shilin district of the city to receive the gifts.
After her move to Taiwan, Zeng lived with her cousin and lifelong companion Zeng Yuenong in Taibei (Taipei). With their common descent from Zeng Guofan, were related through their grandfather Zeng Jihong. They were “first cousins” tangxiong and tangmei, children of the same generation whose fathers were brothers. They were inseparable in life and in death: their graves share the same plot at No. 1 Public Cemetery in Taibei.
- Zeng’s writings include, Zeng Baosun Huiyilu, Chinese Christian Literature Council, 1976; “China’s Women and Their Position in the Church,” Church Missionary Review 48 (1917): 372-376; “Christianity and Women as Seen at the Jerusalem Meeting,” Chinese Recorder 59 (1928): 443; and “The Chinese Woman, Past and Present,” in Symposium on Chinese Culture, Sophia H. Chen Zen, ed. (1931). For a missionary’s report on her school, see Winifred Galbraith, “An Experiment in Christian Education,” Chinese Recorder 58 (1927): 425-430. Kennedy, Thomas L., Confucian Feminist: Memoirs of Zeng Baosun, American Philosophical Society, 2002. Kwok Pui-lan, Chinese Women and Christianity, 1860-1927, Atlanta, Ga. Scholars Press, 1992.