Note: This is part of a series of profiles about Barnard alumnae. These profiles were originally posted on the old Barnard Archives website.
Noble Daughter, Global Activist
Today, Barnard College, like many American colleges and universities, prides itself on its many international students. In the fall of 2007, it boasted an undergraduate population that represented 45 foreign countries. But before World War I, there was hardly a foreign student to be found on the Barnard campus.
During the academic year 1907-08, for instance, Acting Dean William T. Brewster reported that four foreign students were registered at Barnard: one from England, one from Germany, one from Russia, and one from China. While it is not certain that these were the first four international students at Barnard, it is virtually certain that the fourth student, Kang Tung Pih (Pinyin: Kang Tongbi) was the first Asian student to study here. She was also the beloved second daughter of the late 19th- and early 20th-century Chinese political reformist Kang Youwei. The records concerning Miss Kang in the Barnard College Archives, though scant, reveal fascinating details about her obscure yet intriguing life.
Kang Tung Pih’s exact date of birth is disputed. According to Kang Youwei’s personal journals, she was born in 1880, most likely to his first wife, Zhang Yunchu. Lo Jung Pang, the English translator of these journals and the author of K’ang Yu-wei: A Biography and a Symposium (1967), maintains that Miss Kang was actually born in 1887; this is supported by the birth date given on her 1905 application for the Barnard entrance examination. To further complicate matters, her date of birth is listed on her Barnard transcript as February 5, 1888. It is possible that these discrepancies have something to do with the incongruity between the Chinese and Western calendars.
In any case, it is certain that she was a native of Guangdong (Canton) province in southern China, but because her father was an elite scholar and personal adviser to the Qing Emperor Guangxu during the Reform Movement of 1898, Kang Tung Pih grew up in Beijing in the midst of the emperor’s court. Her father’s reform program included melding the best of Chinese tradition with the useful aspects of Western government and culture, in addition to the establishment of a constitutional monarchy for China. While his tenure in the court was brief, Kang Youwei’s advocacy for modernization through political and social reform was already well underway by the time of the Reforms of 1898. For example, he was vehemently opposed to the traditional practice of foot-binding. He refused to bind the feet of his own daughters, thus freeing them to lead physically active lives, unlike most of their noble peers. No doubt, her father’s decision also helped to mold Kang Tung Pih’s independent, activist character—a radical departure from the kind of social deportment expected of women of her stature.
Unfortunately, the height of Kang Youwei’s influence in the Chinese government lasted only about 100 days (hence the alternate name of the Reform Movement of 1898: The Hundred Days’ Reform), before the Empress Dowager Cixi was able to stage a coup, wresting power over the court from the Emperor Guangxu. With the emperor under house arrest, ruling in name only, the 1898 Reforms had effectively failed. The Empress Dowager then used her influence to order the execution of prominent reform supporters in the court. Kang Youwei’s own brother was among those executed, but Youwei managed to escape his own death sentence by fleeing China. Thus began the Kang family’s 16 years of life in exile.
Kang Youwei went first to Hong Kong, then to Japan, and later to Canada. It is known that Kang Tung Pih was sent to Hong Kong to visit relatives around that time, but whether she stayed there or lived with her father in Japan and Canada is unknown. Even in exile, with a price on his head and the occasional hired assassin on his trail, Kang Youwei continued to travel around the world to lobby publicly and privately for a constitutional monarchy and social reform in China; Kang Tung Pih and her older sister, Kang Tung Wei, would often accompany him on these trips. Besides the Mandarin of the imperial court and the Cantonese of her birthplace, Kang Tung Pih also studied English, French, Italian, and Hindi, in order to better represent her father’s cause around the world, and possibly also to interpret for him on occasion.
Kang Tung Pih arrived in the United States in August 1903, with the dual purpose of studying and generating overseas support for her father’s Reform Party. Despite her young age, her father clearly recognized her independent spirit and devotion to reform in China. Kang Youwei composed this telling verse for his daughter:
“Thousands of miles to America and Europe
A young girl makes the trip alone, do I not have compassion on you?
But I cannot help having pity on all living beings
An initial step toward women’s rights—
A great task you now undertake.”
Kang Tung Pih was well-equipped to deal with this “great task.” Upon arriving in Tacoma, Washington, she immediately founded a women’s branch of her father’s organization, the Chinese Empire Reform Society, recruiting its members from the Chinese community of the Puget Sound region. From there, she made her way to British Columbia, San Francisco, Chicago, and finally New York City by October 1903. Though only 15 or 16 years of age, Miss Kang was comfortable making public speeches (in both Cantonese and her best English) before large crowds of both Chinese and non-Chinese spectators. On October 20, 1903, the New York Ladies’ Branch of the Chinese Empire Reform Society was born at a public meeting held at the Morning Star Mission, located at 17 Doyers Street. With a touch of condescension, the New York Tribune describes the scene when the founder and keynote speaker addressed the crowd, which included some 35 Chinese women, many wobbling about on bound feet; Mrs. Fong Mow of Rutherford, New Jersey, the first president of the new organization; and Dr. Walter Brooks Brouner of Columbia University:
“Before making the address in her own tongue—Cantonese was the dialect used throughout the evening—Miss Kang Tung explained in pretty broken English, for the benefit of the American portion of her audience, that she was going to tell her Chinese sisters to be as much like the American women as possible. ‘I want them to read papers,’ she said earnestly. ‘I want them to know things. I want them to help to make things go right and to have grand education. Cats stand by cats, and dogs help dogs. Why should not we women stand together and help each other?'”
But Kang Tung Pih’s first visit to New York was a brief one; by November, she was reportedly a student at Radcliffe College, having been turned away by Wellesley due to lack of space. Miss Kang subsequently attended Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and also studied with a private tutor, Mrs. Adeline Bartlett Allyn, from 1904 to 1905. In the fall of 1906, she was a student at Hartford Public High School.
She applied to take the Barnard entrance exams in May 1905, but only in February 1907 did she arrive on campus as a “guest of the College”—a status which Dean Laura Drake Gill seems to have invented especially for Kang. Under it, she would not receive credit for the courses she took, but she would be considered a member of the Class of 1909. This special status was not intended to slight Kang’s intelligence or previous education. Rather, due to her continuing need to travel on her father’s missions, her imperfect English, and possibly her young age, Dean Gill felt that she would be unable to pass the exams necessary to officially graduate. There is, however, little doubt that Kang was capable of the work required in what was, and still is, one of the most academically demanding women’s colleges in the country. While at Barnard, Miss Kang took a full 23 courses, including history, anthropology, philosophy, and education. Though she left Barnard after the spring 1909 semester, her junior portrait does appear in the 1909 Mortarboard, along with the legend, “Mistress of herself, though China fall,” a line from Alexander Pope’s “To a Lady, Of the Characters of Women.”
Miss Kang’s worldwide travels with her father forced to her take prolonged leaves of absence from Barnard, which led Kang Youwei to write a letter of apology to Dean Gill, stating in part, “I consumed much of her time and am fear that her frequent absence may affect her studies considerable. However I sincerely hope that you will excuse her being absenced for this reason.” In spite of her active life outside of Barnard, Miss Kang was still very much invested in the academic and social culture of the College. She rented the most expensive suite in the newly built Brooks Hall, attended by personal servants, where she hosted popular teas for her fellow students. At one dormitory Halloween party, as reported by the Barnard Bulletin, Miss Kang found a lucky dime in her slice of cake, a traditional symbol of future wealth. She even contributed an original piece, “Lost in an Indian Forest,” to the May 1907 edition of the student literary journal, the Barnard Bear: an account, embellished for dramatic effect, of the narrator’s journey through the jungle with her father on the way to visit a mysterious prince. Miss Kang also attended the Class of 1909 senior lunch. By that time, she was engaged to Kang Youwei’s protégé, Lo Chong, and she reportedly blushed “at the toast of ‘how to be happy though announced.'”
Even while studying at Barnard, Miss Kang continued her relentless efforts in support of the Chinese reform movement. A celebrity in the New York press ever since her October 1903 visit, she was sought after by journalists to comment on the mysterious death of the Emperor Guangxu on November 14, 1908. In an interview published in the New York Evening Mail on November 18, 1908, she said that she believed, based on information from her many friends and connections in Beijing, that the emperor was poisoned by a certain high minister with control over the military and the favor of the Empress Dowager Cixi, who had just died of natural causes. Miss Kang did not name the high minister, but it is almost certain that the man she had in mind was Yuan Shikai. The cause of Emperor Guangxu’s death is still disputed among historians. Kang, however, was not afraid to spread what she thought was the truth to the wider world, and, according to the Evening Mail, she was personally responsible for leading the Chinatown memorial service for the emperor. (This and other items in the New York papers incorrectly refer to Kang Tung Pih as a “princess.” This was no doubt an attempt to convey to American readers the influential social and governmental position her family held in China, but the American sense of the word implies a connection to the royal bloodline of the imperial family that was not present in the case of the Kangs.)
Like her father, Miss Kang also had some reputation as a poet: In reference to his daughter, Kang Youwei once said, “A tiger father will not produce dog progeny.” Miss Kang’s independent spirit and devoted pursuit of women’s rights and reform only add to the aptness of this quote. In 1908-09, Miss Kang was one of only 28 students out of a total registration of 498 bold enough to publicly support the radical cause of women’s suffrage by joining the Barnard College Chapter of the Collegiate Equal Suffrage League of New York. Miss Kang intended to broaden the scope of her activism once she left Barnard. She was quoted in the New York Evening Mail as saying, “When I finish here, I am going back to China to wake up my countrywomen. I am deeply interested in suffrage, and hope to arouse the women of China to a realization of their rights.” Like Kang Youwei, Kang Tung Pih supported reform of Chinese government and society, including equal rights for women. She may have been even more radical than her father in that she emphasized women’s suffrage as an essential democratic right.
Little information is available in English on Kang Tung Pih’s life after she left Barnard in 1909. It is known, however, that after the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, she returned to China, where she continued to agitate for feminist causes. She was deeply involved with the women’s movement in Shanghai, advocating for women’s rights through meetings and speeches. She was an editor and major contributor to Nu Xuebao (Women’s Education), one of the first women’s journals in China. After the journal folded, Kang Tung Pih continued her crusade for women’s rights. Like her father, she took a stand against the practice of foot-binding, establishing and co-leading the Tianzuhui (Natural Feet Society) with other Chinese feminists. She was part of the effort to organize the various Shanghai women’s groups into a united Shanghai Women’s Association, which then petitioned the Nationalist government in Nanjing for a new constitution under the slogan, “Down with the warlords and up with equality between men and women.” Kang Tung Pih is also remembered for her biography of Kang Youwei, which was published in 1958. She died in 1969.
— Katie Portante ’08 and Donald Glassman
Barnard College Office of Admissions. “International Students.” Retrieved September 7, 2007 from the World Wide Web: <http://barnard.edu/admiss/International>.
“Chief Reformer May Return.” New York Times, January 6, 1909, p. 5. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Retrieved August 28, 2007 from the World Wide Web: <http://proquest.umi.com>.
“China Prefers One Dog.” New York Times, June 29, 1905, p. 8. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Retrieved September 4, 2007 from the World Wide Web: <http://proquest.umi.com>.
“Chinese Noblewoman Here.” New York Times, October 18, 1908, p. 20. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Retrieved August 28, 2007 from the World Wide Web: <http://proquest.umi.com>.
“Chinese to Print a New York Newspaper.” New York Times, December 20, 1903, p. 24. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Retrieved September 4, 2007 from the World Wide Web: <http://proquest.umi.com>.
“Chinese Woman Speaker.” New York Tribune, October 20, 1903, p. 7. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Retrieved September 4, 2007 from the World Wide Web: <http://proquest.umi.com>.
“Chinese Women Organize: Thirty-four, in Native Dress, Join the Empire Reform Society.” New York Tribune, October 21, 1903, p. 4. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Retrieved September 4, 2007 from the World Wide Web: <http://proquest.umi.com>.
Lo, Jung-Pang. K’ang Yu-Wei: A Biography and a Symposium. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1967.
Pope, Alexander. “Epistle II: To a Lady, Of the Characters of Women.” Retrieved August 28, 2007 from the World Wide Web: <http://poetry.eserver.org/moral-essay-ii.txt>.
Sammet, Florence G. “Emperor Killed, Says Princess.” New York Evening Mail, November 18, 1908.
“A Scholar from China: Miss Kang Tung, of Reform Party, a Student at Harvard.” New York Tribune, November 1, 1903, p. A4. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Retrieved September 4, 2007 from the World Wide Web: <http://proquest.umi.com>.
“Trouble Brewing in China: Orders to Chinese Cruisers.” New York Tribune, March 27, 1900, p. 9. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Retrieved September 4, 2007 from the World Wide Web: <http://proquest.umi.com>.
Wang, Zheng. Women in the Chinese Enlightenment. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999.
“Woman Chinese Reformer Arrives.” New York Tribune, August 25, 1903, p. 3. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Retrieved September 4, 2007 from the World Wide Web: <http://proquest.umi.com>.
“Form for Transmission to College of Candidate’s Choice” submitted by Kang Tung Pih, dated May 25, 1905; TLS on microfilm, J.J. McCook to the President, Dean, or Registrar of Barnard College, June 14, 1905; typed carbon of letter on microfilm, Dean [Laura D. Gill] to Kang Tung Pih, January 14, 1907; ALS on microfilm, Edward H. Smiley to Laura D. Gill, February 7, 1907; special student elective subject form submitted by Kang Tung Pih, February 13, 1907 and ff.; Kang Tung Pi. “Lost in an Indian Forest.” The Barnard Bear, May 1907, pp. 3-6; ALS on microfilm, Kang Yu Wei to Laura D. Gill, May 21, 1907; special student elective subject form submitted by Kang Tung Pih, October 14, 1907 and ff.; “Halloween at Brooks Hall.” The Barnard Bulletin, November 6, 1907, p. 1; “Report of the Dormitory Committee.” The Barnard Bulletin, November 27, 1907, p. 2 and ff.; “Report of the Acting Dean for the Academic Year Ending June 30, 1908.” In Barnard College Dean’s, Treasurer’s, and Provost’s Reports, 1898-1931 (New York: Barnard College, 2006), pp. 114-117; “Senior Lunch.” The Barnard Bulletin, February 10, 1909, p. 1; The Mortarboard 1909-1910; typed carbon of letter on microfilm, Acting Dean [William T. Brewster] to whom it may concern, November 8, 1909. (Barnard College Archives)