On June 25, 1881, a remarkable letter by a 15-year-old Chinese boy was mailed in Durham to Shanghai, China. One could write a book placing the letter in its proper context and attempting to answer the many questions raised by its contents. Indeed, in 1985, journalist Sterling Seagrave used it as a pivotal illustration in the first two chapters of his volume, The Soong Dynasty.
The letter was from Charlie Soon, a special and preparatory student enrolled in Trinity College in Randolph Country and the first international student at the college. He was spending his summer in Durham under the care of his sponsor Julian S. Carr. In it, he told his father where he had been since he had left home in 1875 at age nine to be apprenticed to relatives in Java. He had much to tell.
Adventuresome and ambitious, Soon had twice run away from relatives. He had a new name, most probably the result of English phonetic pronunciation of his given name, Han Chiao-shun. Fleeing from an uncle who had brought him to Boston and refused to allow him to get an education, he stowed away on a U.S. Coast Guard vessel. When discovered, he was befriended by the ship's captain, Eric Gabrielson, who lied about Soon's age so he could enlist and serve as the ship’s cabin boy, and set about to teach him Western ways, including an introduction to Christianity.
When his new "father figure" was transferred to another ship, the disconsolate Soon secured his discharge and fled again to search for Gabrielson. Reunited in Wilmington, N.C., Soon this time became a member of the captain’s mess crew.
Gabrielson introduced Soon to a Methodist minister in Wilmington, the Rev. Thomas Ricaud. Soon found a family of friends in the Methodist congregation. In November 1880, he converted to Christianity, was baptized, and he made plans to become a missionary to his people in China. Soon again gained a discharge from the service and began working in a printing shop while preparing plans for an education.
Rev. Ricaud used Trinity College's Methodist ties, writing President Braxton Craven to seek admission for Soon to Trinity College. He also wrote to Julian S. Carr, a well-known Methodist layman and an industrialist in Durham purported to be the state's first millionaire, asking for money for Soon's tuition. Both men agreed.
Soon was delivered to Carr's home where his Westernization took a dramatic turn. Although only a boy of 15, he quickly learned the advantage of living in the grand style of his newfound patron. A life-long friendship developed between Carr and Soon, and later they exchanged visits after Soon became a man of influence.
At Trinity, Soon was a special student, a not uncommon designation of the time. He was privately tutored in English by President Craven and his wife. He learned quickly although his grades did not reflect high academic achievement. He was popular with his fellow students and especially with the young girls in the community. What little correspondence that exists from this period in his life is with young ladies. After a year at Trinity, he was transferred to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, the administrative locale of the Southern Methodist Church and its missionary activities.
The story of Soon's life after he returned to China is remarkable. He served several years as a Methodist minister under trying circumstances, but then became a successful businessman and patriarch of one of the most remarkable families of the 20th century China.
His transformation to wealth and influence came about in part through the application of the printing business he first learned in Wilmington. He began the mass printing of inexpensive Bible in China with modern machinery shipped to him by Carr.
An arranged marriage into a moderately wealthy, Christian, politically active family on the rise increase his contacts and influence. Additional financial support, the origin of which is unclear today, further helped him significantly.
By the turn of the century the young boy once caught between two cultures and not fitting comfortably into either had become a man able to move back and forth between East and West and even lead his native China in its increasing modernization.
A friend, Sun Yat-sen, led the revolution that culminates in the collapse of the Manchu dynasty and the creation of the Republic of China. Soong, who had added a "g" to the common name of his youth, became known as the man who helped print political tracts for and finance the revolution. He educated his six children in the United States: two at a Methodist school for women, Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia; one at Wellesley; one at Vanderbilt; and two at Harvard.
His three daughters gave rise to the Chinese saying "Once there were three sisters: One loved money, one loved power, one loved China." The eldest, Ai-ling, married H. H. Kung the finance minister of the Republic of China; the second, Ching-Ling, married President Sun Yat-sen; and the third, May-Ling, married Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, who later led the nationalist army against the Communists. One son, T.V. Soong, became prime minister and two became wealthy financiers. This powerful family met with world leaders, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Winston Churchill. As the Communists came to power, many of them fled to the United States and elsewhere, but at least one daughter stayed and lived in China.
Charles Soong's enrollment is the first of a long line of international students at Trinity and Duke. It is a story more frequently told and widely known in years past than at present but one worthy of note.
Lack of traditional documentation and the clash of cultures perpetuated many myths about him. The historical literature of the first half of the century emphasizes his Christianity, but later biographies downplayed or omitted that emphasis. The difficulty of uncovering his true past illustrated by the fact that The Biographical Dictionary of Republican China lists the four different names he used.
What is clear, however, is that Soong's brief sojourn through Trinity College and Durham greatly influenced his life.
© 1998. William E. King, University Archivist, 1972-2002.
This article originally appeared in Duke Dialogue, January 30, 1998.
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