Cornell’s first Chinese graduate
Cornell’s first Chinese student was Ruby Sia of Foochow (now Fuzhou), who graduated in 1910. When Sia arrived at Cornell College around 1900, it was a very different school from today. Cornell’s affiliation with the Methodist Church was much closer than today. Sia came to campus because of that religious affiliation. It was also why she made several trips between China and the United States during those 10 years.
She was born in Fuzhou in 1884, the daughter of the Rev. Sia Heng-To, a Methodist minister and educator. Her father’s ministry ran a day school, which is where Ruby started her education.
In the late 19th century, China was in the throes of major changes on multiple fronts. One of the biggest of those changes was the country’s transition from traditional Confucian-based education to a Western education based on science. Confucianism had been the foundation of Chinese education for more than 2,000 years. The Four Books and the Five Classics of Confucianism were the basis for the civil service exams, which had been established in the 6th century A.D. Passing the civil service exams meant a bright future not only for the student, but for his descendants in perpetuity. The exams were the only route to social mobility for Chinese peasants.
The Confucian education system faced an existential crisis as a result of the Opium War of 1840-42, when the country was humiliated by the British. Scholars and government officials started to push for educational reforms designed to bring China into the modern world by offering courses in science, technology, and languages.
Not long after the Opium War, the Methodist Church began training and sending missionaries to China. Ruby Sia’s uncle, Sia Sek Ong, abandoned his Confucianism and was ordained a Methodist minister. He became one of the pioneers of the Westernization of Chinese education, and was a major influence on his niece throughout her life. He subsequently visited the United States, where he was given several honorary degrees and met President Grover Cleveland.
Exactly when Ruby Sia came to Cornell for the first time is unclear. She is listed in the 1900-1901 Cornell catalog as a first-year student in the academy, which was equivalent to a high school. She is listed as a student in the Conservatory of Music from 1901-1903, and in the School of Art in 1904. During those years, she made at least one, and perhaps several, visits back to China.
In a letter sent from China to Cornell Professor James Elliott Harlan, dated Nov. 26, 1904, she mentions her six-week journey to return home, and says, “I have many, many things to tell my people about our Cornell.” Also in the letter, which was sent from the Foochow Seminary where she had just begun teaching girls, she notes, “I have helped them to form a literary society, which is called King’s Society. I named it after the society we have in Cornell.”
The King Society at Cornell was named for William Fletcher King, president of the college from 1863-1908. He was succeeded by his vice president, James Harlan, to whom Sia had written the letter.
On Jan. 28, 1905, Sia sent another letter to Harlan, written in her graceful flowing English script. In it, she said, “I often think of the teachers, students, and friends at Mount Vernon and wish that I could bring you to China, then I would be sure that you would have a different idea about our Chinese people.”
Her picture appears in the 1905 Royal Purple yearbook as a member of the Aonian Literary Society, where she is listed as a member of the Class of 1907.
She disappears from Cornell yearbooks and records until the 1911 Royal Purple, where she is listed as a member of the Class of 1910. The records are confusing, with some conflicting information. A bio sketch of her written in 1936 by Lydia Trimble, the first president of Hwa Nan College where Sia taught for 15 years, indicates she had attended Goucher College in Baltimore for one year, and that she returned to the U.S. at some point to do a year of postgraduate work at Columbia University. There is also a brief reference to a visit Sia made to Mount Vernon in 1918 to receive an honorary master’s degree, but again, the record is incomplete.
Even before she graduated from Cornell, she was being recognized for her role as an advocate for education reform, especially for girls. In 1907, she reported in the proceedings of the Foochow Woman’s Conference of the Episcopal Methodist Church:
“… we have now entered into a new era. The educational atmosphere is different from what it was a few years ago. The renaissance of new learning is in full swing, which has been one of the most potent factors in producing some unrest in China, especially, of course, among young people. Occidental education is destroying the foundations of false faiths and hoary superstition.”
After finishing at Cornell she spent 15 years on the faculty of Hwa Nan College in Fuzhou, one of China’s first women’s colleges. Hwa Nan was supported mainly by funds raised by the missionary societies and seven “sister colleges” in the U.S. Among the seven sisters was Cornell College, which at one point sent Hwa Nan $2,000 to support its music program, quite likely because of Sia’s presence there. Hwa Nan, now a three-year school, has been relocated to Fujian and known today as Fujian Hwa Nan Women’s Voc-Tech College.
Sia also spent 19 years overseeing rural education in the Foochow District, some of which time overlapped with her work at Hwa Nan. Throughout her post-Cornell time in China, her deepest commitments were to education and the church. There is no record of her being married. Her name appears regularly in the annual reports of the Methodist Episcopal Church’s Women’s Foreign Missionary Society, which had been founded in 1880.
The annual reports document her varied activities as a teacher and education advocate. Trimble’s bio sketch also lists many of her appointments, including as president of the Foochow Board of Education, as general secretary of the Provincial Board of Education, as a member of the National Board of Christian Education, a member of the National Christian Council, a delegate to the East Asia Central Conference, and as a member of the Government Board of Education. The profile also mentions her reputation as a public speaker, both in China and in the U.S.
In 1936, she made a speaking tour of the United States which lasted from the early spring into the summer. Upon learning that Sia was going to be in the country, Cornell President Herbert Burgstahler invited her to come for the college’s commencement to receive an honorary doctorate, which she received on June 6. She spent some time visiting acquaintances in Iowa before returning to China for the last time. She continued to correspond with Burgstahler, and her letters warned of the atrocities being committed by Japanese military forces in China.
“By Japan’s depredations and perfidy, she has let Hell loose in China,” she wrote in a letter to Burgstahler dated Oct. 18, 1937. “Where it will all end and for how long it will continue is clearly dependent upon one major factor, namely the time it will take the Great Powers to realize that they have moral obligations which must be fulfilled in the cause of maimed humanity.”
Within two months of her letter, Sia’s fears came true when the Japanese army embarked on
what became known as the Rape of Nanking, with an estimated 40,000 to 200,000 Chinese
Throughout World War II and after, Sia carried on. Not long after the war ended, tensions between the Kuomintang or Chinese Nationalist Party led by Chiang Kai-Shek, and the Communist Party of China, headed by Mao Zedong, exploded into civil war. By 1949, Mao’s forces were triumphant, bringing the end of Christian education in the country. Sia continued her work until she retired in 1953.
In May 1955, the Cornell Alumni Association received a letter from the Board of Missions of the Methodist Church which read in part: “Miss Ruby Sia passed away on the 24th of January, 1955. She was ill for one week and died peacefully. Sometime in 1953, she had moved from Foochow to Shanghai and was living there with a niece.”
In her 71 years, she had led an incredible life, leaving China to study in the U.S. when there were only about 600 Chinese students in this country, most of them males. She was a major player in China’s educational reformation, and a tireless advocate for the education of females at all levels. During her professional years, she made several trips between the two countries at a time when intercontinental travel was slow and difficult. At a time of great tragedy in her country, she was outspoken about the need for Western intervention. She was a Cornellian who made a difference.