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A Purposeful Vision: Margaret Bailey Speer and Yenching University

Yenching in the Tumult of China: Perched on a Volcano

The political landscape of China was volatile throughout the eighteen years that MBS’s spent there. Though she arrived a quarter century after the Boxer Rebellion, anti-foreign (and specifically anti-Western) sentiment was still thriving and continued to spark regular political activity. However, twenty-five years had also seen the development of other areas of tension, both internal and international,1 which all coalesced into a complex and unstable climate. “It is hard to settle down to writing letters”, wrote MBS on June 8, 1928, “when one does not know whether or not one is perching on top of a volcano, and if one is, just when the eruption is going to erupt.” This unstable vacillation between calm and extreme threat comes through in the letters that she wrote to her parents and friends, which intersperse ominous accounts of the events that permeated it, including threats of violence and imminent evacuation, with the routine updates of her daily life. The letter above continues, “But in spite of rumors and alarms, exams go on, and I am at present proctoring the Freshman English exam.”2 Not surprisingly, her correspondence provides a particularly close perspective on student involvement in the conflicts: the years between 1927 and leading up to World War II were rife with student political action, and the University had to close or cancel exams many times due to protests and student strikes. Eventually, it was the events precipitating from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that terminated MBS’s work at Yenching, though before returning home she would move first to the city and then to an internment center for enemy aliens in North China, which was ironically a converted Presbyterian Mission compound. Though her employment ended in 1941, MBS did not reach home until December, 1943.

Featured below is a sampling of letters from across MBS's years in China in which she addresses political climate. These examples are obviously just a few out of many. If you wish to view other letters or contextual documents, please make an appointment to view the collection at Bryn Mawr College or explore the rest of the digital archive. Caroline Rittenhouse's 1994 edited volume of MBS's China letters, Like Good Steel (The Round Table Press), is also a valuable resource.


1. Major conflicts that occurred during MBS’s residency in China include the Second Sino-Japanese War, and the Chinese Civil War, which was a conflict between the Nationalist Government and the Communist Party of China.
2. June 8, 1928 (full letter featured below)