“I can still remember my great-grandmother’s feet. They were smaller than mine and I was only 5 or 6,” says Angela Zhao who will enter Barnard this fall as a first-year. Along with overwhelming excitement and the typical array of belongings, she brings experience not exactly typical of an 18-year-old, say, from New Jersey or California: Angela was born in Yintai, China. Her mother came to America to escape persecution when Angela was 7; Angela joined her in 2002, at the age of 11. During their separation, her mother would call to remind her daughter to do well in school, to learn English, so that Angela could join her in the United States, have opportunities—and help make change.
Angela had reason to want things to be different in the country of her birth. Visits to her great-grandmother’s rural home and the indelible memory of those feet, bound per the tradition, were direct links to Angela’s passion for Barnard. In her application essay to Barnard, she wrote of her mother’s oft-repeated words “You can be the next Kang Tongbi.” Says Angela, “When I first came to America, my mom told me stories about how Ms. Kang courageously fought for the equality of Chinese women, and of her championing the end of foot-binding nearly a century ago. As I began my college search, I was astonished to find that Kang Tongbi, my lifetime idol, was a graduate of Barnard College.”
In many ways, the parallel histories of Angela Zhao and Kang Tongbi—a century apart—were at the core of The Kang Tongbi Commemorative Symposium: Women Changing China, which took place in Beijing, China, on March 19. The idea and the event itself represents Barnard President Debora Spar’s focus on extending the College’s international presence and creating an ongoing global exchange of ideas, students, female leadership, and activism.
The idea for the symposium came about organically. President Spar was planning to visit Asia to connect with alumnae in the region and to explore education exchanges. A stop in Beijing, where she joined in the opening of Columbia University’s Global Center, was bracketed with stops in Hong Kong and Seoul. Months earlier, both Angela Zhao’s application and that of Serena Hong, who is none other than the grandniece of Kang Tongbi herself, lay on a desk in Barnard’s Office of Admissions. Plans for the China trip and the emergence of Kang Tongbi in the collective consciousness of the Barnard administration converged and Women Changing China was born and made possible by the international law firm, Paul Hastings, which maintains 18 offices throughout Asia.
President Spar welcomed these four most distinguished women at the Park Hyatt Beijing, and with a crowd of more than 200 guests, these amazing women shared their stories. Yan Geling, one of China’s most acclaimed contemporary novelists and screenwriters, sat next to pioneering television host and media guru, Yang Lan, who sat next to Academy Award-winning Chinese-American filmmaker Ruby Yang. The fourth panelist, Wu Qing, is deputy to the Beijing Haidian District People’s Congress and a renowned advocate for the rights of women. She had also been, for 30 years, one of China’s most esteemed and beloved professors of English.
The achievements and experiences of the women have led them to some common ground, albeit by circuitous routes. Yan Geling began: “I became a school drop-out at 7 when the Cultural Revolution started. I became a soldier and a ‘dancing soldier’ at the age of 12. I was a work correspondent before I reached 20. I became a lieutenant colonel at age 23.” She went on to explain that after the Revolution, women writers had renewed interest in expressing themselves. She was a leader among them. To date, Geling has published more than 20 books, received over 30 literary and film awards, and has had her works translated into seven languages with a half-dozen more in preparation.
Yang Lan is one of the most successful and recognized personalities in China— often referred to as “China’s Oprah”—and one of the most dedicated to social causes and women’s causes. She spoke about the magnitude of change she’d witnessed since she first won national fame in 1990: “At that time, most, I think 99 percent of Chinese people, didn’t even have a passport. So they hadn’t the chance to travel around the world and see how the other people are living.”
She also went to relate a story from her recent interview with Jimmy Carter, who shared a great deal about his talks with Deng Xiaoping, including a fateful call in the middle of the night. “Deng Xiaoping asked about how much should be the quota for Chinese students in the United States. ‘Is 5,000 fair enough?’ Carter, who was very frustrated being interrupted in his sleep said, ‘Why don’t we just give them 100,000?’ That incident produced a lot of opportunities for Chinese students to see the world, including me!” Two decades later, one only needed to watch the 2008 Beijing Olympics to witness the breadth and richness of experience that define today’s China.
Long before her career launched, Yang Lan had asked her father to get her a job, but he said no, knowing that his daughter would find her own way. Now having been named “Chinese Woman of the Year” in 2001, “Top Ten Women Entrepreneurs” in 2002, Columbia University’s “Global Leadership Award” in 2008, she has also paved the way for other women.
Ruby Yang’s parental influence was of another sort. In the ’70s, her mother worried about her daughter’s future. Yang recalled her mother saying, “You cannot go into art school. You have to get a degree in business.” Yang adds, “I could not rebel against her. I went to college for two years, to business school, and minored in art. So I finally satisfied her.” Later on, Yang graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute. “When I started doing film, my mother would always tell people, ‘She’s going to apply for MBA one of these days.’ My father was the one who supported me throughout to do art.”
Her work as an editor and director includes a range of feature and documentary works that often deal with Chinese themes. She won several awards for The Blood of Yingzhou District, including an Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject in 2006. The film dealt with the fear of provincial Chinese children who lost their parents to AIDS. Another of her award-winning films is Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl, about the trials of a young girl during the Cultural Revolution; the original novel and movie script were written by Yan Geling. These potent works and her other public service announcements for the China AIDS Media Project and the Ministry of Health have touched millions of lives, in and beyond China. She suggested to the young people in the audience that they take a year, perhaps, before looking for work “to volunteer your time and learn about other people, what other people are suffering, what other people are doing.”
Wu Qing brought the resounding wisdom of an elder stateswoman to the mix—an authority enhanced by decades as a professor and devoted civil servant as well as the experiences of a childhood spent in a Chinese compound in postwar Japan. As an adult, Wu Qing has been detained and reprimanded and
even removed from office for rallying for the rights of women and for insisting on transparency in government. Passing on this strong sense of self to young women is the primary goal of her rural school. “First we empower them. We tell them they are human beings before they are girls. We also talk about the constitution. We talk about transparency, accountability, democracy, and especially human rights.”
When Debora Spar asked each how they achieved their success, Professor Wu was emphatic in her response. “I don’t think I am successful. By successful I mean that when every single person in China can live the way that I’m living, having the right to do what they want to do … then I will be successful.”
This dedication to women’s responsibility to one another was a theme running throughout the panel discussion. Affirmed Wu Qing, “If you educate one woman, you educate the whole family and generations to come. Because we have heard stories about our mothers—they’re our teachers. That’s why I think there are so many things to do in China now, and it’s so exciting. There is room for us to make changes.”
She was ahead of her time, and most certainly her gender, in this outspokenness, but she came by it honestly. Her mother, Bing Xin, graduated from Wellesley in the ’20s and went on to become one of China’s most famous authors. Her father, Wu Wentsao, earned both a master’s and a PhD from Columbia University, and was regarded as the father of sociology in China.
A sense of self, a belief in the power of education, and a desire for change initially motivated all the panelists who participated in the symposium down their career paths. Students like Angela Zhao and Serena Hong, grandniece of Kang Tongbi, and the others who will come to Barnard from countries around the world will learn, grow and continue to bring powerful changes for the better to their home countries—one of the messages of President Spar’s global outreach.
-by Beth Saidel, photographs by Bill Liu