God Redeemed Her Tragedies: The Story of Wu Yifang

by Emmalie Ellis, DBU Student

Day 18 of Advent

As chestnuts roast on open fires, sleigh bells jingle, and stockings are hung on chimneys with care, the joy of Christmas is evident all around. Deep within each of us, however, the weight of 2020 remains - a year of loss, hatred, frustration, changed plans, and chaos. With heavy hearts, together our souls cry out the third verse of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

“And in despair I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth I said
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

The longing for redemption showcased in these words is a feeling that Wu Yifang knew all too well. Wu endured some of the most bitter situations this world has to offer - and yet she became one of the most influential women in the history of Chinese Christian education.

Wu Yifang was born on January 26, 1893, in Wuchang, China. From a young age, Wu had a deep desire to learn, but her mother and father saw it inappropriate for a girl to attend school. Despite her parents' disapproval, Wu and her sister Yifen journeyed east, where the girls attended school in Hangzhou, Shanghai, and Suzhou. The two girls grew close to their uncle, Chen Shutong, who lived in that area.

In 1909, the girls received a letter urging the two to return home without any explanation. It was not until Wu and Yifan arrived back in Wuchang that they learned that their father had taken his own life after being involved in several business schemes. In 1911, Wu’s brother drowned himself, just like their father did. Soon after this, Wu’s mother became very ill and passed away. The night before their mother’s funeral, Wu’s older sister Yifen also took her own life. In less than three years, Wu lost four members of her family. Devastated, Wu returned to Hangzhou to her aunt and uncle’s home. 

Wu Yifang entered as a student of Ginling College in the winter of 1916. Upon her arrival, Wu wanted little to do with Christianity. One day, however, Wu’s best friend Y.T. Zee invited Wu over to her home. There she met Y.T.’s mother, Yuh-tsung. “When I entered Ginling, I had suffered deep sorrow from a family tragedy … At Ginling it was Yuh-tsung’s Christian life and her loving sympathy for me that uplifted me out of self-imposed isolation. Gradually I understood the real meaning of life and learned to aim at a worthy life purpose.” Wu was baptized in her junior year at Ginling. From then on, the Lord transformed Wu into a vessel for the love of Christ to flow through in all aspects of her life.

Wu is accredited as the first woman in China to obtain a Bachelor’s degree. She earned her Master’s and Doctorate degrees from the University of Michigan, and in 1924, was one of only 108 female Chinese students in America.

Throughout her life, Wu held many titles. From 1924 to 1925, Wu was the president of the Chinese Christian Association in North America. She traveled around the U.S. for an interdenominational missionary campaign, where she spoke in 33 cities over 200 times. Wu became the second president of Ginling College in 1928. She led Ginling with inspiring modesty and frugality for 23 years. While she was president, she continued to serve the world, which she found to be one of the most important aspects of her life. Wu would often represent China at international conferences in Canada, the United States, England, and Japan. In 1934, Wu was elected president of the East China Christian Educational Association, and the list of achievements goes on.

Wu passed away on January 10, 1985. Through every season of her life, the Lord was stitching together His plan for Wu. Romans 8:28 says, “we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” Wu Yifang knew the valleys just as well as she knew the mountaintops. 

In the same way, the Lord is molding each of our lives to His perfect plan even through the valleys. Because of this, we have hope and together we can sing with much rejoicing the following stanza of Longfellow’s carol:

“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor does He sleep
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Our hope is here, wrapped in swaddling clothes. His name is Jesus, and He is Christ the Lord.