Ruth Mei-en Tsao Chai

A devout Christian and one of the first women admitted into a national university in China.

Was one of the first women admitted into a national university in China when the government finally allowed women to attend in 1920.” (p. 10) One of nine women who scored high on the exam and were admitted to a national university, one of eight to attend National Central University in Nanjing (then known as National Southeastern University; after 1949 part of Nanjing Univiersity) (p. 37)

She was invited by the Japanese Ministry of Education to tour Japan. [when? why?]. Educated by missionaries, she was a devout Christian and had insisted that [Charles Chai] convert as well before she agreed to marry him. In her youth she’d memorized the entire Bible. At a time when many Chinese women still had bound feet and were illiterate, she had been a professor of English. During World War II, she served as Lady Mountbatten’s interpreter in China.” (p. 10)

She received an M.A. in education in 1929 from Wittenberg and stayed one more year to do advanced training in piano. Charles and Ruth were then married in May, 1930, and lived in Chicago until his degree was finished. (Returning home after four years, pregnant, she learned that her mother had just died and her father remarried to a young girl, converting to 7th Day Adventism). She named her first born son “Winberg” after the school. (p. 79)

She was “born into a wealthy family, a good family, an old respectable family from the north…

Ruth’s mother: (no name) had her feet bound as a girl, until a nearby missionary woman [in Shandong?] who heard her cries of pain and protest, visited the family compound for more than three months, bringing gifts and the Gospel until she convinced the wife to unbind her daughter’s feet (pp. 22-28). Ruth’s mother then was educated by the missionaries and began teaching in their school. A matchmaker paired her with a teacher from another mission school (from a lower class).

Ruth’s mother decided to start a girls’ school to educate her daughter and others, and invited her missionary friends from Shandong to teach. American missionary Eleanor Goodkin became Ruth’s music teacher and close friend. After the ROC government moved the capital to Nanjing, the clan lands there became even more valuable and the family wealthier still. So Ruth’s mother started up a hospital and a secondary school, the Chinese Christian Hospital and Modern School for Girls. She translated religious tracts. pp. 32-36

Ruth’s father: (no name) was “the founder of the first Christian college in Nanjing, and a member of the local elite.” He decided to give a plot of land (from his wife’s clan holdings there) and sit on the board of regents to ensure the Christian message was taught.

Ruth’s Siblings: Her two older brothers were sent to study medicine in Bonn, Germany, and returned to serve as surgeons in Nanjing. One later suffered beatings in the Cultural Revolution due to his Western education and his wife, a Shanghai starlet, committed suicide… Their eldest son, educated in engineering at Qinghua, had been put in an insane asylum for ten years because he refused to renounce his faith in God; he was released 1982. (p. 276).
At her insistence, the family took the last train out of Nanjing in 1949 and escaped abroad, first to Taiwan and then as immigrants to U.S. in 1955.


Note: p. 253 ff: see three original letters by Ruth.


  • May-lee Chai and Winberg Chai, The Girl from Purple Mountain: Love, Honor, War, and One Family’s Journey from China to America (New York: St. Martin’s Press Thomas Dunne Books, 2001).