Ask the Yangxifu: Six Western Women of the Past who Married Chinese Men

Louise Van Arnam Huie, with husband Huie Kin
Louise Van Arnam Huie, with husband Huie Kin (photo from

mali asks:

I just came across this book Grace an American in China with a foreign woman marrying a Chinese man in the 1930s and going to China. I thought it was pretty cool that they had their relationship then…wow that must have been so hard!! So I wondered if you knew about other actual women like her that married Chinese in the past?

I sure do. You might call them our “yangxifu grandmothers,” the Western women who paved the way for the rest of us to love and marry Chinese men (and often at great cost to their own lives). Here’s a list of six prominent women I know of — including Grace:

Louise Van Arnam Huie. Call Louise the “greatest” on this list of the yangxifu of the past — she fell in love with a Chinese man in 1889 (Huie Kin, a young minister who founded New York City’s first Chinese Christian Church and later shared his experiences in a book titled Remembrances). They left behind more than just many descendants, as this NPR story notes:

Susan Edith Bell, a 21-year-old Harvard graduate now with Teach for America, says her great great grandparents raised six daughters and three surviving sons to value public service and the life of the mind.

The descendants of the Huie Kin family still have regular family reunions in the US, showing the love continues. 😉

Gertrude Wagner Du
Gertrude Wagner-Du and husband Du Chengrong (photo from

Letticie See. Letticie — also called Ticie — had some serious grit. Sure she boarded a train, with just a bag to her name, at 18. But more importantly, she talked (and even demonstrated) her way into a job at Fong See’s factory in Chinatown, which began a professional — and romantic — partnership that lasted decades. The couple married in 1897, though their union was never recognized during their lifetime because of anti-miscegenation laws. Read about Ticie and her descendants in the book On Gold Mountain by Lisa See.

Mae Franking. Mae could have been just another Midwestern Scotch-Irish girl in Michigan — but then she met Tiam in 1907 when she was just 17, and something changed. Not right away, though. Mae first became friends with Tiam, and eventually opened herself up to a controversial relationship and marriage (the latter denounced in racist articles that ran in Ann Arbor and Detroit). Still, Mae chose him, chose to move with him to Shanghai in the early years of the Republic, and even chose to become a good Chinese wife in the eyes of his family. Tragic events forced her return to Michigan after several years (read Mae Franking’s My Chinese Marriage to find out why).

Grace Divine Liu. Grace came from a conservative Tennessee background, but bucked all family expectations by falling for Liu Fu-Chi, a Chinese man she met while studying opera singing in New York City. She eventually married him in the city 1932, against the wishes of her family, and later settled with him in Tianjin. Anyone with a passing knowledge of Chinese history will see the dates on her book — 1934 to 1974 — to know there’s some serious drama in this story. War. Harassment. Prison. But she stayed in China. Now that’s courage and, dare I say, grace. Read about it in Grace: An American Woman in China, 1934-1974

See also this overview of the book on MandMX.

Gertrude Wagner-Du. When Gertrude saw Du Chengrong at a skating rink in Vienna in 1933, it really was love at first sight. She later traveled alone to Shanghai just to be with him — despite her disapproving parents — and married him in 1935 at a hotel next to Hangzhou’s West Lake. Sigh.

But China’s tumultuous history interrupted their happily ever after, from war with Japan to the Cultural Revolution. She could have easily fled to Vienna, but instead stayed in China out of love for her husband.

See her story as a movie:  For All Eternity (also known as “On The Other Side Of The Bridge” and “芬妮的微笑”)

Gladys Yang and Yang Xianyi
Gladys Yang and husband Yang Xianyi (photo from

Gladys Yang. She married scholar Yang Xianyi in 1941, and the two formed one of the most famous pairs of translators, producing renowned English versions of classic Chinese literature, from A Dream of Red Mansions to Lu Xun’s stories. People say Gladys truly loved China, a love that sustained her through some of the darkest times of modern Chinese history (she stayed there with her husband from 1941 until her death in 1999). This quote from her husband couldn’t have said it better:

“She wanted to live a Chinese life and even after being in jail she still decided to stay in China,” said her husband, who added: “She regretted her son’s death, although otherwise I don’t believe she regretted anything.”

Read their story in White Tiger: An Autobiography of Yang Xianyi. Also, see this appreciation from Black and White Cat, who apparently once had Gladys’ sofa!

What do you think? Did I miss another woman worth mentioning?


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20 thoughts on “Ask the Yangxifu: Six Western Women of the Past who Married Chinese Men

  • September 2, 2011 at 5:10 am

    The Yang’s were brilliant translators!

    Also, I have no idea how close to the truth it is, but ‘For All Eternity/Across the Bridge’ is a great film. I especially liked how it uses the actual (rather rickety) bridge as a framing device.

    I have heard of a European woman, perhaps Dutch or Polish, who married a Chinese man in about the 50s (from patchy memory) and lived right through all the turmoil into modern day Beijing. I can’t for the life of me remember her name, but I say “Dutch or Polish” because I remember a TV programme about a Dutch woman more or less fitting that very vague description, and one of my just graduated students has a Polish grandmother. May well be two different women fitting a similar geographical and chronological space, but there aren’t many foreigners who lived through that time period in Beijing.

  • September 2, 2011 at 5:21 am

    Thanks for sharing! wow, That’s priceless 😉

  • September 2, 2011 at 5:33 am

    interesting but not completely shocking Sessue Hayakawa was a Japanese film star of the silent era. East Asian leading (male) actors in hollywood were much better regarded in those days…sadly due to WW2 and other events…the excessively negative view remains today and in some ways worse. I suspect but have no proof that the generation who were socialized then had (at least on first impressions) less negative sentiments than today’s america

  • September 2, 2011 at 11:38 am

    They were all brave women. True mavericks, rebels, adventurers and romantics? I have heard of Gladys Yang but not of the rest. I take my hat off to them all. And may they inspire more cross-cultural relationships.

  • September 2, 2011 at 3:04 pm

    Wow…this may be getting a bit off topic but Gladys Yang in that photo looks so much like me when I was 19.

  • September 3, 2011 at 11:09 am

    What about Bruce Lee’s wife? I don’t think she had hardship like these women above, but she’s well known.

  • September 3, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    “What about Bruce Lee’s wife? I don’t think she had hardship like these women above, but she’s well known.”

    If you watched Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story then you must know that she too had it very hard, esp. from her nagging mother.
    The father was never shown but one can only guess HIS stance.

    I don’t like the few scenes (AND I”LL NEVER FORGET IT) where they had to insert scenes debasing Chinese men, (like where a young Linda Emery was with her female friends) and one of them said “EEUWW, you actually put your tongue into mouth of a Chinese guy?” (paraphrasing)

    It just show you how racist Hollywood was and continues to be regarding the Asian male. Surely they could’ve omitted that part or changed it up somewhat less offensive.

  • September 3, 2011 at 6:55 pm

    ‘Surely they could’ve omitted that part or changed it up somewhat less offensive.’
    I don’t see it that way at all, the scene simply reflects the general views of Americans towards the relationship at the time, it adds to the struggle of what Bruce Lee and his wife had to go through. It was made to feel sympathy for the couple and cheer them on.

  • September 3, 2011 at 9:39 pm

    The quote from the Bruce Lee biopic actually goes:

    “Ew! You’d actually let him stick his tongue in your mouth?”
    To which the Linda Emery character smirks flirtatiously and replies:
    “Among other things…!”

    The “among other things” she’d let him – the Asian man – put in her mouth = his penis.

    So the scene was saying that despite racist white society, the White girl was wanting to have sex with the Asian man.

    Understand the scene, people!

  • September 6, 2011 at 4:39 am

    Isn’t it ironic after so many years later, society still shun cross cultural marriage especially involving AMWF???

  • October 23, 2011 at 5:25 am

    I used Gladys Yang’s translation of ”Dream of the red mansion” in my Chinese literature class 2 years ago. Didn’t even know the history behind the authors. Very interesting.

  • November 13, 2011 at 3:48 am

    Shirley Wood, met her husband (a veterinary science student) at Michigan State in the 1940s and moved to China w/ him in 1946. She wrote an interesting book called “A Street in China” (London : M. Joseph, 1958). She and her husband moved to Kaifeng in the 1950s (I think) and she taught English at the university (eventually Dean of Foreign Languages) in addition to raising 6 kids.
    She also appeared in one of Anna Louise Strong’s “Letters from China” published in ’63

    Here’s an article she wrote for the Christian Science Monitor on her visit back to the US in 1980

    She was still alive in 2009, according to this article:

  • December 5, 2011 at 4:31 pm

    Qiu Fazu, Chinese: 裘法祖. His wife is a German.

  • March 22, 2013 at 12:21 pm

    Shirley Wood is still alive.

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