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Life and Legacy of Kang Tongbi

Kang TongbiFrom the Barnard College Archives: In the October 18, 1908 edition of The New York Times, a short article on page 20 headlined this news: “Chinese Noblewoman Here: Miss Kang Tong Pih Joins the Senior Class at Barnard.” A touching mix of “society” news and unintentional humor, with just a hint of astonishment at the young woman’s worldliness, the article reported that Barnard dormitory authorities were happy to see her “not only because she is a favorite at Brook’s (sic) Hall, but also because she had engaged the most expensive suite there, and until [the day before] no one knew where she was.”

Exactly one month later, the New York Evening Mail reported the death of the Chinese emperor, and Miss Kang, now referred to as a princess, tells the Mail’s reporter that friends in the Chinese court telegraphed her about the emperor’s horrific poisoning at the hands of an unnamed high minister. The reporter also quotes Kang as saying that her father, once an advisor to the emperor and a reform leader in China, “is in hiding in England.” She also predicts China will be racked by civil war, but just who was this young woman to speak so authoritatively about current events of the day?

Kang Tongbi (aka Kang Tung Pih) was the second daughter of the late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century Chinese political reformer Kang Youwei. The exact date of her birth is in dispute, but according to Kang Youwei’s personal journals, she was born in 1880 in southern China. Because of her father’s position, she grew up in Beijing in the midst of the emperor’s court. Her father was also a scholar and vehemently opposed to the traditional practice of foot-binding, refusing to  bind his daughters’ feet. This decision no doubt helped to mold Kang Tongbi’s independent, activist character—a radical departure from the accepted social deportment expected of women of her stature and her time.

Kang Youwei’s influence in the Chinese government lasted only about 100 days before he was exiled by the Empress Dowager Cixi. Even in exile, he traveled around the world to lobby for social reform in China while Kang Tongbi was sent to relatives in Hong Kong. Besides the Mandarin of the imperial court and the Cantonese of her birthplace that she already spoke, Kang Tongbi also studied English, French, Italian, and Hindi.

She arrived in the United States in August 1903, to study and to generate overseas support for her father’s Reform Party. Kang founded a women’s branch of the Chinese Empire Reform Society in Tacoma, Washington, then made her way to British Columbia, San Francisco, Chicago, and finally New York City. Although very young, she was comfortable  making public speeches (in both Cantonese and English) before large crowds of both Chinese and non-Chinese spectators.

On October 20, 1903, the New York Ladies’ Branch of the Chinese Empire Reform Society was born at a public meeting. The New-York Tribune reported Kang’s words: “I want them to read papers,” she said earnestly. “I want them to know things. I want them to help to make things go right and to have grand education ...Why should not we women stand together and help each other?” After briefly attending Radcliffe College, then Trinity College in Connecticut, she entered Barnard in February 1907, as a member of the Class of 1909, the very first Asian student to study at the College.

Devoted to women’s rights and reform, she intended to broaden the scope of her activism once she left Barnard. She was quoted in the New York Evening Mail, “When I finish here, I am going back to China to wake up my countrywomen. I am deeply interested in suffrage, and hope to arouse the women of China to a realization of their rights.”

After the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, Kang Tongbi returned to China where she continued to agitate for feminist causes. She was an editor and contributor for Nüxuebao (Women’s Education), one of the first women’s journals in China. Like her father, she took a stand against the practice of foot-binding, establishing and co-leading a Tianzuhui (Natural Feet Society) with other Chinese feminists. Kang Tongbi is also remembered for her Biography of Kang Youwei, published in 1958. She stayed in mainland China after the Communist takeover in 1949. While she seems to have been left alone by the new regime for a while, she was jailed during the Cultural Revolution and died on August 17, 1969.