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  • Sophia Chen Zen and Westernized Chinese Feminism
  • Katrina Gulliver (bio)


Sophia Chen Zen was an influential Chinese intellectual of the interwar period and one of the few Chinese women at the time to have received an education overseas. Her writing shows a concern for the development of Chinese feminism brought about by her experience of American society. Recognizing that Chinese society faced a turning point in the treatment of women, she explored different approaches in her work. She demonstrated a bicultural self in her writing and saw her role as an intermediary between China and the West.

Zen was a member of the first generation of Chinese women intellectuals to be educated abroad, and one of its most outspoken representatives on feminism and the changing role of women in China. Chen Hengzhe (Ch’en Heng-che) 陈衡哲 adopted the name Sophia H. Chen — Sophia Chen Zen after marriage — and published under this byline in English. (She married H. C. Zen, a chemist with a BA and MA from Cornell, and the first president of the Science Society of China.) As the recipient of a scholarship from the Boxer Indemnity Fund Grants, she studied at Vassar and in 1920 became China’s first female professor (Boorman 1967: 183), teaching history and English literature at Peking University (Li 1992: 59).

Education in United States

Sophia Chen Zen’s unusual educational opportunities were the result of a family who were supportive of female education, and the scholarship funding that gave her the chance to travel to the USA. In 1908, the United States government had ratified an agreement to give up part of the Boxer Indemnity from China amounting to about $12 million, the money to be used instead for Chinese students to study in the West. The plan had three elements: First, the founding of Tsing Hua School, a preparatory school for Chinese students aiming to study abroad; [End Page 258] second, sending Chinese students to America; third, setting up an organization in Washington to supervise the practical affairs of Chinese overseas students. The Boxer Indemnity Scholarship Program was the most important scheme for educating Chinese students in America and arguably the most consequential and successful in the entire foreign-study movement of 20th-century China. There were more than 800 members in the American Chinese Students Association organization in 1911, and in the following year the Qing government sent over 100 more students to America. The exact number of Chinese overseas students in America and Europe during the later years of the Qing dynasty cannot be established, but it has been estimated at around 10,000 (Yao 2004). The Boxer Indemnity scholarship program was opened to women in 1914. Every two years after that, approximately ten women were sent to America to study (Ye 1994: 342). Sophia Chen Zen was among this first cohort.

Although women were part of this wave of Chinese students abroad, from the 1880s to the 1920s, female students underwent separate experiences from their male counterparts. They faced questions of not only what it meant to be a modern Chinese, but a “modern Chinese woman” (Ye 1994: 315). Until the Boxer grants became available to women (and even then, the number of those who benefited from these was tiny), those who had access to education abroad were either the adopted daughters or wards of Western missionaries in China, or the daughters of Chinese families with connections overseas. This meant that they were both financially well off and coming from families with progressive attitudes toward female education. Since Chinese students educated in Japan far out-numbered those educated in the West, Sophia Chen Zen’s experience put her in a small minority.

Sophia Chen Zen enrolled at Vassar in 1915, having spent a year at Putnam Hall, a girls’ preparatory school in Poughkeepsie, New York (Dooling & Torgeson 1998: 88). In the year she arrived, she was one of two Chinese students (Boorman 1967: 185). These two were not the first East Asian students at Vassar, however; Yamakawa Sutematsu had graduated in 1882 and her brother, Kenjiro, was the first Japanese graduate of Yale (Kuno 1993). She later founded the Peeresses’ School in Tokyo, which was attended by Princess...


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pp. 258-274
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Archived 2009
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