Harriet Newell Noyes: Foreign Pioneer of Women's Education in Guangdong

February 4, 2015
Editor: Eileen Cheng
Harriet Newell Noyes: Foreign Pioneer of Women's Education in Guangdong
Harriet Newell Noyes, a devout American Christian born in 1844, established the first women's school in Guangzhou, True Light Seminary, in 1872. [China News]

Harriet Newell Noyes, a devout American Christian born in 1844, came to Guangzhou, a city of South China's Guangdong Province, at the age of 24 and ever since devoted herself to the education of the local women.

From as early as 13 years old, Noyes had made up her mind to "spread the great deeds of God in foreign countries." With this ambition, she began learning the local vernacular upon arriving in Guangzhou and, within a couple of months, would go on to master the language, thanks to her hard work of over six hours each day.

Noyes established the first women's school in Guangzhou, True Light Seminary, in 1872. Over the 40 years that would follow, the school turned out 286 female teachers, 114 female doctors and more than 30 female nurses. It can be said that the first generation of Guangzhou's professional women wouldn't have been nurtured without the great contributions of Noyes.

"Actions speak louder than words, but when one speaks whilst withholding actions, surely it would have been better not to speak at all." That was what Noyes believed in and had complied with through her own actions. She once told the students, "Much as I want to marry a loved one, it would benefit my family alone. I would rather give up my personal happiness for the sake of all the families through women's education."

She encouraged students with bound feet to liberate their feet; she showed deep sympathy for those on whom arranged marriage was imposed and persuaded them in a gentle but firm way to make their own choices; more importantly, she guided the girls and women to learn history, geography, mathematics and science, which paved the way for women’s independence. Through all these initiatives and contributions, Noyes is considered by many to have been the true pioneer of modern women's education in Guangdong.

With two full years of preparation and the U.S. $1,000 she had collected, Noyes established True Light Seminary in June 1872, at Shajijinli Port (now known as 623 Road). She intended to enroll 20 girls and 10 married women, only to find that this goal was too ambitious: The Chinese at that time believed that females should be receiving education only at home. Even though the students had to pay nothing for their education at her school and those from humble backgrounds were even provided with free meals and accommodation, only six students were enrolled, three married women included. Faced with such a difficult beginning and the uncertainties of the future, Noyes kept moving forward without letup.

In January 1875, when things were looking up with the seminary, a fire turned the teaching building into ashes, burning to the ground Noyes’ three years of hard work. Merely a few months later, however, a new teaching building was established and 5 years later a new apartment built for the students.

Step by step, True Light Seminary was geared onto the track of smooth development. By the end of the 1880s, Noyes divided the increasing student population into different classes, and courses like mathematics, chemistry, astronomy, and philosophy were taught to senior students. The three-year education was extended to nine years as well. The number of students at the seminary exceeded 100 in 1887 and then doubled in 1894.

Apart from her devotion to women's modern education, Noyes had also worked to emancipate the minds of the female students by persuading them out of binding their feet. By the 10th anniversary of True Light Seminary, all of its students had quit this backwards and unhealthy custom, making Noyes' initiative over 20 years ahead of the actual foot-binding ban issued by the Qing administration.

In 1917, Noyes went back to the U.S. for recuperation and died of long-term overwork the next year in her hometown. The first generation of professional women she had painstakingly educated, however, had been teaching, practicing medicine or engaged in other areas all around the Lingnan area.

(Source: China News / Translated and edited by Women of China)

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