She was a deputy at the Kuomintang (KMT) National Congress, but was expelled from the KMT because she advocated cooperating with the Chinese Communist Party (CPC). She left for the US afterwards. She worked for years at the United Nations Office of the Secretariat, but decided to return home in her old age.
Yuan Xiaoyuan, China’s first female diplomat, lives near the beautiful Yueya Lake in Nanjing’s eastern suburb.
Girl of Rare Talents
Yuan Xiaoyuan was born in Wujin, Jiangsu Province, in May 1901. Her grandfather was a county magistrate, and her uncle was a member of the Imperial Academy and Emperor Xuantong’s teacher. Her father, Yuan Liheng, was a banker during the Republic of China (1912-1949) and headed the Bank of Communications. Yuan Xiaoyuan was the oldest child at home. “My father had a teacher for my two brothers. I sneaked in to listen to the lectures, and did homework for my brothers. My neighbor had an English teacher. I also went to listen. I learned many things by doing these things, so I was called a girl of rare talents when I was young.” When recalling her childhood, Yuan Xiaoyuan cannot help but smile like a child.
When she was 18, she declared herself independent and chose her own of life at home. The examination for public servants was held in Nanjing. Yuan Xiaoyuan participated in the exams and was admitted as a secretary of He Yushu, Director of Agriculture and Mineral Department. Since then, Yuan Xiaoyuan has not only worked diligently, but also continued with calligraphy and painting. In 1929, she sold several paintings in Lin Fengmian’s painting exhibit.
In 1930, a government official, Gao Lu, was sent to Geneva as a minister-counselor. Yuan Xiaoyuan went to him and recommended herself as his secretary. At first, he refused her, but could not resist her persistence. Finally, he agreed to take her abroad if she covered her own expenses. Yuan Xiaoyuan held a tea party and asked her friends for help. Then, she boarded the ship to France, where she met her future husband, Ye Nan. Ye Nan was the son of Ye Chulun. His father was the Governor of Jiangsu at the time. He went to France for military studies.
Yuan Xiaoyuan did not go to Geneva, but left the ship at Marseilles. She went to Paris University to learn French. She supported herself by copying documents and writing letters for Chinese- Americans. She later studied political economy in Prussia University and public relations in Institut d'Etudes Politiques.
Assistant Director in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
After she finished her education and returned to China, Yuan Xiaoyuan was appointed an assistant director in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In the 1930s, she was appointed Vice-Consul of the consulate in Calcutta, India. She became China’s first female diplomat. She worked in the consulate for six years during the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression. Yuan Xiaoyuan played an active role in motivating Chinese-Americans to donate to China. Local governments sometimes unreasonably withheld munitions so Yuan Xiaoyuan argued for them. Her extraordinary talents and sharp mind subdued her opponents.
After six years in India, Ye Nan was appointed to be a military officer in France. Yuan Xiaoyuan accompanied her husband to France. She met President Gen. Charles De Gaulle there and was invited to walk through the Arc de Triomphe with the President.
In 1947, Ye Nan was recalled to China, and Yuan Xiaoyuan was elected a deputy of the KMT National Congress. Toegther, Yuan Xiaoyuan and Ye Nan sent an open letter to the KMT government, appealing for cooperation between the KMT and CPC. However, Jiang Jieshi expelled them from the KMT and issued an order for their arrest. They were forced to leave China for the US via Hong Kong.
Quit the KMT for the US.
During her dozens of years in the US, Ye Nan did business and Yuan Xiaoyuan worked at the UN Secretariat. Yuan Xiaoyuan ranked third in entrance examinations to the UN. She was responsible for Chinese paperwork. She had a passion for the Chinese language. On one hand, she was proud of the language. Of all the different translations, the Chinese files were always the thinnest. On the other hand, Yuan Xiaoyuan knew that Chinese characters were complicated and difficult to recognize. If Chinese were to be an international language, a revolution in the language would be necessary to promote the language’s modernization.
Yuan Xiaoyuan worked for years on a new form of Pinyin, namely Modernization of the Chinese Language (Draft). It was later implemented in several kindergartens in Beijing, and the results were satisfactory.
In 1974, Yuan Xiaoyuan was invited to attend the 25th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. She delivered her Pinyin Proposal to Premier Zhou. In 1980, Yuan Xiaoyuan established a society for the modernization of Chinese characters. Years later, the society became the Beijing International Chinese Character Research Association and published an official periodical, “Chinese Character Culture”.
Return to the Motherland
In 1985, grey-haired Yuan Xiaoyuan walked into the US embassy in Beijing. She asked the counselor how to forfeit her US citizenship. The counselor was surprised, and said that she was the first person to ask. After she settled in China, she received much honor and respect. She was a member of the 6th and 7th CPPCC, a Member of the Inspection Committee of the Revolutionary Committee of the Chinese Kuomintang (RCCK), President of the Beijing International Chinese Character Research Association, and President of the International Art Association. She was also a honorary professor in seven distinguished universities and enjoyed a special allowance from the government.