Grace: An American Woman's Forty Years in China, 1934-1974

Grace: An American Woman's Forty Years in China, 1934-1974


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Grace: An American Woman's Forty Years in China, 1934-1974 by Eleanor McCallie Cooper, Eleanor McCallie Cooper

In 1928, Grace Divine, daughter of a conservative Chattanooga family, came to New York City, accompanied by her mother, to study opera singing. Liu Fu-chi, a scholarship student studying engineering at Columbia, lived in the same building. They met. They became friends. Only after Fu-chi left for further study in Germany did they realize they had fallen in love.

Fu-chi renounced his scholarship and returned to New York. They became engaged. An interracial marriage was illegal in Tennessee; her brothers came to intervene. Nonetheless, in 1932 at the height of the Depression, Grace and Fu-chi went to City Hall and were married.

He left for China to look for a job. Pregnant, Grace stayed behind. Then, when the baby could travel, she went to join her husband in Tientsin. She was to remain in China for the next forty years, through the Japanese Occupation, the fall of the Nationalist Government and the Cultural Revolution.

This biography, composed in large part of Grace Liu's letters and the memoir she began, has been compiled by her cousin, Eleanor McCallie Cooper, who lives in Chattanooga and her surviving child, William Liu, who now lives in Vancouver.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781569473146
Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 07/01/2003
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.96(w) x 8.68(h) x 1.36(d)

Read an Excerpt


By Eleanor McCallie Cooper and William Liu


Copyright © 2002 Eleanor McCallie Cooper and William Liu
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1569473145

Chapter One

One day in late February 1974 an unusual letter arrived at a boys' school in Tennessee. It identified no one as recipient, bore no street address or postal code. It was addressed simply to "McCallie School, Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA." In a finely written script, it gave a return address of Tientsin, China.

The secretary who found the letter in the morning mail took it immediately to the headmaster, Dr. S.J. McCallie, exclaiming about the beautiful Chinese stamps. Neither of them could imagine who had sent the letter. Communication with China had been cut off for years; the missionaries had left, no tourists traveled to China, and there were no student exchanges.

Dr. McCallie opened it and read this simple note handwritten on plain rice paper:

February 12, 1974

To the Management of the McCallie School:

Since I have been completely out of contact with
anyone in or concerned with Chattanooga for nearly
twenty years, I do not know which elder members of my
family are now living. I shall be very grateful if someone
will send me some information about the elder living
members of my family-both Divine and McCallie-who
would remember me.When I last heard from Chattanooga,
my uncle J. P. McCallie was living and headmaster of the
McCallie School. But that was twenty years ago! I would
particularly like to hear about my brother, Thomas
McCallie Divine, who used to live near Kingsport.

We are all well here and I am working with English
language teachers at Nankai University.

I will appreciate very much whatever you can do to help
me get in touch with my family in Tennessee or wherever
else they are.

Very sincerely,

Grace Divine Liu

"I am amazed!" Dr. McCallie exclaimed. He turned to his secretary. "Get Tom Divine on the the phone immediately. His sister is alive!"

Grace Divine Liu, a native of Chattanooga, had lived in China since 1934, when she left to join her husband F. C. Liu, a Chinese engineer who had studied at Cornell. The shocking news of her marriage to "a Chinaman" years ago had been surpassed many times by her startling and fascinating letters from China.

This was not the first time that one of Grace's letters brought news that she was still alive when presumed dead. Once before, after four years of silence during the Second World War, a U.S. Marine found her and personally delivered a letter to her family. But this time it had been twenty years since anyone had heard from her and she had long ago been given up as dead.

Then in 1972, President Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong's historic visit opened the doors between the two nations. A year later when a U.S. liaison office opened in Beijing, Grace, then seventy-two years old and living in Tianjin (Tientsin), discussed with her children the possibility of contacting her family in the United States. Not knowing anyone's address, she sent a letter to the school that her uncles had founded, unaware that the incumbent headmaster would be her own cousin.

How had this American woman survived so many years of China's tumult? Since arriving in China in 1934, she had experienced floods, near starvation, the Japanese invasion and occupation, the ascent of the Communists, and the storming of the Red Guards. Why had she chosen to stay when other foreigners left? What had happened to her during the long years of silence? To comprehend Grace Liu's story, one has to understand that what brought her to China in the first place was love. It all happened because of a coincidental meeting in an elevator-

* * *

In 1926, Grace Divine was teaching music at a girls' school in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Since childhood she had been known for possessing a voice like "the sound of silver bells" and she had long dreamed of being an opera singer. One day at a concert, someone in the audience who heard her sing recommended her for a music scholarship. At the end of that school year, she boarded a train for New York. She had a trim figure and long brunette hair pulled back and tied at the nape of the neck. Her strong chin was held high and her gray eyes glistened as she waved good-bye to her mother.

A year earlier, on the other side of the world, Liu Fu-chi, a serious-looking student, with a stocky build and a soft, round face, boarded a ship from China. No mother or father waved goodbye to him from the dock. He came to America to study engineering at Cornell University. After graduating at age twenty-four, he decided to gain some practical experience before returning to China. He took a job with a civil engineering firm in New York and found a room in an apartment house on West 112th Street.

New York in 1928 was the ideal place for a young engineer. Following the First World War, New York had emerged as the commercial and artistic center of the world. American technological innovation was everywhere visible as buildings rose higher than any civilization had dared to erect. The Empire State Building, which symbolized the skyscraper, would soon be under construction, and many of the other art deco buildings of this era-the Chrysler Building with its graceful spire, the Waldorf Astoria Hotel bringing elegance to Park Avenue, and the Irving Trust Company building on Wall Street were being built. The construction that fascinated him the most was the George Washington Bridge crossing the Hudson River. This dramatic expansion of steel over water was the largest suspension bridge ever built and was later claimed to be the most beautiful bridge in the world. The newly built subways were another feat of American engineering. Over water, in the air and even underground, New York was breaking the limits of the past.

Grace, on the other hand, hardly noticed this construction in progress. Her days were filled with music lessons, auditions, singing engagements, Broadway shows, concerts, and opera. Her teacher, Franz Proschowsky, who had come to New York from Berlin after the war, pronounced her voice "one of the easiest he has ever undertaken and its qualities most wonderful," or so it was reported in a Chattanooga newspaper. He had trained many well-known opera singers of the day, and Grace fully intended to be one of them. Even the stresses of the big city were exciting to her, as Grace recalled in her memoir:

My first weeks in New York were delightfully hectic.
Everything came fully up to my expectations, especially
the subway rush hour-hordes of people shoved,
squashed, and squeezed into a tiny space and hurled at
terrific speed from place to place. Once I had a shoe
literally squeezed off my foot when I made a precipitate
entrance. It finally reached me, traveling overhead from
hand to hand, at the other end of the car.

At first Grace lived in a boardinghouse for music students, but it was not long before her mother decided to keep house for her. Although Grace was twenty-seven years old, to be single and alone in the big city was not considered proper for a young lady. The move from Chattanooga suited Mrs. Divine because her husband had died, leaving her some rental property for income, and her five sons had all married and left home. Mrs. Divine brought along her sixteen-year-old granddaughter, Julianne, and found a place close to Grace's conservatory just two blocks off Broadway in an apartment house on West 112th Street.

It was her mother who first struck up a conversation with the quiet, bespectacled young man in the elevator of their apartment building. When Mrs. Divine discovered he was alone and had no one to cook for him, she invited him to dinner, and it wasn't long before he became a frequent guest. At first Grace was preoccupied with her own interests, not paying much attention to someone she considered just a foreign student. She wrote later of her impressions of Mr. Liu:

At first I was merely interested and intrigued by his talk,
his speech full of original and amusing imperfections,
his opinions and his stories of his home province,
bedeviled with rival warlords and bandits, and his
participation in the big anti-Japanese student movement
of 1919. But gradually as his English became more fluent
with practice, his unusual intellect and character
impressed me and his calm self-confidence without
conceit won my respect and admiration.

Through her mother's probing questions and the resulting conversations, Grace gradually came to learn a great deal about this young man from a distant world:

Mama, Julianne, and I all three listened, fascinated, to
Mr. Liu talk about China and his home province of
Shensi [Shaanxi], called the "Cradle of Chinese
Civilization." A part of Shensi, we learned, was the
ancient feudal state of Chin [thus, "China"], which
eventually conquered the other feudal states in 221 B.C.
Nearby Sian [Xian], then called Changan, was the
capital of the first emperor of China more than 2,000
years ago.

He had grown up in West Liu Village, located in a fertile river valley in Central China and made up of about one hundred families, most of them named Liu.

He told us all about the Lius, a well-to-do peasant
family. They did their own farm work but there were
teachers, doctors, and even merchants among them. He
was brought up in the strict Confucian ethics of his
family. This interested Mama tremendously and she
enjoyed discussing Confucian teaching with him. It
differed little, she thought, from the strict Calvinist
upbringing of her own youth.

His father died before he was born and he was brought
up under the strict supervision of his three uncles. At an
early age, he was set to memorizing Confucian classics-in
parrot fashion as was the custom of the day. He said it
was the teaching and training from his uncles that molded
his character and shaped his life. This training emphasized
the traditional moral concepts and high principles of the
Chinese people: honesty, discipline, hard work, education,
and respect for family and authority.

Grace pondered how different, and yet how similar, their worlds sounded. His village had a written history of eight hundred years, her hometown was barely a hundred years old. But her family, once farmers, also played many roles in the community. Her uncles, mostly preachers and teachers, had been influential in her life and they emphasized the same values that his uncles had. How could two people from opposite ends of the world, she wondered, have such seemingly similar values?

Mr. Liu said that as a young boy he had seen many alarming events. Millions of peasants died in devastating floods near his home, Manchu officials were brutally murdered in nearby Sian when the emperor abdicated, and rival warlords and roaming bandits rampaged the countryside. He later came to under-stand that his childhood was a time of intense political and social ferment.

For over two thousand years China had enjoyed a relatively stable civilization managed by a Confucian code of order and a systematic bureaucracy that survived even when dynasties collapsed and emperors died. But by the nineteenth century, the system had become cumbersome and the population had grown faster than its ability to respond. Pressure to change was building from within at the same time that foreign powers were applying pressure from without. With a weakened imperial system of government and a feudalistic social structure in the countryside, the nation could not long withstand these pressures.

Mr. Liu recalled a gruesome tale from his childhood. One of his uncles was a schoolmaster in Fu-ping county. Every day young Liu walked the distance from his village to his uncle's school and back:

He was going home to the village from his school one
late afternoon. He was taking his time along an old
familiar road when, on tree branches just ahead of him,
he saw human heads hanging like some monstrous fruit.
After one frozen moment, he covered the remaining
miles to the village on wings of terror. At home he
heard about the capture and execution of marauding
bandits, their severed heads hung up in trees along the

He told his uncles that China must change and that he must study to find solutions to the nation's problems. His uncles knew that without a father, his future depended on having a good education. At that time each province in China selected two boys a year for scholarships provided by the Boxer Indemnity funds. (Following the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, the United States returned its portion of the indemnity funds to China in the form of scholarships.)

When he was thirteen, Fu-chi won a scholarship to
Tsing Hua [Qinghua], a school just outside Peking
[Beijing]. It was then a high school with two years of
college. At graduation it was stipulated that the students
should come to America to complete their college
course at the American university of their choice.

At first things proceeded normally at Tsing Hua. He
played on the basketball and track teams and even
learned American baseball. He was short and squarely
built but tough and fast enough to make a name for
himself in sports. I learned this from his classmates who
came to visit in New York. An American girl taught him
English and judging by the results I heard ten years
later, I would say that she was an exceedingly poor
teacher. But she did teach him to read English, which
opened up a new world to him.


Excerpted from Grace by Eleanor McCallie Cooper and William Liu Copyright © 2002 by Eleanor McCallie Cooper and William Liu
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Grace 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Although I've read dozens of accounts of China's Cultural Revolution, I wept anew at the endurance of Grace and her family and colleagues. I've also read many modern histories of China, but this life-story helped put them into perspective and linear evolution in a very meaningful way. I was among the first US students to study in China in the summer of 1979; how I wish we could have known Grace's story then... It took love and dedication for the authors to bring forth her story--what a loss it would have been if they had not published it!!!