Inspiring True Story of my “Da Goo Ma” – by Author May Yue

A Spring that Comes Later in Life!

This was the headline that a Fujien, China newspaper displayed over an article about my Da Goo Ma—my “Big Auntie”—in 1985, eleven years before she died. She was a hero in Fujien Province for reviving a women’s college that was closed during the Cultural Revolution, when she, a former professor, was sent to work on a pig farm. I learned so much from her and I want to share those lessons with you.

My Big Auntie was my father’s oldest sister and her real name was Bao Sheng, but we called her Da Goo Ma (da means big, or elder, and goo ma means paternal aunt). My grandfather treated her like a son and sent her to the U.S. for education. She received a master’s degree in Chemistry from Columbia University, and in 1937 she became the first Chinese woman to earn a PhD from Johns Hopkins University.

In the U.S., Bao Sheng traveled in prestigious circles—one of her professors at Johns Hopkins had discovered vitamins A, B and C—and she returned to China with high expectations of serving her country in academia. Indeed, she was revered as one of the highest-ranking scholars and was hired at Fujien Hwa Nan Women’s College in the city of Fuzhou, where she started a chemistry department. Soon she was promoted to dean of the college.

In 1949, when the rest of my family escaped to Hong Kong, my Da Goo Ma decided to stay in China. She had devoted herself to serving women in education, and she didn’t want to give up that mission. But my Aunt’s life was about to become a nightmare.

In 1957, as Chairman Mao’s Five Year Plan was coming to an end, Bao Sheng was publicly targeted as an elitist, and therefore an enemy of the people, because she was educated in the U.S. and had relatives there and in Hong Kong. The Communist Party humiliated her by demoting her from dean to cleaning lady at Hwa Nan Women’s College. Escape was impossible, so she stayed and scrubbed the floors. The Party closed the college in 1964.

In 1966, at the start of the Cultural Revolution, Boa Sheng was banished to a “re-education farm” where she spent eight years raising pigs. She was not allowed to communicate with friends and family members during those years. Sometimes our relatives would go to the farm and sneak food to her through the fences. My father and her brother and sister who lived outside out China had been sending her money every month. She was not given the money but the government kept the money in an account for her. (She was given the money when she was released)

Finally, in 1974, Deng Xiaoping came into power and my aunt was allowed to return home. Jobless, Bao Sheng spent the next five years clearing her name from the government’s counter-revolutionary list. It had been 27 years since she had last used her skills as an educator.

In 1980, she came to visit us in Minnesota. She was 78 years old and it was her first trip to the U.S. in 40 years. After barely a year in the U.S. Da Goo Ma grew impatient. She wanted to resume her leadership role in educating women in China. So at age 79, back to China she went.

Fujien Hwa Nan Women’s College was still closed and in need of repair. My aunt decided to reopen it.

In 1982 she traveled to the U.S., established a network of successful Hwa Nan alumnae, and petitioned them for money. She incorporated a 501c3 nonprofit organization as a repository for the funds. Within a year she raised enough to start reconstruction and to pay for 14 English-speaking teacher’s salaries. (They came from grants from some very prestige’s foundations like Pearl butt and Lutheran church of America ) She also ran for office in 1983 and was elected to represent the people of Fujien province at the National Assembly in Beijing.

I asked my Da Goo Ma how she could have such a positive attitude, without bitterness toward the people who devalued her and put 27 of her most productive years to waste. She said she was not bitter because 27 years “is just a little blip of time in thousands of years of history,” and that our country had to go through a period of turmoil to become the China that it should be.

“I still have 10 good years to contribute to China,” Da Goo Ma told me at age 79. “I do not care about politics. I care about China’s women. They need education and they need a whole generation of new leaders to help build China. I can help with that,” she said.

My father and my uncles begged my Da Goo Ma to stay in the U.S., and said they would take care of her. “If I stay here I would only be a burden to the family,” she said. “I am not needed here, but China needs me and my contribution.” That was that!

In 1984, the provincial government approved the registration of Fujien Hwa Nan Women’s College, and Bao Sheng received major funding for construction from the Fujien Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. My aunt recruited prominent citizens for the Board of Regents—among them, Han Suyin, who had written the novel that inspired the 1955 Hollywood movie Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing. The board appointed Bao Sheng as the college’s first president.

With government support, a library was built in the summer of 1985. In October, a grand opening was held, and 200 women started classes. Bao Sheng’s story was told in the newspaper article “A Spring That Comes Later In Life!”

My aunt wasn’t finished. In 1988, having attended ceremonies for the first graduating class, she visited alumnae networks in California, Florida, Minnesota and Washington DC to raise funds for expanding the college. In 1989, she received a large grant from a merchant in Hong Kong to build an arts and literature department. In 1991, at age 87, she went again to the U.S. to raise funds for engineering and nursing departments. Illness slowed her down after a fundraising trip to Hong Kong in 1992, but enrollment continued to grow, and construction continued.

Now imagine Bao Sheng in 1995, tiny and frail at age 92, taking the stage at the 10-year anniversary of the reopening of Fujien Hwa Nan Women’s College—still, today, the only women’s private college in China. She passed away the following year at age 94, with her mission accomplished and her dream come true.

Maybe what I learned from Da Goo Ma is obvious by now, but I’ll tell you anyway. First of all, it is never too late to do what your heart tells you. Second, it’s not just outside forces that stop us from accomplishing our goals—it’s giving in to bitterness, blaming others and thinking that life is unfair. At age 79, my aunt didn’t cling to the past—she went full steam ahead and surprised everyone! Now she is part of the history books.

Her story inspires me and I cannot wait to go out and make a difference like Bao Sheng did. It is never too late. Now is always the right time. Today is always Da Goo Ma Day!

Wishing you a glorious life, lived with passion!   —  May

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  1. Liz Dickey says:

    This is such an inspirational and incredible story!

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