So, a few months ago, I had the opportunity to poke around in the Oberlin College Archives. They keep extensive records of their alumni, and there are a whole bunch of Boxer Indemnity Scholars who once attended Oberlin. And if the Oberlin College Boxer Indemnity Scholars community can be said to have a “power couple”, Elizabeth Cornish and H. J. Fei would be it. Normally I would address a couple in the same post, as I did with Bertie Chan and G. G. Leong, but each of these students have so much information and documents to get through, I have to break them up.
Elizabeth Tse-Vong Cornish (Chinese name 康採蓉, pinyin Kāng Cǎiróng) was born on 18 March 1890 in Shanghai, China. She was the illegitimate daughter of a British man named Nicholas Cornish and a Chinese woman (Cornish Fei Family Tree). This was apparently not scandalous, and while it is possible that Nicholas and the woman were married, Nicholas Cornish’s first wife Annie was alive until 1924, and there’s no indication that Nicholas and Annie were divorced except for the fact that he was living in China and she was still in England. In addition, Nicholas had another child by another woman while in China – a son named John Smith. I don’t have any information on why Elizabeth got Nicholas’s last name and John did not. In addition, after Annie died he married another English woman named Florence, NOT either of the two Chinese women who bore his children. One of Elizabeth’s daughters once commented about her grandfather, who she met only once, “Like a lot of colonial Englishmen away from the shackles of Victorian England, he was obviously much attracted to the local women. The Grandmother who borrowed glasses [John Smith’s mother] was, if not the second, then the third of his Chinese wives, and she herself was only Mother’s [Elizabeth’s] stepmother, her real one having died in childbirth” (Eskelund, Chi-Yun Fei, A Life Once Lived in Peking). It was generally unknown that Elizabeth had English ancestry; the book “Patriots Or Traitors: A History of American Educated Chinese Students” remarks that Elizabeth Cornish is an example of Chinese students who chose American names when coming to study in US universities, but in fact “Elizabeth Cornish” was her name from birth (Bieler, 139).
Nicholas, who worked for an arsenal in the Shanghai area, was described by a local report as having “a large circle of acquaintance in Shanghai and is well known in the East generally; but he is a modest and retiring man and so his name is not so often in print as that of more pushing late-comers who may rejoice to send home glowing accounts of themselves and their deeds. That is, Mr. Cornish minds his own business …” (Suvoong, V. P., “A Function in the Kiangnan Arsenal”). Later in the article, mention is made of a “large number of Mr. Cornish’s foreign friends [who] came from Shanghai to congratulate him, among whom were quite a number of ladies to whom an entertainment here must be rather novel and unique… Mr. Cornish justly remarked at the time that this was the ﬁrst time that he ever met Chinese ladies participating in a public function as this, showing the new order of things …”.
According to Elizabeth’s daughter’s account, quoted previously, Elizabeth’s mother died in childbirth (Eskelund); other sources only claim that her mother died young, and Elizabeth only met her father once (Cornish Fei Family Tree). Instead, she was raised by the Suvoong family, who were related to Elizabeth via her mother. In fact, she and her relation Mary Suvoong were students together in a missionary school: the Eliza Yates School in Shanghai (Grose, 824). The Eliza Yates School was first established by Lottie Price as an elementary school in the early 1900s and soon expanded to cover middle-school education as well (Crumpton, 184). Later the girls attended the “Training School” (Grose, 824), probably the Bible Training School mentioned at this link under “China”. Then, in 1907, Elizabeth, along with Mary and Mary’s brother Charles Suvoong, came to the United States.
Elizabeth’s US entry paperwork (available here) states that she and Mary were headed to Chicago, Illinois to attend the Baptist Missionary College there, with Charles accompanying them as a sort of (teenaged) chaperon. Apart from this entry information, I don’t have any record of Elizabeth attending that college; she’s not in the 1908 Pacific Coast Annual, for example. Her first record of attending school in America is in 1909, when she entered Oberlin (Chinese Students’ Monthly, Vol. 5, 96).
To be more specific, Elizabeth entered Oberlin Academy, which was the preparatory wing of Oberlin College, designed to prepare students for university-level classes (A Brief History of Oberlin High School). Elizabeth graduated from the Academy in 1913 (Oberlin Archives, 28/2, Box 318), three years before the Academy closed entirely. She lived at 30 E Lorain Street according to the 1911 Eastern Directory and the 1911-12 CSA Directory, and was a member of the Midwestern Section of the Chinese Students’ Alliance. And, of course, while she was at Oberlin, she met H. J. Fei (English name Jack), who was studying economics, according to the 1912 Directory. They didn’t get together right away, though. He was at Yale in 1914, according to the Directory, while Elizabeth had moved to 3322 Calumet Avenue in Chicago (misspelled at “Kalumen” in the 1914 Directory) and begun training as a kindergarten teacher at the National Institute there.
Elizabeth and Jack married on 21 July 1914, after both had finished their schooling in America. The marriage took place in Chicago, and the couple returned to China not long afterwards, where Jack was to take up YMCA work in Peking (Beijing) (Grose, 824). He worked there for one year, and then spent a year working at Tsinghua University, but after 1916 he got out of the education field and began work at the Peking-Hankow Railway. Elizabeth and her husband lived at 38 Teng Shi Kou Street (today Dengshikou), which is right in the heart of Beijing, literally across the street from the Forbidden City.
Between 1915 and 1924, Elizabeth and Jack had six children: three daughters and three sons. In 1925, Elizabeth’s 4 older children were attending Peking American School, while her youngest daughter was in kindergarten and her youngest son was still a toddler. Her husband wrote this about their children’s education in an alumni update to Oberlin: “I intend to see them all through the Peking American School (Junior and Senior High), so that they may have (1st) the Spirit of the America[n way], (2nd) English & Chinese which are the most important tools . . . (3rd) and then the general culture and education. . . . If I still have enough means, I shall give them higher education, but that is very uncertain, and also not so importan [sic] as the present education which is to make them good man [sic] and women” (Oberlin Archives, 28/2, Box 318).
Interestingly enough, the Feis maintained that anti-university viewpoint, despite their oldest son attending Peking Union Medical College and their oldest daughter Ginling College in Nanking (Nanjing). “They will be educated in China,” Jack wrote in a later alumni update, “unless financial ability later can send them abroad. Will try to avoid college education, and will try to help them to learn to become financially independent” (Oberlin Archives, 28/2, Box 318). Monetary and stability concerns were a constant worry for the Fei family when they lived in Peking. In a letter written in 1926 to a friend from Oberlin, Jack frets, “We are not living, not even struggling for a living, but directly suffering the doom which seems to be almost eternal. … The trial is too much for us, and too much for anybody. We have now [sic] life, no happiness, no enjoyment, and no work which is really the chief source of life and happiness. I have heard the talks of hope from all directions during past twenty years, but every day I feel hope itself is getting farther and farther away. At least I do not expect to see even a partially normal China in my life time” (Oberlin Archives, 28/2 Box 318).
Life wasn’t entirely awful during these 30 years of the Feis’ stay in Peking. Elizabeth was extremely active, according to her husband’s alumni updates, in “many local organizations”. She had trained as a teacher in Chicago, and although she never worked in a school, she raised a total of seven children, the youngest daughter being born in 1927. Several of the children have good memories of the Peking American School and the hijinks they got up to while attending (Cornish Fei Family Tree, Eddie’s story specifically). However, their life in Peking was to suffer another hardship in the mid 40s, when Jack passed away of a possible heart attack (“hardening of the arteries”, according to information furnished by his son) on 8 December 1946.
Often the death of a spouse, especially of a husband, will motivate a former Indemnity Scholar to return to the United States, but Elizabeth remained in China until 1962. Information about what she did and where she lived is scarce. At the time of her husband’s death, she was still living at Dengshikou, but two of her sons left China not long after to go to Seattle to study at the University of Washington, while a daughter and her husband immigrated to California in 1947. According to the March 1962 issue of the Oberlin Alumni Magazine, in 1959 Elizabeth had been in “Red Russia”, meaning the Soviet Union, but I have no idea what she was doing there. Eventually most of the Fei children would move to America, most of them settling in California, although one daughter married a Danish man and moved to Denmark (Cornish-Fei Family Tree).
After immigrating to California, Elizabeth lived at 208 Vista del Parque in Redondo Beach, near her daughter in LA. The photo above, of Elizabeth, her two sons, and their families, was taken in Colorado, probably while on a vacation. By 1973 she had moved to Pacific Grove to be closer to her son who worked at the Monterey Defense Language Institute.
Although she applied for citizenship in 1967, and was naturalized and given a Social Security number, according to her family she spent the last few years of her life living in Beijing with a relative of her late husband Jack’s, a man appropriately enough named “Uncle Oberlin” (Cornish Fei Family Tree). This explains why information about her death is scarce; the only American info I can find is in the Social Security Death Index, stating that she died in December of 1986. The lack of other information seems to support the fact that she was not living in the United States at the time. Her last alumni update to Oberlin was the 1973 address change, so she must have returned to China sometime between then and 1986.