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Mark Wu Shou-ming: Dedicated Administrator for Progressive Education

by Carl Jacobson, Director (1981-2012), Oberlin Shansi Memorial Association (1981-2012)


Mark Wu Shouming was born in the Hebei countryside in 1906.  Descended from scholars, his father, who held the first degree (xiucai) under the imperial examination system, was principal of a country school.  In 1916 his father died leaving the family destitute.  Both of his older brothers left to join the army.  At age eleven Wu started to work the land for his uncle with his mother, cultivating by hand and with borrowed tools and animals.  In 1920 there was a flood and there was nothing to eat.  He had no idea what to do. 

A former student of his father’s gave him enough money to take his mother and sister to Taiyuan by train and find his brother in military school there. His brother suggested that he write to a former student of his father’s who was teaching at Ming Hsien. Wu was invited to enter Ming Hsien in the fall of 1920. He didn’t have money to buy a pencil or notebook, so he pawned his second shirt.  He did odd jobs for the teachers including ringing the big bell for classes. He helped with accounts at the Taigu Hospital. From 1921 on he received scholarship support.  He was baptized in 1923.  He proudly recalled his life as a Ming Hsien student:

“Sundays we students went to the city church to worship.  We marched together in line beating drums and blowing bugles.  We wore our student uniforms in military style.  The school had big scarlet and gold banners which we carried down the road with us as we went to church.”

“Our food at school was very simple.  For breakfast we had millet soup with small boiled pieces of wheat flour.  For noon we had two pieces of steamed bread that the cook put in a big bucket in the corridor.  Often at lunchtime students purchased extra food for themselves, such as turnips and salt to eat with them.  For supper we usually ate noodles, or bread. On our noodles we sometimes put pickled cabbage.  In wintertime we had cabbage and turnips. Once a week we had meat.  Special foods were served at Christmas and during the Moon Festival, and classes did not meet.  I still remember the mutton soup served on holidays.”

Wu finished Middle School in 1926 and took a job as Cashier and Assistant to the Business Manager of the Taigu Hospital.  In the fall of 1928 he won a Ming Hsien scholarship for placing at the top of the examination list and entered Yenching University in Beijing.  At Yenching, Wu majored in Economics.  Yenching was for the rich, but he was not rich and had to work hard to adapt.

“I didn’t know how to ride streetcars.  While I was in a rickshaw I was afraid that the streetcars would hit me.  My first experience with pop was funny because in shaking the bottle the liquid flew out into my face.  In Beijing they were beginning to have “talkies.”  We could hear animal sounds for the animals, but human voices weren’t clear.” 

In Beijing through a former student of his father’s, he was introduced to Sung Kuei-fang and they were married.  In 1932 he returned to Taigu to be Head Accountant of the Ming Hsien Schools.

In 1934 Wu did a survey of ten villages around Taigu and started the Ming Hsien Department of Rural Service the next year. Centered at the village of Guanjiapu, the project addressed problems of illiteracy, public health, home economics, rural credit and agricultural and industrial technology.  “Groups of four or five adults were assigned a primary school child as their teacher,” he remembered.  Medical work was started and then a clinic. Nurses washed the children and taught women how to care for them.  In the spring they often had to cut the children out of their dirty winter clothes.

An agricultural extension program under Ray Moyer provided improved seed and instruction.  Sheep and pigs from the villages were bred with those at Taigu to improve the stock. The industrial department introduced new plows and cultivators.  An annual Harvest Fair displayed what had been grown and processed.  It became a model that influenced a much larger area.  Opium was the scourge of the area and the Department tried to break it by setting up recreational activities to keep the people busy:  a drama group, chess games, volley ball and basket ball, group singing and physical exercise.

The project offered loans to farmers at 6% interest whereas they would often have to borrow at 36%.  They were taught to hold grain after harvest and wait until prices rose.  The project bought large quantities of kerosene and coal and offered them at far lower cost than purchasing it from a dealer.  Wu remembered, “We encouraged the farmers to watch the village elders to prevent corruption.  If there was corruption we helped them organize to oppose it.”

In 1937 the Japanese invaded Shanxi, and Wu returned to Taigu to help organize the evacuation of the school. There were many difficulties.  At one point Wu was asked to dismiss members of the agricultural and industrial departments. The connection to funding at Oberlin had become too attenuated by the crisis.  Wu was very disturbed by having to fire these people.  At one point, in Yuncheng, some of the faculty and students argued that they should join the Communists the better to fight against the Japanese.  Others felt that in the long run they could serve China better by educating people.  Some left and joined the Communists.

In 1938 Shansi Rep Herb Van Meter joined them on the route, thus renewing the Oberlin connection.  This gave them a feeling of strength and the confidence to go on.  Wu recalled those who had been asked to leave and they all made it to Chengdu in Sichuan. Then, because of the danger of Japanese bombs, they elected to move to the countryside, to Jintang. At every move Wu had the responsibility of going ahead to find housing and water and to establish friendly relations with town leaders in the area. In Jintang he entertained the local gang members (Gelaohui) at a banquet to gain their acceptance.  That was the way it was in those days, he said.

From 1939 to 1941 he came to the US under Shansi auspices and studied for an MS in agricultural economics at Cornell University.  On his return to China he taught agricultural economics and served in the administration in various capacities, first as Treasurer of the Oberlin Shansi Memorial Schools, then as Dean of the Middle School.   In1945 he was Principal of the Middle School and in 1946 he became acting President.  In 1947 he was Dean of Studies and then became the acting president of the newly re-established Ming Hsien College. 

In 1949 Shansi again invited Wu to the US to study and rest after the exhausting work he had done to maintain the school in such difficult circumstances.  He studied agricultural economics in the fall at Ohio State University and in the spring he traveled.  First, he was in Baltimore learning about credit systems in banks and then he went to what was then Kansas State College of Agriculture in Manhattan where he observed agricultural extension programs.

In 1950 he rejoined the school after it had returned to Taigu.   In 1951, after an anti-rightist campaign on the Ming Hsien campus in which he was implicated for his ties to Oberlin and missionaries, he was shifted to Taiyuan along with other members of the faculty and staff.  In Taiyuan he worked in a library, taught accounting in a university and English in a middle school. For nearly 30 years, Wu was attacked repeatedly in anti-rightist campaigns.  He was forced to publicly criticize himself and to be criticized as a rightist. During the Cultural Revolution he bore even more extreme and humiliating hardships of which he was unable speak.  (He was by no means alone among Ming Hsien people.)

In 1979 it was a letter from Wu to Ells and Bobbie Carlson that renewed the old ties with Shanxi Province.  Wu was in a unique position to write that letter. He had been permitted by the Shansi government to invite Oberlin and Shansi to renew ties with Taigu.  In return he was allowed to leave China for the United States.  In June 1979 he and his wife arrived in the US.

Mark was a pillar of the Ming Hsien School.  He is remembered as a strong, gentle man who patiently moved the school through many trials in the chaotic anti-Japanese war period.  In spite of the hard times he did not swerve in his loyalty to the school and to his Oberlin friends.  He had the complete trust of his Chinese and his foreign colleagues.  Until his death in 2001, Wu was welcomed as an honorary trustee of Oberlin Shansi.   He is regarded as a true friend and intelligent supporter of progressive education in China.