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Florence Kirk and Ginling College

Florence Kirk was born on April 16th 1902 in Kirkton, Ontario to Joseph and Annie Maria Kirk. She had six brothers (one her twin, Lawrence), and one sister. In the spring of 1911 her family moved to a homestead west of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. She later attended Donegal School, riding in a wagon behind their pony for 4-1/2 miles each way. At an early age Florence’s parents instilled a strong respect for education and religion, as well as “cooperation in the home and community” – values she would exemplify for the rest of her life.

Florence attended the University of Saskatchewan obtaining a B.A., (1925) and M.A., (1929) in English and French, and began teaching in small towns in Saskatchewan such as Bounty and Yellow Grass. While finishing her second year teaching at Regina College in 1932, Florence responded to an ad in the Canadian Student magazine calling for an English teacher at Ginling Women’s College in China. When the word came that her application had been accepted her family was quick to point out the uncertainties of traveling around the world and working in a foreign country, but Florence persisted. Though her father predicted at the end of the three-year term would not come soon enough, Florence would eventually spent eighteen years teaching in China.

On August 27th, 1932 she boarded the Empress of Canada, landing in Shanghai 17 days later. After experiencing the overwhelming feeling of being alone on a new continent, she found her guide and made her way to Nanking.

Upon turning onto the cobbled lane which led to the main buildings of Ginling College, Florence wrote about the feeling that she was entering a fairy tale, not truly believing that she was there to teach English to Chinese girls. Though there were many Americans, and one Englishwoman, Florence was the first Canadian on campus.

Bird’s Eye View of Ginling College [Campus Planning of Ginling College, Henry Murphy, 1921]

Ginling College had been founded just nineteen years earlier by five mission boards from America and England with the intent of meeting the needs of Chinese women for higher education. It was officially opened in 1915 and four years later the first five women in China to receive fully accredited B.A. degrees emerged. The first president of the college was an American missionary, Matilda Thurston. Though she stayed on as a president’s advisor, she was replaced in 1928 by Wu Yi Feng, one of the first five to graduate from Ginling. Dr. Wu was the first female, Chinese president of a college in China. The students at Ginling organized various social programs to aid their countrymen by establishing rural service stations, milk feeding stations for children and day homes for young children. Within these programs the students volunteered their time to assist those around them who were in need, applying their education where it would do the most good.

Florence describes many astonishing sights and inspiring outings over her first few years, exploring Nanking and the surrounding areas. She recalls The Altar of Heaven in Peking as one of the most awe-inspiring site she visited. She got to know her students through classes as well as various social engagements. Her pupils would often visit her office and invite her for tea and dinner. She studied Mandarin with a tutor, eager to understand the language of those around her.

While vacationing in Tsingtao in 1937 with two other Ginling faculty, Minnie Vautrin and Ruth Chester, Florence began to observe the changing political situation. By July 15,000 residents of Tsingtao had fled, and August brought the bombing of Shanghai by the Japanese.

While waiting for instructions on whether to return to Ginling, Florence’s sister Lillian arrived safely in Tsingtao. She had been hired to work as the College President’s English secretary. President Wu Yi Feng sent word suggesting that Ruth, Florence and Lillian should travel to Shanghai. There Ruth, Florence and a handful of other faculty set up a temporary educational unit for the students who could not return to Ginling. Beginning in September, Florence taught classes and tutored students, and her sister was able to use her nursing training in a nearby hospital. From her apartment in the French Concession district, Florence wrote to her friends in Canada: “The authorities have told us to keep off the streets, and the noise as we work inside is deafening; as I write I can see power dives out the window, and the anti-aircraft shells split the air”

Through their delayed contact with Ginling, Florence and Ruth received news that their fears for the safety of Ginling College were not unfounded. Minnie Vautrin, the only Westerner left on campus, wrote them of the raids on the city and the growing refugee population. An International Safety Zone was planned which included the campus as a safe haven for women and children. Ginling College eventually sheltered more than 10,000 in their 6 buildings. For the next few months Minnie Vautrin, Miss S.F. Tsen and a handful of servants struggled courageously to protect and feed the inhabitants, though countless women and children they harbored were being abducted, and killed or brutalized by the soldiers.

After two semesters of teaching in Shanghai at the refugee college, West China Union College invited the Ginling unit to join their campus in Free China. Florence visited the war-torn campus in Nanking, collected any materials which had not been looted, and embarked on the 2,000 mile journey toward Szechwan, taking two months to reach the destination in Chengtu.

Here, Florence continued to teach classes and tutor students, while also serving as the chairman of the English department over the eight-year stay. Lillian came to Chengtu in 1939 as Dr. Wu Yi Feng’s English secretary, and due to ill health left China in 1943. Bombing threats continued; moonlit nights and sunny days with clear skies brought much anxiety as the warning sirens signaling air-raids were never far behind.

In 1941 Florence traveled to the U.S. to obtain her doctorate at Northwestern University in Chicago. She returned to China in September 1944.

As soon as the war ended in August 1945 planning began for the trip home to Nanking. The prospect of travel at this time was complicated by inflation, bombed railway tracks and boat shortages. Eventually, a safe passage was secured and Florence and the other Ginling refugees were in Nanking by June of 1946.

Though they were relieved to be back on campus, the problems of rehabilitation seemed insurmountable. The campus had served as headquarters for the Japanese military for over three years; the buildings had been badly damaged and looted. Books, teaching equipment, student beds, and heating were virtually non-existent. Due to inflation these materials as well as worker’s wages were unmanageably high. Despite the ill-equipped surroundings, Florence continued teaching as best she could.

Soon the strains of the civil war replaced the turmoil of the Japanese invasion. In 1948 word came that the communist army was “liberating” cities nearby, once again people began to flee Nanking. By November 1/3 of the student body had left and a good portion of the faculty as well. Florence describes March of 1949 as the worst economic situation that she had witnessed in China.

The Kuomintang fled Nanking Saturday April 23 1949. From the look out tower on campus, Florence witnessed the fires, looting and destruction of various landmarks in the city. The “Liberation Army” entered the city the next morning.

Over the next few months there was a great deal of isolation for the students and faculty at Ginling College. Travel conditions were terrible, as most of the transportation within the city had been taken by the fleeing Kuomintang. Mail was undependable, newspapers did not exist and foreigners were not permitted to leave the city walls. Students became involved with the “Liberation Army” as propaganda or cultural workers.

Eventually travel permits were obtainable for foreigners and by early 1950 the President of the College recommended that Florence leave for Canada. She began planning her return, a journey which she would take with another Western faculty member, Mary Frances Reed. In her autobiography Florence reflects on her last months in China:

Since 1932 Ginling had been my chief concern, and as I contemplated leaving China I thought over what the years had meant. I had found it intriguing to watch another race live and work and meet the agony of war. My teaching had given me great satisfaction, and my friendship with students and faculty had been delightful.

Florence left China on the P&O SS Canton in September 1950. She later heard that all Westerners had been asked to leave Ginling College in 1951. She continued to teach at Alma College in Michigan before retiring in 1967. Florence returned to China to teach in Taiwan for 3 years though she never revisited Ginling College. She returned for the last time Canada in 1970.

Florence Kirk was the final editor of The History of West China University in the early 1970’s, and in the 1980’s she had several articles published by The Islander, and Prime Time. Upon her brother’s death in 1979 she continued a family tree project which he had started in the 1960’s, and self-published From Scotland to Ireland to Canada in 1982. Florence wrote and self-published her autobiography, Sunshine and Storm, (1991), as well as a sonnet titled “A Walk in Nanking” in 1984.

Florence Kirk passed away on November 28th 1994 in Victoria B.C., at the age of 92.

Caitlin Mullan, Archives & Special Collections
July, 2010

Last Revision: 2011-Feb-16