Shi Meiyu (1873-1954)

Christians Who Changed their World


Medicine and missions
Christianity has always been concerned about the body, the mind, and the soul, which is one reason why when Christianity spread, the missionaries established hospitals, schools, and churches. In China in particular, Western medicine was an important component of the growth of Christianity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many important Chinese Christians, such as Sun Yat Sen, had their first introduction to Christianity and to Western learning via medicine.

Shi Meiyu was the daughter of a Chinese Methodist pastor in Jiujiang, Jianxi Province, China. Her mother was the principal of a Methodist school for girls in the city and taught her the Chinese classics and Christian literature. They broke with Chinese tradition by refusing to bind Meiyu’s feet, a practice which broke the bones in the feet to make them artificially small, leaving many Chinese girls nearly crippled for life.

Her parents were very impressed with the work of American missionary Dr. Katharine Bushnell. Although Dr. Bushnell is best remembered for her groundbreaking book, God’s Word to Women (1926), she got her start as a medical missionary sponsored by the Woman’s Mission Board of the Methodist Episcopal Church. She established a pediatrics hospital in Shanghai. Her work on women and the Bible was triggered by her sense that Chinese Bible translations distorted the Biblical text to subordinate women; she saw a similar pattern at work in English translations, so she learned Hebrew on the sea voyages between America and China and studied the Bible in the original Greek and Hebrew to determine what Scripture had to say about women in the church and home. Her conclusions led to God’s Word to Women.

Inspired by Dr. Bushnell’s medical work, Meiyu’s father decided that she should become a doctor. To prepare her for medical school, the seven year old Meiyu was sent to Rulison-Fish School, the premier girls’ school in China founded by iconoclastic Methodist missionary Gertrude Rowe. Rowe was a single woman who had scandalized the male missionaries in China by adopting four Chinese girls and raising them as their mother. One of them, Kang Chang (1873-1930), began travelling with Rowe at age nine, travelling to San Francisco, Japan, and Chongqin before returning to Jiujiang in 1886.

Rowe further scandalized the male missionaries by teaching her four daughters and her better students English along with Chinese.

Howe lived a very frugal life, saving her money so that in 1892 she was able to take her five best students to the University of Michigan, her alma mater. These included Shi Meiyu and Kang Chang. Howe had tutored them in mathematics, chemistry, physics, and Latin to prepare them for their entrance exams. They passed with flying colors. Shi Meiyu took “Mary Stone” as her American name, and Kang Chang took “Ida Kahn.” Four years later, Kang Chang and Shi Meiyu graduated together as the first Chinese women to receive a medical degree from an American University.

The two friends returned to China and opened a one room hospital in Jiujiang. The hospital was popular and always filled to capacity. In the first ten months, they and their associates had seen 2,300 outpatients and made hundreds of house calls.

Tragedy struck with the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. Meiyu’s father was killed, and she and Kang Chang fled to Japan. They returned the following year, however. Isaac Newton Danforth, a physician from Chicago and a friend of Meiyu’s, gave them money to establish a new hospital in memory of his wife, and so Kang and Shi established the Elizabeth Skelton Danforth Hospital in Jiuliang, a 95 bed, 15 room facility that Shi supervised for the next twenty years. In busy periods, the hospital treated around 5,000 patients per month. During this period, Shi also oversaw the training of more than 500 Chinese nurses, including translating textbooks and training manuals.

Two years later, Kang Chang left Jiuliang to set up a new hospital in Nanchang, the largest city in the province. She later returned to the United States and received a bachelor’s degree in literature from Northwestern University and an honorary Master’s degree from Michigan. She returned to China and was involved heavily in relief work and social causes until her death in 1930.

Social reform
Along with her medical work, Shi Meiyu was also involved in social reform. In particular, she fought the practice of foot binding. She also oversaw a home for crippled people and adopted four boys.

In 1907, Shi Meiyu returned to the United States for surgery. Her sister Phoebe, also a physician, took over the Danforth Hospital in Meiyu’s absence. While in America, Meiyu continued to fundraise for her hospital. A Rockefeller Foundation scholarship enabled her to do postgraduate work in 1918-19 at Johns Hopkins, where Phoebe had gotten her medical degree.

When Shi returned to China in 1920, she broke ties with the Methodist Board of Missions and moved to Shanghai. There, she established the Bethel Shanghai Mission with the help of American missionary Jennie V. Hughes. (The two collaborated on the 1920 book, Chinese Heart-Throbs, which tells the stories of Chinese Christians.) By 1930, the Bethel Mission had established a hospital, primary and secondary schools, an evangelism training program, and an orphanage. The mission was particularly well known for its training program for nurses, which Shi oversaw. Along with teaching nursing skills, Shi led Bible studies for her students with the goal of producing nurse-evangelists.

In the midst of all this activity, Shi continued to be active in social reform and religious life in China. She was the first Chinese woman to be ordained a Christian minister in Central China, and she was an active evangelist. She co-founded the Chinese Missionary Society in 1918, which was dedicated to sending Chinese missionaries to work among the Chinese people. She was also the first president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union of China, which fought against alcohol, cigarettes, and opium.

With the Japanese attack on Shanghai in 1937, Bethel members moved inland and to Hong Kong, which only resulted in the spread of Bethel churches. For her part, Shi returned to the United States to do fundraising for the mission and was one of the organizers of the Bethel Worldwide Evangelistic Band.

Shi Meiyu died in Pasadena, California, in 1954. Her work in medicine, public health, nursing education, and ending abusive practices such as footbinding and vices such as opium addictions were an extension of her work of evangelism: they were all expressions of her understanding that the Gospel was meant for all of life, not just our eternal salvation. In all of these cases, she was acting out of love of God and neighbor in seeking to improve the lives of the people she served, both for this world and the next.

Next Steps

How do the Gospel, disciple-making, helping people, and social reform come together in your own experience as a follower of Jesus Christ? Talk with some friends about this question.


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