Isabel Ingram’s life is the stuff of novels and adventure tales. Her American family were Congregationalist missionaries in China over a hundred years ago, and she was, in fact, born in Beijing in 1902. Her parents sent her back to the United States to attend college at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. Upon graduation, she promptly returned to the land of her birth. Her college education qualified her to be a teacher and tutor, and she soon found employment as such upon her return to Beijing.
The custom of that culture in that day was that Ingram could only tutor other women. Her first student was a Chinese woman her age who was marrying a well-to-do Chinese young man who spoke English. The desire of the Chinese woman’s family (and the prospective husband) was that Ingram could help her with her English as a complement to her future husband in his career in government service. You see, she was of a lower class than he was, and Ingram had been engaged to help her, in effect, “catch up” with her husband’s privileged, private education as much as she could.
The American and Chinese women soon formed a fast friendship. Having by nature a shy personality, the Chinese woman embraced the opportunity to have a female friend with whom she could talk about topics that would be considered out of bounds with her soon-to-be husband. Ingram also felt a kinship with the woman, and the pair got on famously. Ingram soon found her pupil was quite intelligent; the Chinese woman took to her English lessons easily and gladly (she especially enjoyed the lessons the two shared on American culture and society). And, not having many friends in China, when it came time for the wedding, Ingram found herself invited to the ceremony. She considered it a great honor as she was the only woman there who wasn’t Chinese.
In her diary, Ingram recorded the beautiful, full-length yellow wedding gown made from expensive satin that was worn by her pupil turned friend. And the tutoring continued after the marriage began. The two women secretly engaged in a competition unknown to the Chinese woman’s husband; they worked on the wife’s vocabulary, planting new words in English that the husband might not know so that he could be impressed with his new bride’s burgeoning English prowess.
In addition, the pair of women from such divergent backgrounds became even closer as friends. They swapped clothing–Ingram being about the same size as the Chinese woman–and they even together chose an English name that the woman could use: Elizabeth. On occasion, the two chums would dress alike and try as closely as possible to speak like the other one.
But, sadly, as happens in many lives, events conspire to drive good friends apart. The pair of friends would lose touch over the years, and, once Ingram stopped being the woman’s tutor, the two never saw each other again. As you know, the Japanese invaded China in the 1930s, and the war brought disaster after disaster to China, ending with the capture of the country by the Chinese Communists under Mao Zedong. The woman, as best as can be known, was put in a communist prison camp where it seems she died about 1946.
By the mid-1930’s, Isabel Ingram had married an American serviceman and returned to live in the United States, in Maryland. Before she passed away in 1988, she decided to write a book about growing up in China, of her experiences in that nation in the 1920s, and about her wonderful friendship with the pupil she tutored.
Oh, by the way, the name of the Chinese woman Ingram tutored and befriended, in English, is Wanrong. She’s known today as the Empress of China, the wife of the last Emperor of China, Puyi.