Charles Jones Soong, or “Charlie” Soong, a native of China, floated into Wilmington around 1880, was baptized at Fifth Street Methodist Episcopal Church (now Fifth Avenue United Methodist Church) and was soon accepted as a “special” student at Trinity College, a Methodist collge in Randolph County, for training as a missionary. (In 1887, Trinity College would move to a larger campus in Durham, through donations and bequests by the Duke family; in 1924, the institution would be renamed Duke University.)
Like his alma mater, Soong moved on to bigger things. In 1886, he returned to China as a missionary in Shanghai. Quickly becoming frustrated with preaching and teaching, however, he went into business, originally as a printer of religious tracts and other publications. He soon became involved in republican c0nspiracies against the Manchu imperial court. In 1894, at a Methodist Sunday service in Shanghai, he met the future nationalist leader Sun Yat-Sen. The two men became very close — Sun would later marry Soong’s daughter, Ch’ing-ling — and Soong would help financially underwrite Sun’s fledgling Chinese republican movement.
In 1911, the Manchu dynasty was deposed, and Sun Yat-Sen was installed as first president of China.
Soong’s influence, however, had only begun and would grow after his death on May 3, 1918. His children found their way into positions of prominence in Nationalist (Kuomintang) China. One daughter, May-ling, would marry Chiang Kai-shek, the general and future head of the Nationalist government; she would become immensely influential in her husband’s regime and acted as a de facto diplomat in the United States. Another daughter, Ai-ling, would marry the prominent banker and future Nationalist finance minister H.H. Kung. His oldest son, T.V. Soong, would become a prominent businessman and Nationalist politician, serving as finance minister, foreign minister, governor of the Central Bank of China and twice as Chinese premier. His other sons, T.L. Soong and T.A. Soong, would both be major financiers.
Ch’ing-ling, the future Madame Sun Yat-Sen, broke with the rest of the family and sided with the Communists in China’s civil war; she later founded the magazine China Reconstructs (now China Today) and became Vice Chairman (the equivalent of vice president) of the People’s Republic of China. She was named president of the People’s Republic, a ceremonial post, in 1981, shortly before her death.
What biographer Sterling Seagrave would call the “Soong Dynasty” would have obscure beginnings. Charlie Soong was born Han Jiaozhun sometime in February of either 1863, 1864 or 1866 — the exact date is unclear; Seagrave favors 1866 — on the island of Hainan in Guangdong province, China. His family were merchants and traders whose junks sailed as far as far as the East Indies. In 1878, he traveled to Boston to work for a relative or “uncle” who had a shop there. When the “uncle” refused to help with his education, Charlie stowed away in early 1879 on the USS Albert Gallatin, a vessel in the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, a forerunner of the Coast Guard.
The Gallatin’s captain, a Norwegian immigrant named Eric Gabrielson, took a liking to Soong and signed him on as the ship’s cabin boy. (He seems to have become “Charlie Sun” or “Charlie Soon,” at this point — a rough transliteration of what his name sounded like through Charlie’s Hainan accent.) When Gabrielson was transferred to Wilmington in 1880, to take command of the revenue cutter USS Schuyler Colfax, Soong followed him within a few months and wrangled a post as mess boy.
A devout Methodist, Gabrielson seems to have encouraged his young protege to attend church. Soong wound up in a Bible class led by Col. Roger Moore at Front Street Methodist Episcopal Church. (Front Street Methodist was destroyed by fire in 1886. The congregation relocated to Fourth and Mulberry streets and rebuilt as Grace Methodist Church. Mulberry Street was later renamed Grace Street in honor of the church.)
Moore and his friends later invited Soong to attend Fifth Street Methodist, where he came under the influence of the Rev. Thomas Page Ricaud. Soong professed the Christian faith at an evening service during the first week of November 1880 and was baptized on the following Sunday, Nov. 7, 1880. An item in the Wilmington Morning Star for that date noted: “A Chinese convert will be one of the subjects of the solemn rite, being probably the first ‘Celestial’ that has ever submitted to the ordinance of Christian baptism in North Carolina. The pastor, the Rev. T. Paige Ricaud, will officiate.”
(“Celestial” was a term commonly used for Chinese in the 1800s; at the time, China was sometimes referred to as “the Celestial Empire.”)
The middle name “Jones” was added to Soong’s name on the baptismal certificate, prompting much specualtion on the source of the name. (Earlier, innaccurate biographies sometimes identified Jones’ American benefactor in the Revenue Cutter Service as “Captain Jones.”) In fact, Ricaud’s daughter, Rosamund, later claimed that her father made up the name — “plucked it out of the air,” in Seagrave’s words — to fill a blank space on the form.
Soong found a job in a Wilmington print shop within a few days after his baptism, but Ricaud and other area Methodists had bigger plans for him. Hoping he would return to China as a missionary, Ricaud wrote to Trinity College officials urging them to admit him as a “special” student (meaning he would not be held to the usual requirements in classical languages and mathematics). Meanwhile, Col. Moore contacted Julian Shakespeare Carr, the prominent Durham industrialist and a prominent Methodist, to see if he would cover the expenses of Soong’s education. (Carr would later aid the Dukes in luring Trinity to Durham.) The Carr family more or less adopted Soong, who moved into their Durham house in April 1881.
Soong spent a year at Trinity, studying English and the Bible, before transferring to Vanderbilt University in Nashville. According to Seagrove, the move was expedited after he developed an obvious crush on the daughter of one of the professors. He graduated from Vanderbilt in 1885 with a degree in theology; that summer, at a Methodist conference in Charlotte, he was ordained a deacon. Despite the contretemps at Trinity, Soong’s memories of the American South seem to have been mostly positive, and he sent all three of his daughters to be educated at Wesleyan College in Macon, Ga. (However, Mai-ling, the future Madame Chiang, eventually graudated from Wellesley.)
Today, Fifth Avenue United Methodist Church displays a small collection of mementoes relating to Charles Jones Soong. A memorial stone on the street outside the church notes his attendance there.
Date posted: February 4, 2010