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While in Foochow, Ruth met Little Thunder (Hwa Hui), the seven year old niece of one of her colleagues. She would be the first of four girls that Ruth would adopt in China.  Hwa Sing (on Ruth's lap) would later  become  a physician.

Ruth V. Hemenway was born in Williamsburg, Massachusetts in 1894 and died in nearby Northampton in 1974. After graduating from Northampton High School in 1910, she taught in the one room school in Conway and later in the Williamsburg-Searsville School to save enough money to pursue her childhood dream of studying medicine in Boston.

Earning her way through Tufts Medical School by waiting tables in a small private girls' school in Back Bay, Ruth graduated in 1921 and decided that the need for her medical services was greatest in China. In 1924, she accepted an appointment by the Methodist Women's Board of Foreign Missions to direct a 100-bed hospital for women in Mintsing, Fukien Province, China.

Min River - Water color by Ruth Hemenway

She arrived in China a single woman, without knowledge of the Chinese language, in the midst of political and social chaos. The Manchu Dynasty had collapsed just twelve years before, and China was torn by warlords, bandits, and political parties (including the Communists and Nationalists) battling for control. Rather than remain in the relative safety and comfort of the treaty ports, Ruth chose to work in remote villages among the Chinese peasantry.

Mintsing Hospital - Watercolor by Ruth Hemenway

After her arrival in Mintsing and her initial shock at the dreadful condition she found the hospital to be in, she wrote: "I found the language barrier frustrating. It was painful to be unable to understand people and not to be understood. Then there was the isolation. Mintsing seemed the furthest point in the world from home. There was no radio. Newspapers from Shanghai arrived two weeks late. There was no music except what I brought with me on the victrola. Sometimes I was seized with a frightful longing for my familiar world across the Pacific, a longing so sudden and so intense that it brought tears to my eyes. I began to see firsthand something of the results of the poverty and ignorance, superstition and fear, which characterized the lives of the people. Opportunities seemed to me very limited. Their background was so very different from mine; there seemed to be a great gulf between us. How was I to bridge that gulf?"

Ruth soon became absorbed in her work and learned to speak the language proficiently. She discovered that the local Chinese referred to the United States as "Beautiful Country".

Dr. Ruth, second from left and her hospital staff

She found that she was irresistibly drawn to these people who were so largely untouched by the outside world. She dreamed of lifting the burden of ignorance from them, as well as healing the sick. While she continuously questioned the tenets of her own Christian religion, she wanted to know more about the Chinese people and what they believed. When she found that her Chinese staff had not understood the self righteous rantings of a visiting evangelist, imploring them to give up their idols, she wrote: "I thought then that it was not just the "heathen" who have idols. Almost everyone has a paltry little god that he sets up on a pedestal and worships. Many of us worship power or prestige or possessions or pleasure. The idols we worship are more pernicious and perverting than the "heathen's" because we do not realize the nature of our adoration and are unaware that such worship destroys our character. What would the good missionaries do to me if they knew my thoughts? Well, I would never utter them, for I had found a place to give myself in service. I would take no risks of being sent home as a heretic. Perhaps I was not honest with the missionaries. But I was now seeing that the most important thing was to be honest with myself."

Outdoor Operation - Watercolor by Ruth Hemenway

In her memoirs, Ruth recounts many incidents of her medical practice. She came in contact with many of the casualties of the protracted power struggles. Among them was Precious Cloud, the vicious leader of a 1000 man gang of bandits, who terrorized villages throughout the area. At one point she was summoned to treat Precious Cloud at his mountain hide-out. Ruth went, despite the personal danger, and against the warnings of her fearful staff. She returned unharmed to continue her practice. In the following passages she recounts some of her encounters:

"Just a few days before, a man had brought his two little sons to the hospital. They came from a small hamlet near Tenth Town. The two little boys were five and eight years old and came to have their lacerated faces repaired. Each child had several deep gashes up to six inches long; every one was cut right down to the bone. "How did this happen?' I asked, as I sewed up cut after cut.

"We could not pay the bandit tax," the father answered sadly. When the faces had been treated, I examined the boys and found large areas of old scar tissue from burns. "What does this mean?" I asked the father.

"Last year we could not pay our taxes, so Precious Cloud's men wrapped my two sons in straw and set them on fire." His face was white, drawn, desperate. The five year old son had lost his mind."

Ruth discovered that old ways died hard in the back country. She wrote: "In those years when China was controlled by warlords, we paid hardly any attention to politics and little realized we were soon to witness a revolution. For us in the back country of Fukien, life seemed to go on pretty much as usual, despite the gathering of political forces elsewhere. For example, in December 1926, a fifteen year old girl was brought into the hospital by her mother-in-law. She was a northern child, sold by her parents during a famine. She had been brought south to Mintsing where three months earlier she had been married to the son of her purchaser. Her new husband loved her very much, but it was tradition for sons never to interfere in the relationship between mother and bride. Unfortunately, his mother hated the young girl. When we examined the girl we found that her back was raw with whiplashes, her neck had been burned with a red hot iron, and one hip had been beaten with stones into a discolored mass. We found deep knife wounds here and there on her body, and her breasts had been twisted and pinched until they were black. She had not been allowed food or drink for a number of days and was in a state of shock. The local police would do nothing."

At another time she recounted: " A beggar woman brought in her little son who was almost dead. She had starved him viciously in order to enhance the appearance of her misery and thus improve her income. The baby was sill alive, so we took him into the hospital. A week later he opened his eyes and stretched out a thin little hand. Now the mother wanted to take him out of the hospital. "If he gets well, he will spoil my business," she explained. Since I could not change her mind, I called Miss Liu Tai-ching, our new social service worker, and told her the story. She turned to the beggar woman and made her eyes very big. "If you take that baby home I shall report you to the police," she said sternly. The woman left hurriedly and we kept the boy until he was well."

On more then one occasion, Ruth was ordered to leave the area by the American Consul due to the threat of marauding armies and bandits. A local girl once ran to her warning "The bandits are really going to get you because you are just back from America and must have money." She was given men's clothing to wear and told to exit the compound through a back gate if need be. Once again Ruth stayed and luckily, avoided any harm.

On another occasion she wrote: "We awoke one morning late in June 1929 to the sound of rapid gun fire all around us, screaming in the street, and the quick slamming together of shop fronts. Nurses came running, breathless and frightened. "Precious Cloud" is coming." They said. "And Bing Hu is running toward Fourth Town with his (opposing) army."

"Tell every girl and woman to run to their own homes, if they wish," I said quickly, "although I think they might be safer here."

Bandits - Watercolor by Ruth Hemenway

…"The bandits now entered Sixth Town from downriver, from Third Town, and from Ko long. At the same time the town's citizenry rushed their women and children out of town. Some were running with precious possessions on their backs. All of the girls at the hospital stayed with us. They reasoned that my gesture in going to treat Precious Cloud, even though I did not succeed, entitled me and the whole staff to special consideration. In their own homes no one would be safe. We kept our gate locked all day. No one went in or out."

"They are going right through the village looting everyone," someone else reported later. Far into the night we heard women screaming on the other side of the walls."
The next day the cook asked permission to go home. "My fourteen year old niece died at their hands last night," she explained. "I must go home for her funeral."

"I looked out the window and saw bandit soldiers leading off long lines of people who were tied together with ropes in single file. Other captives followed carrying big bundles of loot on their shoulders. But no one molested us. It looked as though we were safe, so finally I ordered the gate opened to let in the wounded, including the bandit soldiers, for treatment."

Warlord soldiers marching through Mintsing - Watercolor by Ruth Hemenway

"One morning I said to these bandit patients, "Would you like to attend our chapel this morning?" From the horrified looks on the faces of the staff I could see that they considered this an awful mistake. But something had told me to ask them, and I was sure it was right. Thus, thirty bandit soldiers attended our chapel service and conducted themselves with propriety."

Ruth abhorred racism whenever she encountered it, whether from Chinese or Western missionaries. After being refused accommodations by missionaries because she brought one of her Chinese daughters along, Ruth lamented: "It was very hard for me to digest the fact that those who came to "convert the heathen" could show such discrimination. After all the hard experiences and isolation of the last four months, this was a blow. I was bitter, but I did need rest; so Mary Carleton kindly took Hwa Sing, while I lived with my Western colleagues. I felt that all missionaries ought to undergo psychoanalysis to root out whatever feelings of racial superiority might lurk in their subconscious before they were allowed to preach Christianity in China. People had described the Chinese as rigid traditionalists. But they could not be more rigid than some of our "good" missionaries in the field."

Ruth was enchanted with many traditions she observed in China. She described one scene during a local Ceremony of Atonement. "The temple was a blaze of glory. Lovely silk Chinese lanterns with wooden frames hung everywhere, some in the shape of temples, while others were fashioned into pagodas. Beautifully elaborate gold tapestries hung in a solid mass over the wall behind the alter…Large paintings hung on both side walls as well as on the rear wall of the temple's interior. Two depicted the sufferings of the wicked, but also the blessings meted out to the good. The good people were arranged in family groups; they sat with contented faces and enjoyed eating on tables set among hills, with trees and waterfalls nearby and with mountains in the background. The sinners were all alone and suffered the same gruesome punishments portrayed in the booths outside. Monks in red gowns stood against the golden tapestries by the altar and sang in cadences, accompanied by string and wind instruments. It was beautiful, and I wished that I could somehow capture this gorgeously exotic picture for people in America to see. When we emerged into the night a fire blazed in a great kettle held on a tripod. With the flames throwing weird, phantom like images, it provided just the right touch to end a beautifully mystical evening."

Ceremony of Atonement - Watercolor by Ruth Hemenway

After the county seat was leveled by a disastrous fire, Ruth made this observation about the Chinese as they rebuilt the city: "With this kind of spirit, I thought, China could never be vanquished. I sensed a renewed thrill of wonder at the great potential these people possessed. They had centuries and centuries of high culture and profound spiritual concepts behind them, as well as magnificent historical achievements. I admired their strength and stamina. They were stubbornly loyal to what they believed; they suffered and even died for what they thought was right. I had great faith in their ability to grow and develop in new ways. I believed the Chinese would eventually build, perhaps when the United States had begun to decline, the greatest country in the world."

"It had been most interesting to compare my country with China, I marveled at the spirit of progress and efficiency, the modern knowledge and techniques, the humming speed of American civilization. At the same time I remembered China with her long history of philosophy and high ethical teachings, her love of beauty in nature, in literature, in music and all arts. I thought of China's young people with their great artistic ability, their high intelligence, their reverence for learning, their respect for the aged, and their passionate patriotism. I remembered Chinese ways of courtesy and gentleness; their fine sensitivity and intuition were characteristics in even the illiterate mountain people. Even the poorest people possessed a wonderful graciousness and dignity. Confucius and sons had given their people a great deal."

During her time in China, Ruth learned about the new regime of Chiang Kai-shek and The New Life Movement. Chiang's government instituted many reforms and new laws. It seemed as though a new spirit had come to the country. "He is a man of very noble character," noted one Chinese. "His influence is working all over the nation," said another. "Many of his public officials have become Christians."

While in Chungking, Dr. Ruth and her colleagues had a distinguished guest. General Feng Yu-hsiang was a tall man who must have weighed more than 200 lbs. He was big for a Chinese and appeared to be a man of high intelligence. It was said that early in life he had been caught by a rather fundamental sort of Christianity. Popularly known as the "Christian General," he was reputed to have baptized his troops with fire hoses. Ruth wondered if he had later been able to rework his religious values and longed to discuss the subject with him. She wrote: "Feng's criticism of missionaries who lived well in China was a frequent one offered by Chinese people of all classes; it was a problem that I too worried about during all my years in China. Feng had the reputation of supporting progressive programs that would build up China's strength. He hated waste and ostentation. It was said that after a certain high official in Nanking had built himself a palatial residence a few years before, General Feng, who was living in Nanking at the time, immediately put up a mud hut across the street on which he hung a sign. On this sign was written "Feng's Palace."

On her way to Chungking, Ruth passed through the famed Yangtze river gorges. She eloquently described the sight: "Enormous ledges loomed above us-immense rock cathedrals in red and blue, their irregular outlines sharply silhouetted against the gray sky…Strange towers , spires, pinnacles, and ramparts 2,000 feet high created the feeling of entering a vast sanctuary in dim, religious light. Hacked out of the ancient rocks could be seen a rough narrow stairway, worn by centuries of trackers who through the ages had toiled and sweated in their harnesses to drag boats and heavy cargoes up the rushing river. The river, imprisoned between stone cliffs, roared wildly and boiled over tremendous boulders. Again and again, the current turned to rush back upstream, forming madly racing whirlpools up to 200 feet in diameter."

Yangtze River Gorge - Watercolor by Ruth Hemenway

"In places we could see tributaries far above come rushing over the top of a cliff and beak into a waterfall, falling down the red-and-blue cliffs in soft, long threads of white silk. Sometimes these waterfalls did not reach the bed of the river, but fell through space until the water was transformed into a delicate gray-blue mist that was carried down the gorge by the wind. Further down, the mist sometimes struck the face of a cliff, where it was transmuted into a waterfall with the suddenness of a rocket's flare. Occasionally we spotted an enormous cave up the face of a cliff, from which rushed a foaming green-and-white falls."

In Chengtu, Ruth met many Chinese who had fled the Japanese invasion taking place in the east. She wrote: "They told stories of horrible bombings. They had been witnesses to wholesale looting, burning, butchery, and raping by the Japanese invaders. This had made them firm in their commitment to fight to the end."


Unbeknownst to Ruth, other Westerners chose to stay behind in the capital of Nanking as the Japanese assaulted the city. Among them were John Rabe and Minnie Vautrin, an Illinois missionary who would later be called the "Goddess" of Nanking. Minnie Vautrin was raised near Bloomington, Illinois and joined the missionary movement after graduating from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. At the time of the Japanese invasion of Nanking, she was a professor at the Ginling Women's Arts and Science College in Nanking. She refused to leave the campus when Japanese soldiers ordered her out and proceeded to convert the school of only a few hundred students into a refuge for nearly 10,000 Chinese women and children. Vautrin spent days pleading for the lives of innocent Chinese people, often successfully, and worked tirelessly to feed and protect the refugees.

"When Nanking fell to the Japanese on December 13, 1937, a rampage of rape, murder and looting ensued. In the midst of this human atrocity, a small band of Americans and Europeans, about 20, created the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone. They established a neutral area where foreigners and Chinese civilians would be safe from the pillaging of the oncoming Japanese.

Western missionaries, teachers, surgeons and business people who had every opportunity to flee Nanking before it fell, stayed in Nanking as safety zone leaders, risking their lives to defy the Japanese soldiers and rescue tens of thousands of Chinese refugees from almost certain extermination. Their extensive diaries tell story after story of the horrors perpetrated upon innocent Chinese people." - Don Follis campus minister, University of Illinois

December 16, 1937 Three days after the fall of the city to the Japanese. From the diary of Minnie Vautrin.

There probably is no crime that has not been committed in this city today. Thirty girls were taken from language school last night, and today I have heard scores of heartbreaking stories of girls who were taken from their homes last night-one of the girls was but 12 years old. Food, bedding and money have been taken from people…I suspect every house in the city has been opened, again and yet again, and robbed. Tonight a truck passed in which there were eight or ten girls, and as it passed they called out "Ging ming! Ging ming!" - save our lives! The occasional shots that we hear out on the hills, or on the street, make us realize the sad fate of some man-very probably not a soldier. …Djang Szi-fu's son, science hall janitor, was taken this morning, and Wei has not returned. We would like to do something but do not know what we can do-for there is no order in the city, and I cannot leave the campus. Nanking is a pitiful broken shell tonight-the streets are deserted in darkness and fear.

I wonder how many innocent, hard-working farmers and coolies have been shot today. We have urged all women over 40 to go to their homes to be with their husbands and to leave only their daughters and daughters-in-law with us. We are responsible for about 4000 women and children tonight. We wonder how much longer we can stand this strain. It is terrible beyond words.

Winter, 1938 After the worst of the massacres. From the diary of John Rabe

Groups of three to ten maurading soldiers would begin by traveling through the city and robbing whatever there was to steal. They would continue by raping the women and girls and killing everything and everyone that offered any resistance, attempted to run away from them, or simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. During their misdeeds, no difference was made between adults and children. There were girls under the age of eight and women over the age of 70 who were raped and then, in the most brutal way possible, knocked down and beaten up. We found corpses of women on beer glasses and others who had been lanced by bamboo shoots. I saw the victims with my own eyes-I talked to some of them right before their deaths and had their bodies brought to the morgue at Kulo Hospital so that I could be personally convinced that all of these reports had touched on the truth.

You would have thought it impossible, but the raping of women even occurred right in the middle of the women's camp in our zone, which held between 5000 and 10,000 women. We few foreigners couldn't be at all places all the time in order to protect against these atrocities. One was powerless against these monsters who were armed to the teeth and who shot down anyone who tried to defend themselves. They only had respect for us foreigners-but nearly every one of us was close to being killed dozens of times. We asked ourselves mutually, "How much longer can we maintain this bluff?"

The Japanese army slaughtered an estimated 300,000 people and raped between 20,000 to 80,000 women, reducing Nanking to a veritable hell on earth. Minnie Vautrin wrote: "Never shall I forget the scene. The dried leaves rattling, the moaning of the wind, the cry of women being led out…Oh God, control the cruel beastliness of the soldiers in Nanking tonight!" Later, in 1940, as a result of her experiences, she suffered a nervous breakdown and returned to the United States where she committed suicide one year later. Although she was responsible for saving thousands of lives, she considered herself to be a failure. But to those Chinese people she will always be known as "The Living Goddess", "The Goddess of Mercy", indeed The "Goddess" of Nanking.

Dr. Ruth Hemenway returned to the United States in 1941 and established a medical practice in her hometown of Williamsburg. Just months before her death she wrote:

"Even now in 1974, with my mind still shuttling back and forth between these two great nations which are based on different civilizations, I feel frustrated and unable to share my thoughts; I yearn to withdraw from this philosophy of ease and comfort. But most of all I wonder about the future of the United States and China.


Yet even as a person must experience hardship, suffering, and bereavement to attain maturity, it may be that our own country, like China already, must be bathed in tears and blood in order to find itself in its rightful place of simple equality among the nations of the world. For it is through pain and heartbreak that humility is born; and it is from humility that wisdom and understanding come. Physical deprivation, hardship, bereavement-these may not be evils but blessings if they initiate constructive change."

Excerpts taken from - Ruth V. Hemenway A Memoir of Revolutionary China by Fred W. Drake

Ella Shumway Hemenway with two of her sons, Carl (left) and Justin (right) in their WWI uniforms

Elijah Hemenway, father of Carl and Ruth Hemenway

Carl Hemenway

CARL HEMENWAY "A Pillar of the Community"

Carl Hemenway was born in Williamsburg, Massachusetts in 1898 and returned there to run his father's farm in 1941 after leading a rather restless life. A veteran of the Punitive Expedition and World War I, he saw action in the campaigns of Chateau-Thierry, Belleau Wood, and Meuse-Argonne, and was among the soldiers adversely affected by poison gas. He returned from the trenches shell shocked, and was hospitalized at Walter Reed Hospital for a time, unable to walk. Carl was the brother of Ruth, Justin, Fred, and Rachel, and the son of Elijah and Ella Shumway Hemenway. Elijah was the grandson of James, the only son of Ichabod Hemenway III to remain in Williamsburg. After returning to Williamsburg, Carl married Jeanne Everett, raised a family, and served in both town and county government before he passed away in 1966.


In 1916 Carl joined the Massachusetts National Guard and served under General John Pershing in the pursuit of Pancho Villa after his attack on Columbus, New Mexico. This Punitive Expedition would serve to prepare the troops for later combat in World War I.

Columbus after the raid

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