Chinese artifact exhibit carries spirit of Lelia Judson Tuttle

by Lee Adams

‘“Not only did she touch the lives of people in our family but around the world,’” says Missy Rankin of Lelia Judson Tuttle.

Though Rankin never had the opportunity to meet her great, great aunt you wouldn’t know it from hearing her talk. Rankin says that as a Christian woman who was closely involved with the Methodist Church, Tuttle felt the Chinese people, women in particular, needed contact with the outside world and knew she could make a difference in their lives.

UNCG now has a large collection of items Tuttle collected in China in the early twentieth century. Fine porcelain dishes, silver-tipped chopsticks, delicate hand-painted paper fans, these are all part of a time when the world was changing, and Tuttle was there helping it change. There are also a vast number of hand-written letters to family members that Tuttle sent home during her years in China.

Tuttle went to China in 1910 through the Methodist Church Board of Global Missions after being appointed as Chair of English literature at the McTyeire Institute in Shanghai, China. During the early 1900s many Christian denominations were sending missionaries to China and the Methodist Church in particular was very involved in missions and social work. The time was one of social change; there were very few women getting educated in China. In fact, many women lived hard lives and were often persecuted and killed for trying to gain an education, Rankin says.

Tuttle was fortunate enough to be sent to one the few schools set up to educate young women in China.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English from the State Normal and Industrial College ‘— now UNCG ‘— in 1900 and a master’s from Columbia University, Tuttle taught in her hometown of Lenoir in Caldwell County for two years. But her spirit was restless and she longed for more in her life. Her oldest brother, Daniel Herndon Tuttle, was a father figure to her and one of the greatest influences in her decision to become a missionary and a teacher, Rankin says. So she left her job and her home and went to Scarritt Bible and Training School in Kansas City for a year.

‘“She was a very mature and courageous young woman,’” Rankin says.

While teaching in China, Tuttle came in contact with Charlie Soong whose daughters attended the McTyeire Institute. In the 1800s Soong had stowed away on a ship to Boston, later working his way down to Wilmington where he met Tuttle’s brother, Daniel Herndon. Soong converted to Christianity and became involved with the Methodist Church, and later attended and graduated from Vanderbilt University. After returning to China, Soong opened a print shop where he printed materials on Christianity and began spreading the faith. Soong also had ties to Sun Yat-Sen, founder of the Chinese Nationalist Party.

Charlie Soong’s daughter, Mei-ling, who would marry Chiang Kai-shek, chief of staff to Sun Yat-Sen. Soong’s other daughter, Ch’ing-ling, married Sun Yat-Sen.

Tuttle became good friends and mentors to Soong’s daughters while they attended the McTyeire Institute.

In 1941, as World War II began and Japan invaded China, Tuttle was forced to leave the country.

‘“She left one world and came back to another,’” says Dr. Fred Hobson, an English professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and great nephew of Tuttle.

He knew Tuttle until her death in his early twenties. Some of his fondest memories are of her retellings of the Uncle Remus stories. She told these stories to children around her hometown of Lenoir and in China to children she met. Hobson is currently working on an essay book to be published in October called ‘“The Silencing of Emily Mullen and Other Essays.’” The second essay in his book is about Tuttle, which he has entitled ‘“Brer Rabbit in China.’”

‘“She was an incredibly lively, feisty woman,’” Hobson says. Having left the United States as automobiles were just coming into existence Tuttle never learned to drive until she was 70 years old. She gave many talks about her travels to churches, schools and clubs when she returned to the states.

Tuttle retired to the Brooks Hopewell Home, an assisted living facility for missionaries, and died there on Nov. 15, 1967.

Tuttle donated her belongings to the Caldwell County library before her death in hopes of helping others to understand the times and the circumstances that surrounded her. Missy Rankin helped bring the collection to UNCG after viewing it in the Caldwell County Heritage Museum over two years ago. The museum didn’t have the proper lighting or tools to preserve the now fragile pieces. With the help of John Hawkins, director, the museum’s director, pieces were moved to UNCG in July 2004.

The university hopes to expand the display in the future to be able to tell more of Tuttle’s stories to those who visit. Some of the items are currently on display on the second floor of the Walter Clinton Jackson Library until the end of July.

To comment on this story. e-mail Lee Adams at