Charlie Soong: North Carolina’s link to China’s history
Some North Carolinians feel that competition from Chinese manufacturers is a big reason why they or some of their friends have lost their jobs recently.
If they are right, part of the problem might have started right back here in North Carolina more than a hundred years ago.
I found out about this close connection between China and North Carolina as part of a Chinese language course that I am taking at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC-Chapel Hill. One of our assignments is to prepare a business project and then give an oral summary to our classmates in Chinese.
My project is about North Carolina people with connections to China. It put me in touch with the story of a man known as Charlie Soong.
Soong was a successful businessman in China in the early 1900’s. When much of China’s limited manufacturing capacity was under the control of foreigners, Soong showed that the Chinese could do it for themselves. He helped construct a platform on which China’s current manufacturing base is built.
One of Soong’s businesses was printing. He printed a Chinese Bible so inexpensively that it drove the competition ‘— mostly Europeans’— out of business.
During this time, the last days of the Qing Dynasty and ‘the Last Emperor,’ China was in revolutionary turmoil. Charlie Soong helped fund the activities of the major revolutionary leader, Sun Yat-sen, who is sometimes called the ‘founder of the Chinese Republic.’
Soong sent most of his children to the United States for education. When his three daughters came back to China, they married prominent Chinese.
One daughter, Ching-Ling, married Sun Yat-sen, himself. As Madame Sun Yat-sen, she remained an important figure in Chinese government long after her husband’s death, even serving under Mao as a vice chairman of the People’s Republic from 1949 to 1975.
The oldest daughter, Ai-ling, married banker H.H. Kung, who became finance minister in the Nationalist government.
Another daughter, May-ling, married Chiang Kai-shek, who led the Nationalist government and was driven to Taiwan by Mao’s forces in 1949. Madame Chiang Kai-shek was well known to Americans and a favorite of many until her death in 2003 at the age of 105.
It is hard to imagine what China would be without Charlie Soong and his family.
All of this information is interesting, but what is the North Carolina connection?
Although Charlie Soong was born in China in 1866, he made his way to Wilmington, NC, as a young boy. There he converted to Christianity and announced his intention to return to China as a missionary. A minister in Wilmington persuaded Durham tobacco and textile manufacturer Julian Carr to take an interest in Soong. Carr brought Soong to Durham and then arranged for him to enroll as the first foreign student at Trinity College in Randolph County.
(Later, Carr purchased a textile mill west of Chapel Hill and gave his name to Carrboro. Trinity relocated to a site donated by Carr in Durham and afterwards became Duke University.)
Carr and Soong developed a ‘father-son’ lifelong friendship, despite Charlie Soong’s serious flirtation with Carr’s niece, which resulted in Charlie’s ‘exile’ to Vanderbilt University for more religious training. After being ordained as a Methodist minister, Soong went back to China as a missionary. But he drifted into business, developing the Bible printing operation that was to be a springboard to greater business and financial success, often with Carr’s backing.
In 1914, not long before his death, Carr visited the wealthy Soong in China and was ‘treated like a king.’
Without Charlie Soong, the history of China might have been much different. And without North Carolina and Julian Carr, there would have been no Charlie Soong.
At least it would not have been the same Charlie Soong who helped make China what it is today, including its competitive threat to the manufacturing jobs in the place where Soong got his start.