Rollins’ China Connection

The April 1984 issue of The Alumni Record. Top:  President Thaddeus Seymour and Dr. Harry Gao ’31 in Wuhan, China. Bottom left:  George Gao, Rollins’ first exchange student from the People’s Republic of China. Bottom right:  Dr. Charles Edmondson (right) at Wuhan University with Dr. and Mrs. Harry Gao. The Chinese calligraphy reads, “Long live the friendship between Rollins and China!”

As a comprehensive liberal arts college, Rollins strives to educate students for global citizenship and responsible leadership, and this mission can be traced back to Hamilton Holt (1872-1951), the eighth president of the college. A journalist by training, Holt was an ardent internationalist in the early 20th century. He was very active in the world peace movement, serving as the president of the National Peace Congress and helping to found the League to Enforce Peace. He was also a strong supporter of Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations proposal, touring the country to promote American membership in the organization.1

When Holt was named the college’s president in 1925, he sought to revolutionize the curriculum, rebuild the faculty, increase enrollment, and develop a new master plan for the lakeside campus. Although he had no experience in higher education leadership, Holt successfully transformed Rollins from a small and struggling institution into a national leader in pragmatic liberal arts education. As an internationalist, Holt endeavored to diversify the academic community, and it is during his tenure that Rollins began to see a sizeable increase in international students from not only Europe, but also Latin America and Asia.

President Holt with foreign students in 1930. Harry Gao was the first on the third row from the left, Wu-fei Liu stood to Holt’s right, Yasuo Matsumoto of Japan sat second from the left. Other students came from Austria, Brazil, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Hungary, Iraq, Norway, Russia, Turkey, and Uruguay.

Archival records indicate the first Chinese student who studied at Rollins, Ling Nyi Vee, enrolled in 1928-29; however, little is known about this student. Another Chinese student, Harry Gao (高尚荫, ’31, ’81H), was a native of Suzhou, China and came to Rollins as a foreign exchange student in 1930. He was also a member of the Cosmopolitan Club, which facilitated cultural exchanges and fostered friendships between American and international students.2 After earning his PhD from Yale and returning to China, Harry eventually rose to become the vice president of Wuhan University, a professor of virology, and a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.3 Other Chinese students during the Holt era include Paul Ma (1937-39), Sze Tsung King (1941-43), Nien Feng Liu (1947-48), and Johnson Tai (1948-49), but most notable among them were the Liu sisters. Wu-fei Liu (1930-31) and Wu-gou Liu (1935-36) came from a very influential family in southern China, whose father Yazi Liu (柳亚子, 1887-1958) was a famed poet and political activist to whom Mao Zedong presented one of his most celebrated poems, written in the classic style.4 More significantly, it was through the sisters’ connection that Wu-chi Liu (柳无忌, 1907-2002) became the first Chinese and Asian faculty member to teach at Rollins.

                                                            Wu-fei Liu and Wu-chi Liu

Wu-chi Liu with his wife Helen Gao (sister of Harry Gao) and daughter Shirley Liu, on January 22, 1936, the second anniversary of their wedding while in China.

Born in Shanghai, Wu-chi attended Tsinghua University before receiving a doctorate in English literature from Yale in 1931. He then returned to China and taught at Nankai University, Southwestern Associated University, and the National Central University. Through his sisters’ relationship and his Yale link, President Holt offered him a two-year visiting professorship (1946-48) that helped Wu-chi escape the chaos of the looming Chinese Civil War.5 It was around this time that Wu-chi realized that to be a successful academic in the U.S., his research focus should be on Chinese instead of English literature. With the title of Professor of Oriental Culture, Dr. Liu taught Chinese literature, philosophy, and drama at Rollins, later becoming the founding chair of East Asian Languages and Literature Studies at Indiana University. An accomplished scholar, Liu published more than two dozen books over his career, including titles such as A Short History of Confucian Philosophy, An Introduction to Chinese Literature, and Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry. While at Rollins, Liu also presented “A Page of Chinese Poetry” in the 1948 issue of the Animated Magazine.

Speakers gathering for the 1948 issue of ‘Animated Magazine’ at Rollins. Wu-chi Liu was fourth from the left, and Soo Yong Huang was third from the right. Other notables include John R. Mott, Nobel Peace Prize Winner; Thomas J. Dodd, Prosecutor of the Nazi Nuremberg Trials; Alberto L. Camargo, Director General of the Pan American Union & former Columbia President; General Jonathan M. Wainwright; Claude Pepper, U.S. Senator from Florida; and “Buz Sawyer” Creator Roy Crane.

A cherished legacy of Rollins College and an illuminating chapter in the cultural history of Central Florida, the Animated Magazine was not a print publication, but rather, an annual program during Founders Week in February, where invited contributors appeared in person and read from their writings in front of a large audience. Over a four-decade span, it brought numerous distinguished visitors to Winter Park and offered unique educational opportunities to many Rollins students and citizens of the local community.6 Besides Wu-chi Liu, Soo Yong Huang (1903-1984) was another Chinese contributor to the Rollins Animated Magazine. Born in Hawaii as Ah Hee Yong, Soo Yong attended the University of Hawaii and received her master’s degree in education from Columbia University. She adopted her stage name Soo Yong when she was featured in Painted Veil next to Greta Garbo in 1934.7 She also appeared in Hollywood movies such as China Seas (1935), Klondike Annie (1936), Mad Holiday (1936) and The Good Earth (1937).8 However, since it was impossible for Asian actresses to play leading roles then, Soo Yong performed in a series of monologues about Chinese life that sparkled with humor, which she presented multiple times in the Animated Magazine (1944-46 & 1948-49).

Lady Precious Stream, produced at Rollins by Soo Yong in 1946, with Madge                  Martin, Jack Kelly, Ilo Lorenz, and Jenelle Gregg (left to right).

On a national tour raising funds for the United China Relief, Soo Yong ran into Chun Ku Huang, a businessman from Tianjin and a Nankai University graduate who had a passion for Peking opera. The couple married in 1941, settled in Winter Park, and opened the Jade Lantern on Park Avenue, a seasonal, luxurious novelty store north of Central Park selling items such as Chinese arts and crafts, jewelry, linens, and furniture. Because of her artistic talent, Soo Yong was invited to help Rollins produce Lady Precious Stream (王宝钏). During March 26-30, 1946, the widely-acclaimed Broadway play by Chinese playwright Hsiung Shih-I (熊式一) premiered at the Annie Russell Theatre. Soo Yong not only directed and staged the play but also designed the costumes and served as the honorable reader. In 1961, after two decades in Central Florida, the Huangs decided to return to her native state of Hawaii. For their contributions to the academic community, President Hugh McKean awarded the Rollins Decoration of Honor to both C. K. and Soo Yong Huang, the first people of Chinese heritage to receive such recognitions from the college.9 When she passed away in 1984, she willed Rollins the C. K. and Soo Yong Huang Memorial Fund, which has since been used to support the learning of Chinese culture at Rollins.

Huang, Soo Yong: 1961 Rollins Decoration of Honor Recipient.

 Arguably the most prominent Chinese scholar who ever spoke at Rollins was Hu Shih (胡适, 1891-1962), a Chinese philosopher, essayist, key contributor to Chinese liberalism, and an influential leader in the New Culture Movement. However, he came to Rollins not as an academic, but as the Chinese Ambassador to the United States. As part of the Rollins Institute on International Relations, co-sponsored by the World Alliance for International Friendship through the Churches and the Church Peace Union, Hu delivered a speech entitled “The Far East and the Future Peace of the World.” Before a packed audience of 900 in the Knowles Memorial Chapel on March 5, 1940, he forcefully denounced the Japanese military aggression in China and outlined a new vision for international peace and order.10 Besides Hu, another notable Chinese diplomat also spoke at Rollins. In 1955, V. K. Wellington Koo (顾维钧, 1887-1985) was featured in Rollins’ Animated Magazine along with Florida Governor LeRoy Collins and other noted figures.11 A Shanghai St. Johns University graduate, Koo received his PhD in international law from Columbia in 1912. He first served as the English secretary to Yuanshi Kai (袁世凯), first president of the Republic of China, then attended the Paris Peace Conference and was a participant in the founding of the League of Nations and the United Nations. Over the years, distinguished speakers such as Hu, Koo, and many others not only provided unique perspectives on important issues of the time to the academic community, but also greatly enhanced the cultural landscape of Central Florida and turned Rollins into a cosmopolitan college in the South.

The Feb. 28, 1940, issue of ‘Rollins Sandspur’ announces the opening of the Rollins Institute on International Relations, for which President Holt served as co-chair.

Among the more tangible objects related to China at Rollins are three stones in the Walk of Fame that represent the Middle Kingdom. Created by President Holt in the late 1920s, the Walk of Fame is an oak-shaded walkway located around Mills Lawn that features stones engraved with the names of famous men and women gathered from places of their associations. In 1923, General William F. Martin of the U.S. Army took a piece of granite from the Great Wall of China near Nankou Pass in Peking, and later presented it to the college when Rollins began to collect stones from around the world.12 The Confucius stone was found by Wu-chi Liu and his wife Helen Gao inside the house where the great Chinese educator allegedly taught his 3,000 disciples 2,500 years ago. It was dedicated on February 6, 1933, by President Holt, along with Dr. Chih Meng, Associate Director of the China Institute in America, and a 72nd-generation descendant of Mencius, the Chinese philosopher who founded neo-Confucianism in the third century B.C.E.13 The third stone also has a Liu family connection, as it came from Sun Yet-sen’s tomb and was sent to Rollins by Wu-fei Liu in 1935.

“Great Wall of China: Erected by Shi-Hwang Di, First Emperor of the Tsin Dynasty.”

“Confucius, Chi-Fu, Shan Tung,” with Chinese characters “Ultimate Sage” (至圣 Qufu, Shandong).

“From the Tomb of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, Nanking, China.”

Cultural exchanges are always two-way communications. While China came to Rollins, some members of the Rollins community also made their way to China. A case in point was George H. Kerr (1911-1992). After leaving Rollins in 1932, Kerr first studied at the University of Hawaii and Japan, and then taught English for three years in Taipei, Taiwan. While in Asia, Kerr presented “The Rollins Plan for New Education” during the Pan-Pacific New Education Conference in Tokyo.14 When World War II broke out, Kerr became a lieutenant in the U.S. Naval Reserve, first working as an analyst and consultant on matters related to Taiwan for the U.S. Department of War, then becoming the Director of the Formosa Research Unit at the Naval School of Military Government and Administration.15 In 1945, Kerr, as an assistant navy attaché, escorted Chinese Governor-General Chen Yi to Taiwan to accept the Japanese surrender. After serving briefly as a U.S. vice consul in Taiwan, Kerr launched an academic career at the University of Washington, Stanford, and UC Berkeley, as well as the Hoover Institution, and published multiple history books on the islands of Taiwan and Okinawa.

During the Cold War era of the 1950-1970s, because of the ideological conflict between capitalism and communism going on at the time, only a few students of Chinese heritage enrolled at Rollins. Among them were Gilbert Chan and Gee Kin Wong (1958-59); Mariette K. Fung (1961-62); David C. Chan (1964-65); Diana L. Hardoon (1966-67); and Michael Fu (1972-74). Most were from Hong Kong, none from mainland China. However, after the United States and China restored diplomatic relations and through economic reform in the early 1980s, the Middle Kingdom began to reopen to the outside world, thus marking a new chapter in Rollins’ relationship with the Asian nation. Despite tremendous suffering experienced during the Cultural Revolution, Harry Gao rose to become a successful researcher and administrator in Central China. Upon renewing his connection with the college, President Thaddeus Seymour invited Gao for a golden homecoming after five decades of separation and awarded him an honorary degree in 1981. Two years later, when Wuhan University celebrated its 70th anniversary, President Seymour became the honorary guest of the university, thus making him the first Rollins president to visit the People’s Republic of China (PRC).16

Dr. Thaddeus Seymour, President of Rollins College, and alumnus Harry (Shangyin) Gao at the 70th anniversary celebration of Wuhan University in Hubei Province.

Also in 1983, invited by Harry Gao, Dr. Charles Edmondson, Professor of History, became the first Rollins faculty member to spend his sabbatical in China. Although it took a whole year to secure the Chinese visa, Professor Edmondson had a very positive four-month experience getting to know ordinary people in Wuhan, which he later reflected on with humor while expressing high hopes for the country’s future.17 Shortly after, George (Chao) Gao, Harry Gao’s son, became Rollins’ first exchange scholar from the PRC, working as a visiting fellow in the chemistry department while teaching Chinese and taking some undergraduate classes.18

In the 1990s, with the rapid economic development and the country’s rise on the world stage, there was a growing interest within the campus community regarding anything related to China. The college saw a steady increase in enrollment among Asian students, and consequently, the Asian American Students Association as well as the Chinese Students Association were established. People also began to celebrate cultural holidays such as lunar new years and moon festivals. Rollins continued to host speeches and events related to the country’s history and contemporary development, including a Diversity Week program by Shen Tong (沈彤), a key student leader in the democracy movement at Tiananmen Square and one of Newsweek’s People of the Year in 1989.19 In 1993, President Rita Bornstein also welcomed a homecoming visit by Wu-fei Liu; four years later, on her way to return the statue of Ninomiya Kinjiro and sign the collaborative agreement with the Okinawa Prefecture, Bornstein also visited Beijing, Shanghai, and Guilin, the sister city of Orlando, Florida.20 It was during the Bornstein administration that several key faculty members with a research focus on China were strategically recruited, and as a result the Asian Studies minor was established in 2001 to provide students with a comprehensive, interdisciplinary study of the fastest-growing region in the world.

Shen Tong, author and a Peking University student, presented in the Bush Auditorium during Diversity Week in October 1990.

On May 28, 1993, President Rita Bornstein (center) and Dorothy Shepherd Smith ’33 (left) welcomed Wu-fei Liu ’34 back to the Rollins campus.

Entering the new millennium under the leadership of President Lewis Duncan, Rollins greatly intensified its efforts of internationalizing its faculty and curriculum. In 2005, the Rollins China Center was established by a group of faculty members from a variety of disciplines who shared a common interest in furthering the understanding of Chinese culture, economy, politics, and history. With the support of the President’s Internationalization Initiative, two groups of Rollins faculty traveled to China in 2006 and 2009 to gain a better understanding of the country and its culture, with the goal of transferring this knowledge to their students and enhancing faculty scholarship. Consequently, Rollins has been recognized as a national leader in this regard by The Chronicle of Higher Education.21 Under the umbrella of the China Center, Rollins hosted a number of high-profile conferences and workshops, including the 51st annual conference of the American Association for Chinese Studies, the National Workshop on Chinese Centers of Excellence, and the Associated Colleges of the South China Research Conference.22 Moreover, the China Center has been a co-sponsor of the annual China Goes Global conference since its inauguration at Rollins in 2006. Other notable projects include the Crummer Business School’s partnership in faculty teaching and student internships with the East China University for Science and Technology, and Disney’s Learn & Earn Program with Chinese university students in the Hamilton Holt School. In addition, following Holt’s tradition, Rollins has invited a number of internationally known China scholars to Winter Park and has frequently facilitated scholarly exchanges on issues related to China. All these efforts have substantially increased Rollins’ global footprints and contributed to the institutional mission of educating students to become active global citizens.

Participants in the 2001 Journey to the Middle Kingdom field study course pose in front of the Camel Rock in Guiling, Guangxi Province, China, where President Bill Clinton gave his speech on environmental protection.

In recent years Rollins has seen a significant increase in course offerings related to Asia and China from faculty members in anthropology, economics, education, history, international business, philosophy, and political science. Some of them have begun to routinely lead student trips through field study courses such as “Journey to the Middle Kingdom” and “Engaging Changing China.” With Mandarin being regularly taught in the Modern Languages and Literatures Department, a new Asian Studies major and Chinese Studies minor have also been launched. In addition to the existing exchange program with Hong Kong Baptist University, the college has also established a semester abroad program at Shanghai Jiaotong University and Shanghai University of Finance and Economics so that students can gain in-depth firsthand experience while studying language and cultures in China. Inspired by Rollins’ commitment to Chinese Studies, George Kao (高克毅, 1912-2008)—a Chinese-American author, translator, journalist, and Winter Park resident—decided to create the George and Maeching Kao Endowment. The memorial funding, a testimony to Kao’s lifelong dedication of promoting mutual understanding between the American and Chinese peoples, has since been providing annual awards and grants for student scholarship and language learning in Chinese studies.

The U.S.-China relationship is arguably one of the most important in the 21st century. Although China is more than 8,000 miles away from Florida, our world is interconnected now more than ever. Built on the college’s rich heritage in liberal arts education, Rollins faculty, staff, and administrators are committed to promoting global citizenship, responsible leadership, and cross-cultural diversity through a global curriculum and cultural experiences. Looking forward, guided by the principles of excellence, innovation and community, and through various engagements in teaching, research, and outreach, Rollins’ strategic connection with the Middle Kingdom will continually be strengthened. This belief is best summarized by Harry Gao on the cover of the Alumni Record: “Long Live the Friendship between Rollins and China!”

~by Wenxian Zhang, Head of Archives and Special Collections

A version of this article was published in the December 2015 issue of The Independent.


1 Jack Lane, Rollins College: A Pictorial History (Winter Park: Rollins College, 1980), 52.

2 Tomokan Yearbook (Winter Park: Rollins College, 1931), 149.

3 Harry Gao, “A Letter across the Pacific,” Rollins Alumni Record, Apr. 1984, 4.

4 “Liu Ya-tzu,” in Howard Boorman, ed., Biographical Dictionary of Republican China vol. II (New York: Columbia University Press, 1968), 421-23.

5 45G Visiting Faculty Files, Archives and Special Collections, Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida.

6 Wenxian Zhang, “Animated Magazine,” It’s About Time: Reflections from Central Florida 2:1 (Apr. 2004): 20-21.

7 Gayle and Steve Rajtar, “Called the Silver Screen,” Winter Park Magazine, Aug. 2010, 83-85.

8 “Soo Yong,” Internet Movie Database, accessed Oct. 9, 2015,

9 43 College Awards & Recognitions, Archives and Special Collections, Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida.

10 “China’s Ambassador to Speak at Chapel,” Winter Park Topics, Feb. 17, 1940, 7; “Chinese Envoy Speaks on New Order for World: Hu Shih Outlines Steps for Establishment of Peace, Security at Institute,” Rollins Sandspur, Mar. 6, 1940, 1, 4.

11 Tomokan Yearbook (Winter Park: Rollins College, 1955).

12 Wenxian Zhang, David Smith, and Patricia Strout, Walk of Fame: A Rollins Legacy (Winter Park, Rollins College, 2004), 102.

13 Ibid, 28; “Paul Chih Meng, 90, Headed China Institute,” New York Times, Feb. 7, 1990.

14 “Kerr, Rollins Alumnus, Speaks in Japan,” Rollins Sandspur, Oct. 2, 1935, 10.

15 “Register of the George H. Kerr Papers,” Hoover Institution, University of California Online Archive.

16 “Seymour in the Orient: President Seymour Travels to Wuhan as Guest of Harry Gao ’31,” Rollins Alumni Record, Apr. 1984, 4.

17 Charles Edmondson, “Perspectives on China,” Rollins Alumni Record, Apr. 1984, 2-4.

18 “And China Comes to Rollins,” Rollins Alumni Record, Apr. 1984, 6.

19 Catherine Jones, “Almost a Revolution: Chinese Student Leader Highlighted during Diversity Week,” Rollins Sandspur, Oct. 10, 1990; “People of the Year – China: Communism is not the Only Way,” Newsweek, Dec. 25, 1989, 36.

20 Rita Bornstein Presidential Records, Archives and Special Collections, Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida.

21 Karin Fischer, “Professors Get Their Own Study-Abroad Programs,” The Chronicle of Higher Education 55:10 (Oct. 2008): 2.

22 The China Center at Rollins College: 2008-2010 Activities Report.

3 thoughts on “Rollins’ China Connection

  1. What an incredibly well researched and rich article! You have shed light on a treasure of history specific to the role of Chinese students and scholars in the early to mid 20th century. We really owe you a debt of gratitude that you’ve put in the effort of research and the time of writing to share this fascinating and important history with our community.

  2. Thank you so much for your nice words of encouragement Bahiyyah! I greatly enjoyed working on this research project, and hopefully it will enhance the public awareness of our rich institutional history, and contribute in a small way to our mission of educating students for global citizenship and responsible leadership.

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