Life and Learning in Suzhou

Billy Guyton followed through on his commitment to go to medical school, 2 years of preclinical classes at Ole Miss and then 2 clinical years at the University of Virginia. As planned, he had little time to feel the lack of female companionship.

Kate onswingmrbuckonright 2

His fiancée Kate Smallwood, on the other hand, was a bit surprised to be surrounded by potential suitors among the large group of Methodist missionaries in China. During the term of her 5 years there, the missionaries traveled together to the Methodist camp in Kuling, to the Ming Tombs, even to Tokyo and elsewhere. They went to conferences and joined in games. These and other photos give the evidence.


Kate inthecavekuling 2
Picnic in Kuling Cave
Kate nearthecavekuling 3
Near Kuling Cave









Kate fieldday 4
Field day – this game for the ladies

Despite their 5 year immersion in separate communities on opposite sides of the globe, Billy and Kate’s long engagement was significantly imperiled only once. Billy’s first cousin David Guyton, though blind from childhood, was editor of the student newspaper at Ole Miss.[1] The cousins, more like brothers as they grew up together, had a habit of playing practical jokes on each other.

David placed a comment in the gossip column of the newspaper suggesting that Billy had taken a liking to a particular coed. He sent a copy of that issue to Kate in Suzhou. Furious with his cousin, Billy immediately wrote to Kate denying everything and affirming his continued love. The Ole Miss paper arrived several days ahead, and Kate wrote a bitter letter herself calling off the engagement. Fortunately she shared the whole matter including her draft letter with a close friend, who advised to her to wait for Billy’s side of the story. Almost 2 months after the prank was committed, Billy received her reply. She believed him and they remained engaged.

Kate refugee with tatters 2 

In China, good times were mixed with tragedy. The missionaries could do little to relieve effects of flooding of the Yangtze River nearby, similar to the later flood described by Pearl Buck in her novel The Good Earth. The desperation of refugees contrasted sharply with the comfortable life of the well-to-do, including the missionaries themselves. Kate took the photos shown below in a refugee camp. “Such sights are awful,” reads her note on the pictures. “Even Soochow has many beggars.”


Kate refugee camp 2
Refugee camp after Yangtze River flood
Kate children refugees 2
Children in temporary shelters

Poverty and insecurity, wealth and great achievement blended among the people of China to produce political as well as intellectual ferment through the first decade of the 1900s. The Boxer Rebellion and the fall of the Qing Dynasty, previously mentioned, were emblematic of political turmoil at the time.

Kang Youwei

An example of the intellectual response to turbulent times was Da Tongshu, or “The Book of Great Unity,” by the Qing courtier, scholar, and self-described mystic sage, Kang Youwei. Da Tongshu, written mostly in exile over a period of 30 years, would rise to become a widely read Chinese text (see this link).  The book described a utopian society built around the Confucian concept of ren, or humanity. It proposed a democratic world government without political boundaries except for rectangular administrative districts, within which direct democracy would be instituted. Women and men would be equal, and homosexuality would not be condemned. Racial boundaries would be abolished by a gradual, thousand year program of eugenics. Breaking with Confucian ideals of the family and favoring liberation of women, Kang proposed a program of state-run nurseries and schools, as well as retirement homes for the elderly, which marked him as a socialist admired later by Chairman Mao. He ranked major religions in a hierarchy with Christianity and Islam at the bottom, then in successively higher order, Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism.

How many of these forceful ideas may have penetrated the circle of Methodist missionaries or reached Kate Smallwood is uncertain. Only the first 2 chapters of Kang’s book had appeared by 1913 when she left China. What is clear is that the intellectual climate of that great ancient and changing culture touched her and altered her views. According to her daughter Ruth, “She talked about China for the rest of her life. She gave many talks to women’s groups.”

Kate remained a devoted, active Methodist, teaching Sunday School for decades. But she gave no hint of protest when Ruth and her husband joined the Unitarian church. Ruth said, “I think that during her years in China she had been such a student of Confucius that her evangelical Methodism was greatly modified.”

Most of Kate’s attention in Suzhou turned toward her students. She cared deeply for them and continued to correspond actively with them by mail even after leaving China, some for a lifetime.

Once while still in Suzhou Kate received a desperate letter from a student who was home on vacation in a precinct near Shanghai. The student’s father, she read, had been disgraced in business affairs and was now planning suicide not only for himself, but for the entire family. Such was the grip of familial pride and custom at the time. Kate became distraught, dispatched a reply letter (no telephone or even telegraph was available), and as soon as arrangements could be made, hired a boat to make an anguished trip to her student’s home via the Grand Canal. Once there she pleaded with the student, explaining that her father’s problem was not her own and that forgiveness should be the rule regardless. A loving God suffers if his children commit suicide.

Before leaving the area, Kate became ill, perhaps due to drinking polluted water en route. By the time she returned to the mission school she was dehydrated and critically ill. She veered close to death.

Kate received a note from the student, who described how she felt responsible for Kate’s condition. Thus she would not commit suicide, but would help her kind mentor however possible to recover. Although the girl’s father and several family members went ahead with their plan, she returned to school. She graduated with honors and pursued a career as a teacher.

Kate’s health unfortunately would never fully recover. She suffered from gastrointestinal problems the rest of her life. She was diagnosed with tropical sprue, untreatable in that era.

Kate returned to Mississippi in 1913 filled with excitement. She would be married, and her dream as well as Billy’s was to return to China with new medical skills to relieve some of the suffering she had seen.


Next post:  A Change in Plans

Previous post:  Kate Goes to Suzhou

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Most photographs from 1908 to 1913 by Kate Smallwood. Photo of Kang Youwei by Elmer Chickering, from US Library of Congress, (c) public domain.

[1] David Edgar Guyton (1880-1964) later received a Master’s degree at Columbia University, became a poet and writer, and taught at Blue Mountain College, Blue Mountain, MS, for 57 years.


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