Granddaughter of US missionaries uncovers her family’s history with China
Friendship through the generations
Published: Jul 15, 2019 07:55 PM

Ellen Touchstone (left) and Jazmine Crever with the old stuffs that Ellen's grandparents bought in Suzhou 100 years ago Photo: Lu Ting/GT

Ellen Touchstone (third from left) , Jazmine Crever (third from right) and US Consul General Sean Stein (right) pose with guests. Photo: Lu Ting/GT

Old photos. Photo: Courtesy of Ellen Touchstone

During a time when people in China and the US are uncertain about where the relationship between the two countries is going, Ellen Touchstone, a US citizen whose family has a special tie with China that was established 100 years ago, has something more to say.

Touchstone, 54, is a business professor and the director of internationalization at the International Business School Suzhou at Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (XJTLU) in Suzhou, East China's Jiangsu Province.

Ellen's grandparents, Cary Touchstone and Mabel Ellen Thomas, worked as US missionaries in China during the early 20th century. Working in Suzhou, Cary Touchstone was a financial administrator at Soochow University, while Thomas was the head nurse at Soochow First Affiliated Hospital. On July 14, 1919, the two young foreigners got married at the US Consulate in Shanghai, and went on to have two children before returning to the US in 1922.

Traveling back home, the couple not only brought back valuable pieces of furniture - such as a traditional Chinese table that Ellen Touchstone still treasures today - but also cultural ties to China that exist to this day.  

100th anniversary

In 2012, Ellen Touchstone was working as a junior high French teacher in Texas. Reaching a crossroads in her life, she decided to move across the ocean to China, specifically to Suzhou, to explore her family history. At the time, she never expected that she would settle down in the city.

Earlier this month, 34-year-old Jazmine Crever, Cary and Mabel Touchstone's great-great-granddaughter, traveled from California to visit Ellen, her cousin, and experience her family heritage.

On Sunday, US Consul General in Shanghai Sean Stein hosted Ellen Touchstone and Crever at his residence in Shanghai to celebrate the late Cary and Mabel Touchstone's 100th wedding anniversary.

Stein told the Global Times that he felt it's important to remember experiences like Ellen Touchstone's because they prove that events from 100 years ago and the Americans who came to China at that time still have influence today.

"At the same time, Ellen's story shows how an appreciation of China can be passed on throughout time. I sincerely hope that there can be more Americans coming to China, as well as more Chinese going to the States to create cultural exchanges that will have long-lasting effects," Stein said.

Before the Sunday event, the Global Times sat down for an exclusive interview with Touchstone and Crever on July 10 in Suzhou.

"Cary and Mabel stayed in China from 1917 to 1922. They established a close relation with both Soochow University and the city itself. As head nurse, Mabel saved the lives of people at the Affiliated Hospital, many of whom donated funding when it came to building the university. Cary came to China with the Methodist Episcopal Church of the United States, and served as a bursar and English secretary to the president of Soochow University. Mabel also did 'language study' - which would have been the Suzhou dialect, while Cary participated in the choir and camera club at the university. The two young missionaries fell in love, possibly during a talent show Cary performed in during May 1918, and started a family together on the Soochow University campus," Touchstone told the Global Times.

The stories about her grandparents that Touchstone learned from locals in Suzhou warmed her heart. During their trip to Soochow University, not only did Touchstone and Crever find the house where the couple used to live, they were also greatly welcomed by historians at the university.

According to what she was told, many of the best universities and hospitals in China today were founded by missionaries from her grandparents' generation. The acknowledgement of the role her grandparents played in the development of China has been a source of pride for Touchstone, even more so since she, 100 years later, is also helping to contribute by helping with the development of higher education and sustainable business at XJTLU.

Continuing the journey

Crever said her trip to Suzhou was everything she expected and more.

"I used to only learn about my family background from Ellen when she was in California during the holidays, but I was in awe while visiting these historical places in person. Even though the old affiliated hospital is now a hotel, simply seeing where the examination rooms once were and where Mabel used to work at was very touching for me."

Crever is now continuing her great-great-grandmother's journey by studying to be a nurse in California.

In the future, Touchstone said she hopes to develop her family heritage project further with a documentary and continue her family legacy in working in international education and developing partnerships with her role at XJTLU's International Business School. She noted that during times like today, when problems are becoming more complicated and solutions more important than ever, people need to bring in people from different areas of expertise and from around the world to work together.

As for Crever, she looks forward to bringing back the stories she learned in China to California and sharing them with her family.

As to the current US-China relationship, Touchstone said, "I don't think the US-imposed tariffs are an effective way of resolving trade issues, and that the two countries need to get back to negotiating and come up with a better solution. Many US companies and consumers are suffering because of the ongoing trade war, and we all need more contact rather than less."