McTyeire School for Girls

The tricky thing about writing historical fiction is getting the details right. Were there ballpoint pens in Shanghai in 1937? (Yes.) Or plastic chopsticks in 1954? (No.) The average reader might not care but mine would. They already know something about China or they want to delve deeper. My readers want a story that feels real.

an education

So I try to fact-check. Sometimes I do that the old-school way: by reading books written by experts in their field. Other times, I stumble across the truth.

McTyeire School for Girls. Image source:

For example, I  was doing a little research into the McTyeire School for Girls. The idea was to write another blog post about my maternal grandmother, my Nabu. I knew that she had attended an English-language high school in Shanghai, but I didn’t know which one. It seemed like an easy thing to find. How many English-speaking girls high schools could there have been in 1920s Shanghai?

famous alumnae

The American Southern Methodist Mission founded McTyeire in 1890. The intent was to save Chinese souls by elevating the women. In those days, a pretty bold idea. Few girls learned to read or write. And those who did, had a private tutor at home. How then to lure Chinese girls to school?

Superintendent Young J. Allen decided not to present McTyeire as a charity like all the other mission schools in China. Instead, he would charge tuition and select only the best girls. The formula worked. In the first year, the daughter of the Shanghai daotai (imperial commissioner) enrolled. Soon, the school grew so much it needed a new location. Its main building was designed by the Hungarian  architect Ladislav Hudec, “the architect who made Shanghai”.

McTyeire alumnae
Soong Ailing, Meiling and Qingling. Image source: wikipedia

But McTyeire is most famous as the launching ground for the Soong sisters though they, in turn, are better known by their married names: Madame Sun Yat-Sen (Qingling), founder of the Republic of China; Madame Chiang Kai-Shek (Meiling), head of the Nationalist government (1943-1948) and Mrs. H.H. Kung (Ailing), Nationalist Minister of Finance.

the harvard of china

My favorite author Eileen Chang was also an alumna. She would have been trained in the McTyeire core values: independence, ability, care and elegance. It sounds suspiciously similar to the motto of the girls high school my parents chose for me:

We train young girls to be young ladies.

All this seems to reek of upper class or, in my case, an aspiration thereto. My friend Sonia has family who comes from Shanghai. Her mother, just like my Nabu, attended an English-speaking girls high school in Shanghai. Could her mother and my grandmother have been schoolmates? And was that at McTyeire?

Sonia’s mom nixed the latter illusion. She said:

McTyeire was like Harvard whereas I went to a state school.


In Chinese, McTyeire was called Zhong Xi Nu Shu (中 西女塾) or Chinese Western Girls Academy. It did not survive the Communist Revolution unchanged. Here’s a description of the convulsions that must have racked the school.

After Shanghai was liberated, Shanghai Education Commission took over St. Mary’s Hall and McTyeire School in July of 1952 and merged them to form Shanghai No. 3 Girls’ High School. {…] 

Because of political reasons, the school enrolled both boys and girls from 1969 to 1981 and its name was changed to Shanghai No. 3 High School.

Because of political reasons, Shanghai No. 3 Girls’ Middle School and Shanghai No. 3 Girls’ High School became independent legal entities in 2000.

This quote was taken from the website of Shanghai No. 3 Girls’ Middle School (, currently dark. It’s a wonder of political-speak that can be translated as follows: the Communists closed McTyeire. It went co-ed during the Cultural Revolution then returned to single-sex in 1982. Its current incarnation as two separate schools, both for girls, may be the result of education reforms instituted under Zhu Rongji.

These are all great facts to put into a blog post. But this information has also thrown a wrench into my novel-in-progress.

peace court

This new novel, Peace Court, takes place in Shanghai starting in the winter of 1953. The heroine is Song Li, 16 years old. Her dream is to attend university, just as her father did, and maybe someday become a writer. Her school is a short bus ride away on Jiangsu Road. In my novel, I call it Shanghai No. 3 Girls School.

Here’s where the problems crop up.

  1. Because of the war with the Japanese (1931-1945), Song Li is already 8 years old when she starts school. McTyeire didn’t accept pupils under the age of 10, with the sole exception of Song Ailing (no relation).
  2. Song Li graduates from high school in the summer of 1954. Shanghai No. 3 Girls School didn’t exist until 1953 and its predecessor was closed by 1949.
  3. Even when McTyeire was open, it charged a tuition fee commensurate with its exclusivity. This school would have been out of the reach of ordinary Chinese like Song Li.

squaring the circle

So what does a novelist do now?

A few years ago, Patrick deWitt came to Amsterdam to plug his then newest novel, The Sisters Brothers. He’s a self-deprecating character and stay-at-home dad who slots his writing time in-between school runs and PBJ sandwiches. The Sisters Brothers involves, among many other things, a miraculous substance that makes panning for gold a cinch. While still researching his novel, DeWitt had asked his uncle, a chemistry professor, to name this gold-finding substance. His uncle sent back a box full of papers to prove, beyond any doubt, that such an element did not exist. Does deWitt change his story? Hell, no. He says:

I’m a fiction writer.

But let’s say I’m not as brave as he. There are 1,001 ways in which to change my manuscript to conform my story to the historical facts. These solutions range from the very simple (change the school) to the existential (change Song Li).

a new heroine?

I could model my heroine after my own paternal grandaunt, Ta-An. She was a child of the 19th century, my grandfather’s youngest sister. Ta-An attended McTyeire’s middle school. She was the only girl in my grandfather’s generation to receive formal education.

McTyeire alumna
Eileen Chang. Image source: wikimedia

Or, I could style Song Li after Eileen Chang, born in 1920 into late-Qing elite. Her father was an aristocrat of the worst kind:

he smoked opium, kept a fawning concubine, and, when his temper flared, beat up the members of his own family, especially the women.

Chang’s mother, on the other hand, was thoroughly Westernized. She enrolled her daughter into McTyeire while her husband was in the hospital recovering from a morphine overdose.

“This was basically the only time in my life when I enjoyed the lifestyle of a Westernized young lady,” Chang wrote in her memoirs. There were lessons in art, music, and English.

Karen S. Kingbury in the Introduction to Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang 

A novel based on the life of Eileen Chang would be awesome, but that’s a story for another time. I can’t tell you yet how I’ve solved my conundrum of fact versus fiction. I’m still writing.