Lou Henry Hoover Learns Mandarin

Lou Henry Hoover is seen wearing a striped dress and a hat at a Belgian Relief fair in Palo Alto, California, in 1916.

By Thomas F. Schwartz

Helen P. Downes of Yonkers, New York studied with Ch’uan Yueh-Tung in 1921 while a resident in Peking [Beijing, China]. Clipping an article from the newspaper with a picture of Lou and Mr. Ch’uan, Downer sent it to her former teacher. Ch’uan wrote a lengthy reply of thanks that Downes then forwarded to Lou on September 30, 1929, stating:

“…I thought you would be interested to see it. It is a sweet letter and one in character is so beautiful. Will you be good enough to return it to me some time?”

Ch’uan’s comments on Mrs. Hoover as a student are favorable and those about reporters less so. He wrote:

“In regard to the news contents about Mrs. Hoover in studying Chinese with me, there is a great deal of amusing misinformation, such as Mrs. Hoover could read 60,000 Chinese characters which is 12 times more than what her teacher could do. ‘Youth surpasses the old.’ It proves true in the case of Mrs. Hoover in reading Chinese. Besides, if one can read 60,000 Chinese characters he should at least live 500 years.

“In fact, when she studied with me Mrs. Hoover was a good pupil. Her kind manner and humble attitude impressed me deeply. Especially in treating my family she is to be remembered always. Up to the present her Christmas gifts in the form of home ornamentation is still on display in my house. The year after in May when the Boxer trouble arose we were compelled to separate. I remember well that the friendship which grew out between the teacher and the pupil was cemented. Ever since I learned that Mr. Hoover was elected the President of America it has been a great joy to me, and I would have paid my personal visit in giving my congratulation to them, if there were a convenient aeroplane to ride with.”

Lou responded to Helen Downes on October 17, 1929:

“So many thanks for your letter enclosing the one from [Ch’uan Yueh-Tung]! I was so glad to see the letter from him reminding me of our old correspondence. I used to buy the beautiful Chinese papers—often thru him— on which I took great pride in writing my letters back to America! And later I reached the stage where I could write to him.

How beautiful his own writing is! I think I would still recognize his chirography from that of most other Chinese. He had such a very artistic touch. 

Alas, as I look over the pages, I realize how very few of the characters still remain in my mind. I remember, and the numbers and an occasional other one. But most of them are as bad as Greek to me, and that is nothing at all!

I had a long letter from [Ch’uan Yueh-Tung] some months ago— put into English by one of his sons— not Ti Ton, the one who I know best. There was also a beautiful photograph of [Ch’uan Yueh-Tung] himself, most perfectly characteristic as to pose and background. But alas, he has grown much more stout and has aged since I knew him.  He now looks quite like the affluent mandarin instead of the very studious scholar of my day! But in either case, he would certainly be a kindly philosopher.”

Foreign languages are a very perishable skill if not used on a regular basis as Lou admitted. But her appreciation for the artistry in writing characters remained unchanged. Her time in China and immersion into its culture remained a treasured memory for Lou.

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