Tierong “Sophie” Zhu

Tierong “Sophie” Zhu

“The magnitude of Sophie's impact on our community is not quantifiable. Her dedication to scores of Yale-China Teaching Fellows over the years is an example of how person-to-person, grassroots contact between Chinese and American people can change lives.”


Friend and mentor

Dear Friends,

It is with great sadness that the Yale-China Association announces the death of Tierong "Sophie" Zhu, close friend and mentor to generations of Yale-China Association Teachers in Hunan province and an alumna of Yale University (M.A. Sociology '48). Ms. Zhu passed away in Changsha on August 9, 2009 at the age of 94.

I was eager to meet Sophie Zhu. Stories about her dedication to Yale, dedication to Xiangya, and dedication to human relations were tremendous testaments to the kind of people that make up our precious and unique Yale-China community. These stories were in large part the main reason I joined Yale-China in my new capacity as Executive Director.

The magnitude of Sophie's impact on our community is not quantifiable. Her dedication to scores of Yale-China Bachelors and ELIs over the years is an example of how person-to-person, grassroots contact between Chinese and American people can change lives.

We have extended our condolences to Zhang Taiheng, Sophie Zhu's son, Sun Xinhua, daughter-in-law, and Zhang Yingfan, grandson. To learn more about Sophie's life and the numerous contributions she made to Yale-China, please click here.

If you would like to share additional memories of Sophie Zhu, please send your thoughts and photos to yalechinastories@yale.edu. We will also direct Sophie's family to the website to read more about a woman who reached beyond her own immediate world with strength, purpose, and beauty.

Sincere regards,
Nancy Yao Maasbach
Executive Director

Memories of Sophie Zhu

Sophie Zhu was a woman of great dignity and presence. It was clear the first time I met her that she was a force with which to be reckoned. David Youtz escorted me to her apartment and asked for her approval of my (newly awarded) Chinese name (温养安). There was a long silence. Teacher Zhu looked at me, quite sternly, and said, "Who gave you this name?" "I did," said David, in a small voice. Another long silence. Then, finally, "It's a good name," and a collective sigh of relief.

I treasure my Chinese name, because Teacher Zhu made its value so clear to me. I treasure my brief times with her, because she was so clearly a woman of kindness, substance and wisdom. I cannot imagine the tragedies that marked her life in the tumultuous times through which she lived. I can only stand in awe of the courage with which she lived and be grateful for the opportunity to have known her.

—Ann Williams
Former Acting Executive Director, Yale-China Association

Teacher Zhu became my friend the moment I arrived in Changsha (Fall of 1983) and stood by with stories, advice, guidance and invitations until the day I departed. While some of her advice concerned professional matters of English class conduct and content, what I recall best is her cultural and personal advice. For example, at the end of my two-year residence in Changsha, I felt overwhelmed by the details of final classes, packing and future plans. Teacher Zhu must have seen this and knew just what to do. She took me aside. She gently and clearly explained the importance of calling upon each of my teachers, colleagues and friends to say good-bye, and suggested that I consider bringing small tokens as well. My immediate reaction was to feel sheepish that, after two full years of study, I did not learn this simple lesson well enough to act upon it without Teacher Zhu’s help. My long-term reaction has been a lifelong sense of indebtedness to Teacher Zhu. Instead of becoming frustrated with me or letting me flounder, Teacher Zhu, the tireless educator, cued me at a critical moment.

It is no coincidence that this strong memory is connected with personal relations. Teacher Zhu prided herself on the network of old friends she built and maintained. She enjoyed telling stories about them, both from when they knew one another in person and from their later lives. How did she keep current on this network of friends? Without the benefit of Facebook or email, she wrote letters by hand! Indeed, many I received also had hand-drawn illustrations! In her letters, she chatted about her piano, her drawing, her health, her American friends and always, her family.

Teacher Zhu valued family above all. She loved to tell stories of her grandson—a primary schoolboy when I knew her. When we visited her home, she showed photos of him if he was not present, or asked him to perform on the piano if he was. So naturally, when my own parents visited me in Changsha, who reached out to them with a dinner invitation? Teacher Zhu.

Teacher Zhu was a multicultural person in her own unique way. She was acutely aware of her own country’s politics. Although I only dimly knew her difficult past, I did know that she chose her words carefully. For instance, my fellow “Bachelors” told the story of Teacher Zhu’s concern with the lyrics of the folk song “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” While she loved music and used it in her teaching, politics demanded sacrifices. She altered the words “life is but a dream,” fearing that they could be interpreted as politically incorrect. Instead, she taught “life is interesting.” I always had the sense that, for her, life was interesting because she was always on guard. At the same time, she understood American culture. She helped us navigate our early days in her town, explained Chinese customs and English department procedures. With her and her warm memories of our shared alma mater, I felt trust and comfort. With me, she gossiped about her American friends. Part of her was being sensitive to our shared loyalty to Yale-China and my American background. Another part of her was being sensible, doing what was safe in her Chinese milieu. And while she took pleasure in sharing stories of her American friends, she considered stories about our mutual Chinese acquaintances or her local friends unwise.

Dear Teacher Zhu, despite its hardships, your zest for life and its hobbies, and your sound advice on the niceties of personal relations, all live on. Even though we have not met since 1985, you set a grand example for me every day.

—Jan Kleinman
Former Bachelor
Hunan Medical University, 1983-1985

During the five years I served as the Yale-China Hong Kong Director (1991-96), I was a frequent visitor to Changsha and the Hunan Medical University. No visit was complete without stopping in to see Sophie Zhu in her apartment. She became a special friend, as she was to so many people in the Yale-China family over the years. I came to look forward to hearing her stories from the past and her thoughts on the current Yale teachers she had taken under her wing (and how they were measuring up), as well as catching up on her family, health and latest watercolor paintings. Near the end of my term with Yale-China in 1995, when my wife and I adopted our first daughter from a Chinese orphanage (whom we named Sophie), it seemed inevitable that we should go to Sophie Zhu—the closest person we had to a Chinese family matriarch—to receive a perfect Chinese name. I requested that she should have my Chinese surname You (you yong de you). Sophie Zhu mused for a week or two and then sent me her suggestion that she be named "You Ming Xia," the last characters meaning "bright" and "rosy cloud." We liked the character Ming, as that dynasty represents a highpoint of Chinese culture, and the character also reflects our sense that this new precious daughter was the sun and the moon to us... And I was delighted to learn that there is a specific Chinese character for a rosy (sunset or sunrise) cloud. If you knew my daughter Sophie, you would know how perfect "Bright Rosy Cloud" is as a name for her to this day.

Through several moves across the Pacific and back, I have kept up correspondence with Sophie Zhu and I was always charmed and honored when one of her paintings would accompany a letter. A few months ago, I sent her a letter with our family news and a photograph of my Sophie, now 14 years old. I didn't hear back for several months. Then I received a note from her son, mentioning her health challenges, and saying that she had read and reread my letter quite a few times over several days until she was satisfied that she had understood everything and recognized that this young woman in the picture was that same "You Ming Xia" that she had christened 13 years ago. My family will miss the legendary Sophie Zhu in our hearts.

—David Youtz
Chief Executive Officer, Mother's Choice
Former Yale-China Field Staff Director, Hong Kong

Susan and I first met Sophie Zhu in 1992 when we were in Changsha for three months. Then, for a decade afterwards, a visit was mandatory when traveling in China. Tea and visits with Sophie became a weekly event, along with other Yale-China folks who kept her informed, talkative, and generously kind. We exchanged letters on occasion and kept in touch through Bill Watkins, Mark Sheldon, and the ELIs [Teaching Fellows]. Sophie was a presence – we all felt her warmth and spirit, both when together and over large distances.

—Dick Lee
Professor of Medicine, Pediatrics, Obstetrics and Anthropology,
State University of New York, Buffalo
Trustee Emeritus

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