Ruth Weiss, reporter of the Voice of China, an English magazine in Shanghai, talks with Lu Xun, one of China’s greatest writers, poets and critics, and the leading figure in modern Chinese literature, at the second National Woodcut Exhibition held at Baxianqiao (八仙桥) Youth League in Shanghai on October 8, 1936. Photo: Sha Fei
In an article on a national woodcut exhibition published in the Guangzhou Republic Daily(《广州民国日报》) on November 28, 1936, author Sha Fei(沙飞), a famous Chinese journalist and photographer in the 1930s and 1940s, wrote, “(At the woodcut exhibition) there came two western men and a woman. The two men left soon as they did not know the Chinese characters, which made us feel a little regretful because the organizers should have translated it into English. However, the woman looked very carefully at each piece of the wood-cuts and kept notes on the catalogue. Later we got to know that she was a reporter from the Voice of China (《中国呼声》) and could understand and speak Chinese. She wanted us to communicate with her, which made us extremely happy.”
The female reporter was Ruth Weiss, later known in China as a journalist who witnessed the Chinese communist revolution and the birth of the People’s Republic of China. Weiss was born into a Jewish family in Austria on December 11, 1908. And the Voice of China, an English magazine that she was working for then, was founded by foreigners in Shanghai in 1936, before the Chinese Anti-Japanese War (1937-1945).
“The next day the female reporter came with two western men to pick a piece of woodcut,” Sha Fei wrote in the article, “It seemed that she had known Lu Xun （1881-1936）already as they shook hands very affectionately on seeing each other, and then sat down to talk. I had a kind of anxious feeling then, so I moved close to them and secretly took the photo. You know it was a rare opportunity.”
Ruth Weiss first traveled to Shanghai in 1933 at the age of 25 for what was planned as a six-month study trip, after completing her education with a PhD degree from Vienna University in 1932.
It is said that during her stay in Shanghai, she met Soong Ching Ling (1893-1981), widow of Sun Yat-sen (1870-1925), founding father of the Republic of China (1912-1949). She learned about China and identified with young Chinese students' revolutionary ideas during her time in Shanghai in the 1930s.
In 1936 when Japan started to invade China, Weiss went to Chengdu in west China’s Sichuan province. There she taught English in Huaxi University and the Medical School of the Central University and worked for a local paper, New Express. And when she found out that her parents had been killed by the Nazis in Germany around 1939, she decided to make China her home.
In 1943, Weiss went to Chongqing. During this period, she met Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of the People's Republic of China, and Zhou’s wife Deng Yingchao. Apart from her translation work, she managed to provide shelter to a number of Chinese Communists in danger in her own home. Meanwhile, she helped Soong Ching Ling to rebuild the China Defense League which was to publicize the Chinese struggle against the Japanese aggression and to collect donations for the cause.
After the Anti-Japanese War, Weiss returned to Shanghai to work for the China Welfare Fund established by Soong aimed at protecting the welfare of women and children, and became a correspondent at the United Nations Picture News Office in 1945. One year later she took up a post at the Radio Division of the United Nations Organization in New York.
In 1951, Weiss was invited to return to China as an English specialist at the Beijing International Information Bureau. And she returned to Beijing in the same year, with her two sons.
"My father did not want to return to China and stayed in the US. She tried to convince him to join her in China but to no avail, and they divorced in, I believe, 1954," said Weiss' elder son.
Unlike many foreigners who have contributed to China’s revolution, Ruth Weiss was one of about one hundred foreign-born residents to receive Chinese citizenship in 1955. In 1983 she was also named among 11 of foreign experts nominated by the Communist Party of China for the membership to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.
In the year 1985, Weiss published the book Lu Xun, a writer of All Times. In the book Weiss tried to present her understanding of the writings of her friend Lu Xun from a quite different cultural perspective. Weiss’s study of Lu Xun’s works was not done based on the original Chinese writings but mainly from the four-volume English translation by the husband-and-wife team, Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang.
As for her personal life which is little known to the outside world, one of her friends, Isabel Crook, a Canadian teaching at the Beijing Foreign Studies University, recalled, "Ruth was the only one of my friends who had a piano in those days, and it was a delight to hear her play." Weiss learned piano at the age of 4 and held a lifelong passion for classical music.
Ruth Weiss died in Beijing on March 6, 2006 at the age of 97. As a life-long friend of Soong, her ashes were buried beside the tomb of Soong Ching-ling in Shanghai.