Diaries of a Vermonter Teaching in China

UVM History students Sarah McAtee and Rhone Allison worked with Professor Erik Esselstrom and Chris Burns, Hannah Johnson, Dorothy Dye and Erin Doyle from Special Collections to transcribe four diaries from the Henry C. Brownell Papers. In this blog post, Sarah shares some excerpts from Brownell’s diaries.

Henry Chase Brownell was born in Burlington in 1887, graduating from the University of Vermont in 1908.  Henry and his wife, Jane, also a UVM grad, moved to China in 1908, where they both taught at Lingnan University in Canton (today called Guangzhou).  Henry and Jane were prominent members of the university, with Henry rising to Head of History and Dean of Men, and Jane serving as Dean of Women.  Henry and Jane Brownell spent a total of more than thirty years in China from the mid-1910s until the early 1950s.  When it became clear that Western ideals would no longer be accepted in China by Communist leadership, the Brownells returned to Burlington where they retired.  They were one of the last families to leave South China without difficulties.

Jane Brownell in a light colored dress stands next to her husband Henry who is wearing a shirt and tiee.

Henry and Jane Brownell, late 1930s

Henry Brownell’s diaries from 1938-39 and 1949-50 share details of his family’s life, politics, social impacts, and the university under Japan’s control of China as part of the Second Sino-Japanese War and during the Chinese Communist Revolution. Entries discuss everything from specifics about a rice harvest to issues with consuls to student activism, making it a very engaging look at an American professor’s experience in China during this period.

A woman wearing a hat and a man with an umbrella stand in from of a two-story house with a tile roof.

The Brownells’ home at Lingnan University

Below are a few excerpts from Brownell’s diaries that show the broad range of topics that Henry chose to write about.  Using the Transkribus software, we were able to copy down each line of text and type it out into an easier to read format.

This image shows a portion of a handwritten diary page.1939. Brownell writes about the price of rice in different areas.  The price is lower at Lingnan than in the city, but is only available for those who are associated with the university.

This image shows a portion of a handwritten diary page.1949. Students in campus dormitories were moved into a main hall, having to sleep on the floor in many cases to be in more protected quarters as explosions went off around campus.

This image shows a portion of a handwritten diary page.October 1949. Brownell describes a mass meeting of around 900 students where speakers praised students who did not flee the country and told them that the country will need their services, especially for translation.

This image shows a portion of a handwritten diary page with a single line of text.April 1950. Some entries are as short as this one, while some go on for several pages.  In this entry, so much is wrapped up into one sentence, as Brownell reports that Hainan fell to the Communists in late April.

The Brownell diaries will be added to the UVM Libraries’ digital collection, Diaries, in the near feature.

Contributed by Sarah McAtee, Research Assistant, Department of History

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