The Stilwell family's generations of friendship with the Chinese people
By Li Nan  ·  2024-01-15  ·   Source: NO.3 JANUARY 18, 2024
Joseph Stilwell trains Chinese soldiers in Burma, now known as Myanmar, in the early 1940s (COURTESY PHOTO)

On March 4, 1942, U.S. General Joseph Stilwell (1883-1946) arrived in the southwestern Chinese city of Chongqing to help China fight against Japanese aggression, two months after Chinese regimental colonel Xu Zhaojian's survival of a bitter battle against Japanese invaders in Changsha, Hunan Province in central China. Stilwell was impressed by the bravery of Chinese soldiers in the midst of World War II. But the two army men never had the chance to meet one another.

Half a century later, however, their grandchildren, John Easterbrook and Xu Chongning, became friends thanks to the Stilwell Scholarship program initiated by two of Stilwell's daughters Nancy Stilwell Easterbrook and Alison Stilwell Cameron.

These close ties are part of a longstanding friendship between generations of the Stilwell family and China.

Nancy Stilwell Easterbrook (left) and Alison Stilwell Cameron meet with Soong Ching Ling, the wife of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, in early April 1979 (COURTESY PHOTO)

A lasting bond

Joseph Stilwell first set foot on Chinese soil in 1911 as a tourist. Over the following more than three decades, the West Point military academy graduate worked in China four times with a combined duration of more than 12 years. His fourth child, Alison, was born in Beijing in 1921.

Stilwell served as chief of staff of the Allied China Theater, commanding general of the U.S. Army Forces in the China-Burma-India Theater and the American representative to the Allied War Councils in the China-Burma-India Theater from 1942 to 1944. He was also responsible for administration of the military supplies the U.S. sent to China during the war. In those capacities, he contributed to the victory of the Chinese People's War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931-45) and the World Anti-Fascist War, known internationally as World War II.

Stilwell developed a strongly positive impression of the Chinese people. He said, "I have a faith in the Chinese people, fundamentally great, honest, frugal, industrious, cheerful, independent, tolerant, friendly and courteous."

Stilwell left China in 1944 and died of stomach cancer in 1946. His daughters, Easterbrook and Cameron, carried on their father's affection for the Chinese people and efforts to promote Chinese culture in the U.S. even when ties between the two countries were tense for a long period during the Cold War.

Two months after the People's Republic of China established diplomatic relations with the United States on January 1, 1979, the two sisters visited China and were warmly received by the Chinese People's Association for Friendship With Foreign Countries. "They were so well taken care of in China that they decided to do something to repay the kindness," Easterbrook's son John Easterbrook told Beijing Review.

In 1982, the sisters established a scholarship program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (MIIS), then known as the Monterey Institute of International Studies, in California. The program funded one Chinese student or scholar to study at the institute each year.

In the program's early stage, the two sisters raised funds by hosting Chinese New Year dinners, screening China-related films, and selling Chinese-style paintings painted by Cameron. Every spring and autumn, they took turns to lead tour groups to China and the income was used to fund the scholarship.

In her twilight years, Easterbrook bequeathed her rental property in Carmel, California, to MIIS, which sold the house upon her death in 1997 and added the money to the endowment for the Stilwell Scholarship. Since then, the program has had a stable source of funds.

After Easterbrook passed away, John Easterbrook assumed his mother's mantle and became responsible for running the Stilwell Scholarship. "I would like to call myself an overseer of the scholarship. Keeping it on track is a testimony of the legacy of my grandfather and his respect and admiration of the Chinese people," he said.

Since 2013, the number of scholarships awarded has been doubled thanks to a donation from two Monterey-based Chinese American entrepreneurs, Peter C. C. Wang and his wife, Grace Wang. To continue building the Stilwell Scholarship, John Easterbrook began fundraising efforts in China in 2017, with one particular anonymous Chinese donor adding significant funds to the project. By the end of 2023, the program had sponsored 53 Chinese students and scholars to study in the U.S., including the aforementioned Xu Chongning.

John Easterbrook and his sister Nancy Easterbrook Sherburne with bouquets presented to them by Stilwell scholars and staff at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California, the United States, on October 22, 2022 (COURTESY PHOTO)

People-to-people exchange

In the summer of 1991, Easterbrook and her two children, John and Nancy Easterbrook, visited Chongqing for the opening of the Stilwell Museum. During the trip, Easterbrook interviewed two candidates for the Stilwell Scholarship. Xu, an English teacher, stood out.

When Xu arrived at MIIS in June 1992, Easterbrook invited her to her house in Carmel and introduced her to her friends. Xu spent her first Thanksgiving with the Easterbrook family, and when she graduated from MIIS, Easterbrook attended the ceremony.

"I felt the Stilwells' passion for China, their willingness to help and generosity in helping the Chinese people, and their efforts to carry on the friendship between the people of the two countries," Xu told Beijing Review. "The experience made me a better person and inspired me to do something meaningful to help others."

Ren Peixi, a Stilwell Scholarship recipient studying translation localization management at MIIS from 2021 to 2023, echoed Xu's view. Before she left China, John Easterbrook sent her guidance on how to get started in Monterey, including how to get a SIM card and a bank account and how to rent a room. The document is edited and updated periodically by previous Stilwell scholars. "It has information about every aspect of life in Monterey. I was impressed by his thoughtfulness," Ren told Beijing Review.

Ren said the Stilwell Scholarship is unique in that it offers both financial and emotional support. Also, it connects all recipients, forming a big Stilwell scholar family, members of which help each other. Ren has kept in touch with the Stilwell family after graduation. "I feel that the Stilwell family are my relatives in the U.S.," she explained.

"We like to stay in touch with the scholars, both when they are studying in the institute and afterwards," John Easterbrook said. Building these long-term connections is one of the ways the family promotes people-to-people exchange between the two countries.

The Stilwells' goodwill continues to be remembered by the Chinese people. A commemorative event marking the 140th anniversary of Joseph Stilwell's birth took place at the Stilwell Museum in Chongqing in August 2023. The fourth and fifth generations of the Stilwell family, Susan Mai Easterbrook Cole, Nancy Easterbrook Millward and their children attended the activities. The museum is the only venue in China dedicated to a member of the American military.

In November 2023, Chinese President Xi Jinping met some old friends of China in San Francisco, California, where he was for a summit meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden and to attend the 30th Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Economic Leaders' Meeting. John Easterbrook and his two daughters were among the invitees. Following a brief talk with Xi, he said he was impressed by Xi's support for people-to-people exchange activities.

"The key to U.S.-China relations is the people of the two countries," John Easterbrook commented ahead of the 45th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the U.S. "It's important for the people to know each other's dreams and similarities," he added. 

(Reporting from California, the United States)

(Print Edition Title: A Centenary Legacy)

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson

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