On a cool spring day in 1939, two aviatrixes could be seen poring over their maps on an airfield in New York. Both were impeccably turned out, one in tailored slacks and a smart coat, the other, dashing in her fur-collared bomber jacket and silk scarf. In front of them was parked a small airplane, the Spirit of New China, freshly painted with a coat of red.
The women were Li Xiaqing and Hilda Yan Yaqing, and they were about to fly across the United States in a publicity stunt to raise money for China’s wartime efforts. Both were women from illustrious families who had married well, bore their husbands heirs and spares, and finally, fed up with being a supporting player in somebody else’s life, said goodbye to all that and bolted.
Hilda came from a distinguished, Episcopalian family. Her Yale-educated father was one of the pioneers of public health in China and the founder of Shanghai’s Fudan university. Like many well-born girls of her era and since, Hilda’s parents ensured that their daughter had the best education, even sending her to university in the United States.
Back in Shanghai, Hilda soon tired of attending yet another Chinese Women’s Club luncheon. When her uncle, then China’s ambassador to the USSR, told her he needed a hostess in the Chinese embassy in Moscow, she jumped at the opportunity. Before long, she struck out on her own, giving a forceful speech on women’s rights at the League of Nations (much like another ambitious woman would in China fifty years later.)
Xiaqing’s family was not quite as well-behaved as Hilda’s. Her grandmother was a revolutionary who helped plot the downfall of the Qing dynasty (and by implication her father-in-law, who was a high-ranking government official–though he never found out about his daughter-in-law’s activities). Although Xiaqing’s father sent his daughter to the best schools, she gave up her formal schooling at fourteen to become an actress.
Fittingly, her most famous movie role was that of Hua Mulan. While shooting in the wilds of Central China, Xiaqing managed to perform a real-life feat of heroism when she single-handedly, and on horseback, took out two thieves who were attempting to escape with the movie’s production monies.
Xiaqing trained to be a topnotch pilot at the Boeing aviation academy in Oakland, California. One story from her training days has it that while in the midst of a barrel roll, her seat belt gave way and she fell right out of the plane. Despite never having used a parachute before, she kept her wits about her and as a result, saved herself.
After witnessing Xiaqing’s prowess at an air show in Shanghai, Hilda introduced herself and the two women bonded over their shared rebellious streak and an almost religious zeal to do something for China. Inspired by Xiaqing, Hilda obtained her pilot’s license too. And that’s how the two women ended up on that tarmac in 1939.1
Unsurprisingly, their American tour turned out to be a huge success. With their genius for public relations, Hilda and Xiaqing raised considerable sums of money for their homeland. The aviatrixes who rejected filial piety because of the narrow role it allowed women ended up embracing it by taking on the roles it had allowed men.
Also, we should all try to dress better for air travel.