Lei Jieqiong MA ’31, an educator and sociologist who achieved widespread renown in the political and academic arenas, died of illness in Beijing on Jan. 9. She was 106.
“Lei Jieqiong was one of USC’s most inspiring alumnae,” said USC President C. L. Max Nikias. “A devoted teacher and an internationally renowned scholar whose academic work spanned law, sociology, demography and family dynamics, she also was extraordinarily dedicated to her country, achieving prominence as a political leader on the world stage.”
Lei was born in 1905 in the southern city of Guangzhou, China. She traveled to the United States in 1924 to study chemistry at Stanford University but, in view of events in her home country, decided that her greater contributions would be in the social sciences.
In 1926, she enrolled at USC to study under the direction of Emory S. Bogardus, a pioneer in sociological research on immigration and race/ethnicity. She was known on campus as Kit King Louis, reflecting the Cantonese pronunciation of her name rather than the Mandarin and also putting her family name last, in the Western fashion.
To earn money while doing graduate work at USC, Lei gave lessons in Cantonese. Among her students – primarily children of Chinese immigrants – was the 40-year-old American lawyer and mystery writer Erle Stanley Gardner, the creator of fictional defense attorney Perry Mason. The two became friends, and Gardner later dedicated two books to Lei, Murder Up My Sleeve (1937) and its sequel, The Case of the Backward Mule (1946).
In her work with the children of immigrants, Lei was struck by the way in which they were alienated both from their heritage and American society. Evolving out of this experience, and with the encouragement of her professors, Lei conducted a wide-ranging series of interviews with members of Los Angeles’ Chinese community. Her master’s thesis, titled “A Study of American-Born and American-Reared Chinese in Los Angeles,” documented the human effects of discrimination in early 20th-century America, as well as her hope that U.S.-educated Chinese ultimately would benefit from the “ability to interpret the oriental and occidental cultures which are now meeting across the Pacific Basin.”
Lei earned her degree from USC in 1931, then returned to China and took her first teaching job at Yenching University in Beijing, the predecessor of Peking University. She soon became recognized as one of China’s most prominent educators and was invited by the government to help develop welfare programs for women and children.
Lei became an organizer during the second Sino-Japanese War, rallying opposition to the invading Japanese. She was a founding member of the China Association for Promoting Democracy (CAPD), which was formed in Shanghai in 1945, chaired the seventh to ninth CAPD Central Committees and served as honorary president of the 10th and 11th committees. In 1956, she was elected a delegate to the National Peoples’ Congress, a China-wide legislative body for whose seventh and eighth standing committees she served as vice chair.
During her long career, Lei also held the post of vice mayor of Beijing, served as vice chair of the sixth National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference from 1983 to 1988 and was founding president of Yanjing Overseas Chinese University (established in 1984).
Although she never returned to Los Angeles, Lei maintained strong ties with her alma mater. She welcomed then-USC President Steven B. Sample to Beijing during his visit there in the 1990s, when he gave her a copy of her master’s thesis from the University Archives.
In May 2006, as the USC Board of Trustees marked its third official trip to China, Lei and Sample met again, and he presented her with the university’s International Alumna of the Century Award. The citation noted her key role in the development of the social sciences in China, her longtime advocacy for women and children and her political leadership.
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