The beginnings of Ginling College date back to 1912, a time when most Chinese women wanting any education beyond high school had no option but to seek that education outside of their country. Women representing eight Chinese girls' schools appealed to American mission boards for assistance in founding a women's college in the Yangtze Valley. Five of the boards, including the Board of Foreign Missions (PCUSA), responded with pledges of $10,000 for buildings and equipment and the support of a representative on the teaching staff. Three people from each board were elected to the Board of Control of Ginling College. In 1916, Smith College pledged $1,000 annually, thus developing an unofficial sister relationship to Ginling.
The Board of Control elected Matilda Thurston president of the new college in 1913, formally adopted the name Ginling College in 1914, and opened its doors to its first class in 1915. Thirteen students registered that year and were taught by four Chinese and four American faculty members.
By 1928 Ginling had 97 students, 22 faculty members, and a full administrative staff. Dr. Thurston retired from the presidency at the end of this year; Dr. Yih-Fang Wu succeeded her.
The Sino-Japanese War and World War II interrupted the course of life at Ginling. The students and faculty members, determined not to give up their work, found temporary places at other schools. Many also worked as volunteers with refugees and wounded soldiers. The Japanese took over the Ginling campus in 1942 and the administration was unable to retake it until late 1945. Rehabilitation work began immediately, and 332 students were enrolled in 1946. In 1951, Ginling College was combined with the University of Nanking to form the National Ginling University.