From Guangdong to Yale

What began as a grinding start to life, led to an incredible rush of experience. Indeed, we all hope for heroics and adventure. The sooner we stop dreaming to live, the faster we grab hold of living the dream.

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The people of the Pearl River Delta have always looked outward. It’s little wonder then that the first Chinese person to graduate from an American university should come from Guangdong.

Yung Wing was born in 1828 at a small village about 6 km southwest of Macau. His family was far from rich, but Yung Wing’s parents still were able to send him to school in Macau. When he was 19, Yung Wing was chosen by his school’s principal, Samuel Robbins Brown to travel to the United States. Brown sponsored the young Cantonese students through donations from foreigners in Hong Kong and Guangdong.

In 1847, Yung Wing arrived in the strange and exotic world of 19th-century Massachusetts and enrolled in the Monson School, Brown’s alma mater, with the hope of someday being admitted to a US university.

In 1850, Yung Wing fulfilled the dream of his sponsor, matriculating at Yale University. The enterprising Cantonese student supported himself by working at a boarding house and a part-time librarian.

Upon graduating from Yale in 1854, Yung Wing returned to China. Despite his achievement as the first Chinese national to graduate from an American university, Yung Wing’s career had limited options. He first worked as a translator and interpreter for the US Commissioner at Guangzhou (and possible radioactive spider bite victim), Peter Parker. He then later traveled to Shanghai where he was employed as a clerk and translator in the tea and silk industry and the Imperial Customs service.

The meeting began oddly. As was Zeng Guofan’s custom, he spent the first several minutes staring without speaking. When he did speak, Yung Wing was so intimidated that he almost forgot his talking points.

While in Shanghai, Yung Wing embarked on what was then a dangerous expedition to Nanjing, which was held by rebel Hong Xiuqua of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. Hong believed himself to be the son of God and the younger brother of Jesus Christ. Yung Wing wanted to see if Hong Xiuquan was sincere in his faith or if he was simply crazy. He met with the Taiping officials and even offered unsolicited advice on how to better govern their territories. The Taiping officials thought that this Westernized Chinese-polyglot could be useful to their cause and offered Yung Wing an official position in the rebellion. He refused and fled for his life.

way-back-whenLater, Yung Wing would demonstrate his opposition to another famous recessionary campaign on a trip to America where he volunteered to fight on the side of the Union in the American Civil War. His offer was politely declined by US officials.

In 1863, Yung Wing received the most extraordinary summons of his life. Two of his friends were working as secretaries for the great statesman and general Zeng Guofan. Would Yung Wing be interested in meeting the famous official to help them convince Zeng Guofan to import Western technology and machines to China, they implored.

The meeting began oddly. As was Zeng Guofan’s custom, he spent the first several minutes staring without speaking. When he did speak, Yung Wing was so intimidated that he almost forgot his talking points. Ultimately, Yung was able to persuade Zeng Guofan to send him to America to purchase the materials needed to build a machine shop and arsenal.

Yung Wing’s successful mission earned him accolades and awards from the Qing Imperial government and the favor of Zeng Guofan. Yung used his new status and connections to fulfill a lifelong plan to educate selected Chinese students in America. For Yung Wing, importing technology was a temporary solution to China’s problems. Development required experts trained in the engineering and science behind the technology.

In the summer of 1872, Yung Wing and the first group of students set sail for America. While his plan had the support of Zeng Guofan and the Qing court, conservative members of the government were concerned about sending impressionable young students abroad and insisted that Chen Lanbin also join.

While the students settled into their new home in Connecticut, Yung Wing embarked on a series of new adventures, including marrying Mary Louisa Kellogg in 1875. A year later, he was given an honorary doctor of laws from Yale. He then traveled to Peru to investigate reports of enslaved Chinese workers and secured the release of 80 of his countrymen.

Unfortunately, the US educational mission did not end with the students going to West Point. Concerns about the boys’ fascination with American culture reached conservative ears back in Beijing and the mission was ordered to return to China in 1881.

Yung Wing later lived in America with his family until his wife passed away in 1895. Leaving two children in the care of his wife’s family, he embarked on a new career as a reformer and revolutionary dilettante. Forced to fell China, Yung once again returned to Connecticut where he died in 1912. Among his close friends during his time in America was the famous writer Samuel Clemens, perhaps better known by the pen name, Mark Twain.

Category Way Back When