The Chinese Mission of 1872 — Education of Chinese Boys

An Interesting Story Told by Eugene C. Gardner of his Home Pupils, High-Bred Youth, a Generation Ago.
(A Paper Read by Mr. Gardner Before a Literary Club of This City.)
–from the Springfield Republican, 25 March 1906

In the year 1847, three small boys from the antipodes were brought from Canton, China by Rev. S. R. Brown, a missionary employed by the Morrison education society. They lived in Monson, in this state, and attended school there for a few years, like babes of grace thriving apace, and grafting occidental knowledge upon oriental stock. One of them went back to China and acquired much wealth, one died and went to his reward. The third, Dr. Yung Wing, still living in Hartford, went to Yale college, graduated in 1854 and returned to China in 1855. His American friends wished him to become a Christian missionary. He thought he could promote the welfare of his countrymen more successfully by what might be called laying the foundations before building the superstructure. While in China, he engaged in business and undertook various public services by which means he became a mandarin of high rank, meantime continuing his efforts to carry out a plan for introducing Western ideas into China. At last he was able to render a specially important service to the government and ultimately to obtain the support of certain eminent Chinese officials for his educational scheme, which was successfully inaugurated in 1872, just one quarter of a century after his arrival in America.

In brief, his plan was that 120 Chinese boys, between the ages of 11 and 14, after certain preliminary training at Shanghai and competitive examinations, should be sent to the United States in four yearly detachments of 30 each. They were expected to remain 15 years, and their entire support was assumed by the Chinese government. They were to be instructed in the English language and in all that belongs to Western or, rather, American civilization, in order that they might go back to China equipped for the best service in mechanical, literary, social and political affairs.

That the oldest great nation on earth, the most self-contained and conservative which for 3000 or 4000 years had maintained its institutions without desiring extensive intercourse with other nations, that this vast people with all its old traditions and long-established customs, should deliberately crack its own shell from the inside and send these chosen youths to the youngest, the most progressive, the most enterprising and record-breaking of all modern people, for the express purpose of kindling in their own old, old country the spirit of the new, appears to me one of the most remarkable events of modern times, or perhaps I should say a striking demonstration of that ever increasing purpose which runs through the ages. Rev. Joseph H. Sawyer of Easthampton, in a letter to the New York Independent 10 years ago, quotes with approval this statement, “The Chinese educational mission was altogether one of the most remarkable and significant institutions of the age on the face of the whole earth.”

They were exceedingly small and apparently feeble instruments as they appeared in the Haynes hotel in 1872, with their dark anxious little faces, their alert, half-frightened eyes, the long glistening queue, thick-soled white shoes and quilted silk garments, which gave us no clue as to age, sex or rank. When two of the smallest of them were taken to my house, I almost felt that we had brought home a couple of innocent, helpless, wild animals of the woods, who could express neither their wishes nor sentiments, and ought to be sent home to their mothers. It was not long, however, before we discovered that each of those little men was animated by a spirit in nowise inferior to the brightest of the pale faces among whom they had come to live.

Although they had received no English education, their training and competitive examinations at Shanghai relating chiefly to physical, mental and moral excellence, they acquired our language rapidly and after a year or two were in public or private schools.

In 1878, six years after the arrival of the first detachment, Yung Wing, who was the first commissioner, was appointed associate minister from China to the United States. This required his presence in Washington, and another commissioner was sent in 1879. About a year later a second change brought Woo Tse Tun, who was supposed to be chiefly responsible for the recall of the students in 1881, at which time many of them were in high schools preparing for college. That, for a time, appeared to be the end of the attempt to carry Western education to China in Chinese receptacles. Those who were personally interested in the students were anxious, lest the conservatism that recalled them should think it necessary to prevent further disastrous effects by extinguishing the smoking flax completely. This anxiety was probably an evidence of our ignorance and unfounded distrust, for, instead of suffering for their American experiences, they were all well treated on their return and some of them have been highly honored.

Various reasons were assigned for this peremptory recall. In the letter referred to above, Mr. Sawyer says, “We may accord to Commissioner Woo a measure of honest prejudice. He had been opposed to the educational mission from the first and now thought he saw the realization of his forebodings. He expressed great surprise and displeasure because the government students had adopted American customs and especially because they were wearing American shoes. His Chinese sense of propriety was outraged by the freedom with which young men mingled in society with young women of their own age, but most of all did he discover that these pupils were becoming Christians.”

It seems a bit condescending in Mr. Sawyer to accord Commissioner Woo of a “measure of honest prejudice.” — why shouldn’t Mr. Woo be as honest in his prejudice as Mr. Sawyer? — but it is not easy to discriminate accurately between principles and prejudices. It commonly depends upon who owns them. Considering his age and dignity, it was not to be expected that the Commissioner should welcome a complete overturning of his own lifelong “principles.” He could not have been greatly “surprised” that the students adopted American customs while in America and, as they were not expected to bind their feet like their misguided sisters, he would not be likely to object to American shoes, which as everybody knows are the best in the world. Probably the somewhat free and easy relations existing between American boys and girls would seem to him unwise, but in conventional matters he would undoubtedly recommend doing in Rome as the Romans do.

In my opinion, the root of the difficulty lay in the fact that some of them had been led, not urged, but led, kindly and with the best possible intentions, to accept the sectarian dogmas of Christian theology; that they wished to unite with the church at Easthampton and contemplated forming a society for the modest purpose of converting their own country to a religious cult unknown to a few hundred million of their people, and generally disapproved by the most cultured classes, and that this ambition on the part of these government students, should, apparently, be the most conspicuous outcome of the mission.

The surprising thing was that they should have been sent to this country at all, not that they were sent home; and mark this, when we remember the radical changes that have taken place in Protestant creeds during the last 30 years, that is, since those first students came to America, one may venture to inquire whether the logical and matter-of-fact Chinese educator was not building better than we knew when he objected to planting in the conservative soil of the Celestial Empire the theological dogmas of Puritan New England, which we, who received them by inheritance, are gradually consigning to “innocuous desuetude.” It might have been more difficult there to uproot the troublesome growth and substitute something better, then it has been here.

At all events, that recall appeared to be the end of the mission.

A letter written last February by a former pupil informs us that of the 120, 79 are still living in China. To trace the careers of all these first students would be interesting but practically impossible. The four (the two referred to above came one year, two more the next) who were with us, probably represent a fair average of the whole. One of them, who remained in our family less than a year, achieved no special success that could be ascribed to his American experience. After his return to China he worked as a clerk, interpreter and teacher in English. Two years ago one of the students, who came to this country, brought us a very kind letter from him, and also the news of his death.

Another, soon after his return to China sent us the cheerful announcement that he was “engaged to be married with his own consent,” and later we heard that he was connected with a large cotton firm at Shanghai. Subsequently he went into the interior and is reported to have acquired large wealth and influence. The third, inclining to politics, has filled government positions of steadily increasing importance, is now of high rank, passing by constant advancement from the consulship at Korea 12 or 15 years ago to the position of second secretary and acting head of the office of foreign affairs, a position at the present time of the utmost importance. The fourth of our boys was associated with his cousin in official duties at Korea, later at Tientsin, and is now manager of the imperial railways of North China.

The present minister to this country Sir Chentung Liang Cheng (Huang Zhongliang  黄仲良), who has gained the confidence and esteem of our government to a remarkable degree, and is cordially admired by those who are so fortunate as to have the privilege of his personal acquaintance, was one of these first students; Chung Mun Yew (Zhong Wen Yao 钟文耀), formerly charge d’affaires at Madrid, more recently consul-general at the Philippine Islands, but now occupying a higher position in Tientsin, is another; also the vice-commissioner at the St. Louis exposition, Wong Kai Kah (Huang Kaijia  黄开甲), who escorted the prince to this country last spring. The latter, whose untimely death in the prime of his usefulness and activity occurred a short time ago in Japan, was a man of rare ability and devoted to public affairs.

Another of these students, Liu Lum Fay (Lin Lianhui  林联辉), whose first home was in Enfield, and who afterward went to Phillips academy, on his return to China founded the government medical college and hospital at Tientsin, which has turned out hundreds of surgeons and doctors to serve the army and navy and others needing their care. This institution, which in 1900 he defended at the cost of his own life, is a standing monument of the value of his work for mankind.

Evidently the recall of the students while they were wearing American shoes, possibly flirting with American girls, and in imminent danger of joining the Orthodox Evangelical church at Easthampton, did not prevent their rendering distinguished service to their native land.

If China, with its uncounted millions of people, vast material resources, and high intellectual development, is to mingle with the rest of the world, these boys will doubtless prove more effective keys in unlocking the doors which will give to our great Republic peaceful and mutually benefit intercourse with their country, then many armies and battleships. Nuke

It seems quite in accord with what we know of Chinese character and methods, that, being convinced of the worth of certain elements in Western civilization, they should prefer to send their envoys and train their home missionaries from among their own people.

In that way, these will be able to give those same ideas the Oriental form and flavor, without which they will not be fully understood and therefore not entirely welcome. Not foreign traders, nor warriors, nor even those who go in the name of the Gospel of Peace, could do the work as well. It is especially impressive that China, instead of coming to fight or to trade, is in search of modern liberal scientific education; a search which in the name of human progress the world over, it is to be hoped will be promoted until we know China and China knows us, as well as France and America know each other; for, given a foundation of clear moral perception and sense of justice, intimate acquaintance begets mutual respect.

When we remember that the serious teaching of the most highly honored of all American institutions, the public schools, encouraged the last generation to believe that the chief occupation of the people of China was “selling rats and puppies for pies,” and that their religion consisted mainly in thumping their heads on the ground before “wooden-stone” idols, it must be admitted that an ignorance of foreign countries half a century ago was not confined to Asia.

To us, who are brought up on the Puritanical virtues of New England, agreeably flavored and ameliorated by the Republican, revised and corrected by Webster’s dictionary, and safely guarded by the guns of the arsenal at Springfield, it seems peculiarly wise on the part of Yung Wing that the seeds of his educational mission were planted in private American homes, either in small cities or in the country; that out of all Western nations he should have chosen the United States, and of the United States this portion of the valley of the Connecticut.

By that means it was possible for these first students to enter into the real heart and soul of America. In a recent letter from one of our former students, he speaks with especial appreciation and gratitude of his home life in America and of the extent to which it has affected his own. The same sentiment has been expressed by the present minister concerning the boys who are now here. A knowledge of books is valuable, but what they seem to prize most highly is the acquisition and assimilation of the American spirit.

Another impressive circumstance is the sense of the greater nearness to that vast empire which comes from the fact that these involuntary ambassadors are children, of whom is the kingdom of home and the kingdom of Heaven. Leaving off the cynical part of the old proverb, children are apt to speak the truth, and the real China is brought nearer by these frank, enthusiastic and truthful boys than by the older diplomats who have learned the arts of subterfuge and concealment.


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