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When East Met West

“College life is something new to me,” wrote a Yale freshman to a mentor of his in 1850. “Things are conducted so regularly, & the duties so occupied all this time that it seems best calculated to make a practical man … There is also great excitement among the students themselves. I mean mental excitement. Old Yale is surrounded with an atmosphere of ambition.”

The writer was Yung Wing, who in 1854 would become the first Chinese student to graduate from a U.S. university. He enjoyed Yale, he told his mentor, Samuel Wells Williams (a missionary scholar in China and, later, Yale’s first professor of Chinese language and literature). Yung Wing liked Yale so much, in fact, that years afterward he became the head of a Chinese government organization dedicated to bringing young Chinese to the United States for a Western education. Although short-lived, it was a significant precursor of Yale’s subsequent partnerships with China.


Mun Yew Chung became more successful in the Old Blue tradition than many who were born to it.

Yung Wing’s own path to Yale was opened by the many Yale-educated missionaries, teachers, and doctors who began working in China in the 1830s. In 1841, at 13, he joined China’s first English school, founded in the Portuguese colony of Macao by Samuel Robbins Brown '32. When Brown went back home in 1846, he took Yung Wing and two other students with him to finish their education in the United States. The young men enrolled in the Monson Academy in Massachusetts (whose director, Charles Hammond '39, was another Yale alumnus). One of them took ill and returned home, and one eventually enrolled in the University of Edinburgh. Yung Wing came to Yale, where, among other activities, he rowed on the Thulia Boat Club, a winning Yale crew in the years before organized intercollegiate rowing.

After graduation, Yung Wing returned to China, where he worked for ten years in the tea and silk business before entering government service. In February 1872 he wrote Yale president Noah Porter that the Chinese government “had determined upon the plan of sending some of its native youths to the United States to be thoroughly educated for the Chinese public service.”

Yung Wing established the Chinese Educational Mission in Hartford, Connecticut (where he became a lifelong friend of Mark Twain). The mission brought 30 students to the United States every year, with the goal of providing them with 15 years of American education. The first group began U.S. preparatory schooling in 1872. In the fall of 1874, several of them entered Yale. In all, 21 Chinese Educational Mission students attended Yale.

Mun Yew Chung '83 was the best known at Yale. He had maintained his Chinese clothes and hairstyle as a student at Hartford Public High School, but once in college, he adopted Western styles—and became more successful in the Old Blue tradition than many who were born to it. He joined the popular fraternity Delta Kappa Epsilon and was coxswain of the winning crews of 1880 and 1881. Several stories have been told about his crew exploits, including one published in the Hartford Courant in 1912: “Famous in Yale annals as the coxswain of the Yale shell which distanced Harvard in the race of 1880, Chung was a favorite among his classmates. He was a bright student who never lost his temper and who was never known to swear, except on one occasion. That was during the race with Harvard in 1880. Toward the finish, the little coxswain broke out with 'Damn it boys, pull!': The boys did and Yale won the race.”

But the Chinese Educational Mission was extinguished by larger political currents. Politics in China were in flux. Moreover, xenophobia was growing in the U.S. West, where immigrant Chinese laborers were being attacked and vilified as a “Yellow Peril.” Yung Wing had to stop bringing groups to America in 1875. In all, the mission succeeded in bringing only 120 students to the United States.

When Yung Wing’s program was terminated, the students he had already established in America were at first allowed to stay on. But in 1881 they were called home; only a few were able to stay at Yale. Relations between the two countries had deteriorated so drastically by then that those who did return became virtual prisoners in Shanghai. One of the Yale returnees, Yan Phou Lee, managed to escape from China in 1883 and re-enroll at Yale as a sophomore in the class of 1887. (A distinguished student, he received prizes in English composition and declamation, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and attended graduate school at Yale for one year.)

Over time, the hostility that had greeted the Chinese Educational Mission students in China gradually disappeared. Many eventually distinguished themselves in government, science, business, and industry. In 1912, Mun Yew Chung became the first ambassador to the United States from the Republic of China. Chung had been recalled to China at the end of his sophomore year, but at his twentieth reunion, he finally received his Yale B.A.

Yung Wing, too, earned a special degree from Yale. At the 1876 commencement ceremony—Yale’s centennial commencement—the freshman who had been so taken with Yale’s atmosphere of ambition received an honorary Doctorate of Laws.  the end


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