Yung Wing (1828 – 1912)

Yung Wing

Yung Wing was born in southern China to a poor farming family. At age seven, Yung’s father sent him to a missionary school four miles away in hopes that he would learn English and have a better chance of being successful.

At the age of 13, Yung entered Morrison School, which was headed by schoolmaster Reverend S.R. Brown from Connecticut. When Reverend Brown left China in 1847 to return to America, he brought Yung with him and enrolled him in Monson Academy in Massachusetts. He graduated from Monson Academy in 1850 and was accepted into Yale. In 1854, Yung received his Bachelor of Arts degree becoming the first Chinese student to graduate from an American university.

In 1855, Yung returned to China only to find that he could not secure a job because he lacked a degree from a Chinese institution, which was essential to enter the Chinese civil service. Finally, in 1863, Yung found employment in the service of the powerful Viceroy Tseng Kuo-Fan.

In 1868, the Burlingame Treaty was signed between the United States and China, which reestablished friendly relations between the two countries. Article VII of the treaty stated: “Chinese subjects shall enjoy all the privileges of the public educational institutions under the control of the government of the United States.” Yung wrote an educational plan for Chinese students to be educated in the United States, and Viceroies Tseng Kuo-Fan and Li Hung-Chang formally proposed this plan in a memorandum submitted to the Chinese court dated August 18, 1871. The concept of the plan was as follows:

A detachment of thirty students should be sent every year for a consecutive four year period. The total number will be 120. Each student shall study for fifteen years and then come back to China. Their age upon return should be no more than thirty years old, the best time to serve their homeland.

The plan was approved and in 1872 the first group of Chinese students sent over by China to be educated arrived in Hartford, Connecticut. Chen Lan-Pin was appointed Commissioner of the Chinese Educational Commission. Chen was a conservative Confucian and did not speak English. Yung Wing was appointed Deputy Commissioner. Between 1872 and 1875, 120 students were sent to the Chinese Educational Mission for schooling. The average age of the students was 12 years old.

Between 1872 and 1881, the Chinese students became more and more Americanized. They considered their traditional Chinese academics to be burdensome, they began to wear the hairstyles and fashions worn by their American counterparts, some became believers in the Christian faith, and Yung Wing in 1875 marries an American – Mary Kellogg. These and other incidents resulted in the Chinese government closing down the Chinese Educational Commission in 1881 and calling all of the students back to China.

While the Chinese Educational Commission closed sooner than anticipated, the program is credited with providing China with her first generation of railroad builders, engineers, medical doctors, diplomats, college presidents, and naval admirals. Not only was Yung Wing instrumental in establishing the Chinese Educational Commission and successfully running the program as Deputy Commissioner for nine years, but he was also integral in bringing Chinese studies to Yale and reestablishing Chinese-American relations following the close of the school.

While in the United States, he became a naturalized citizen and had two children with his wife. In 1878, he became a diplomatic envoy to the U.S.  Yung was a long-time supporter of Chinese reform, following in the footsteps of the Guangxu Emperor. But with the coup by the Empress Dowager CiXi in 1898, Yung had to flee for his life. Friends helped him return to the United States and settle in Hartford where he died in 1912.

The legacy of Yung Wing’s contributions live on in both America and China.

Kao, Timothy. Yung Wing (1828 – 1912) and Young Chinese Students in America (1872 – 1881).  Accessed at on August 11, 2010.
Wing, Yung. My Life in China and America. New York: Henry Holt Company, 1909.
The Yung Wing Project. Accessed at in August 2010.

Photo Credit: Yung Wing, Public Domain, Yung Wing’s Memorial, Cedar Hill Cemetery