Favorite Son Pioneered Chinese Study-Abroad Programs

By Sean Cavanagh — April 10, 2007 5 min read
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Even the most internationally minded American high school students have probably never heard of this seaside boomtown, which lacks the historical and cultural heft of more prominent Chinese locales such as Beijing, Nanjing, and Shanghai.

But every time a teenager in the United States receives permission to study abroad in China, that fortunate Western soul would be advised to pay proper tribute to one of this city’s native sons—a cross-cultural pioneer named Yung Wing.

Yung Wing was born in Zhuhai in 1828 and educated by Christian missionaries. He is famous in China for having traveled across the Pacific as a teenager and enrolled at Yale College, which later became Yale University. He is believed to be the first Chinese student to earn a degree from a North American university—and possibly the first to earn a degree from any foreign university—a fact of which Zhuhai residents are immeasurably proud.

Few Americans are likely to have heard of Mr. Yung, but educators in China regard him as a sort of godfather of Chinese-American exchange programs. After graduating from Yale, Mr. Yung was instrumental in establishing a first-of-its-kind program to have students from his country study in the United States in the late 1800s. Those students were between 10 and 16 years old when they went abroad; when they returned to China, several emerged as influential leaders in government, business, and academia.

Today, schools in Zhuhai and surrounding areas take part in a number of international exchange programs, including a cooperative venture between this Chinese city and the Connecticut education department.

Fascination With United States

Those efforts, natives of Zhuhai will tell you, owe something to the legacy of Yung Wing.

“We’re proud of him, to have an ancestor who had such a vision to introduce Western cultures to China,” said Betty Lin, an editor at the Zhuhai Daily, a newspaper in the city that publishes in Chinese and English. “People realized how important it was to study from other cultures because of him. That was the source of Chinese programs to study abroad.”

Yung Wing’s statue sits outside the Zhuhai Yung Wing School, one of the most elite schools in the city, which Sarah Evans, Education Week’s director of photography, and I visited this week. A similar statue can be found on Yale’s campus, in New Haven, Conn. It was unveiled three years ago, during the 150th anniversary of Yung Wing’s graduation from the American institution in 1854, in a ceremony attended by numerous Zhuhai officials.

Yung Wing, who grew up in the village of Namping, just outside of Zhuhai, became fascinated by the United States as a boy after being tutored by Western missionaries—one of whom had attended Yale, according to historical accounts. His interest in American society was evident in his work as a student: During his boyhood, he is reputed to have penned an essay titled “An Imaginary Voyage to New York and Up the Hudson.”

Zhuhai Yung Wing students in a Chinese calligraphy class.

In 1847, he lived his dream, traveling to the United States in the company of a minister. He enrolled at a high school in Massachusetts, and later gained entry to Yale. Not surprisingly, he felt isolated early on during his studies on campus. He soon overcame those doubts, however, and began to thrive at the university. He sang choir, played football, and won academic prizes in English composition.

After he graduated, Mr. Yung donated an extensive collection of Chinese books to Yale, including classics, histories, and writings containing the teachings of Confucius. He eventually returned to China, where he founded a school in Zhuhai devoted to introducing Chinese students to Western culture.

“Yung Wing developed a sense of obligation to help others as he had been helped,” Yale President Richard C. Levin said in a 2004 speech in Beijing. “Governments,” he added, “yours and mine, can seize the opportunity to be ambitious and bold in embracing new educational initiatives and international exchange.”

Mr. Yung is also credited with having brought numerous Western manufacturing techniques to China and for emerging as a devoted advocate of political reform in his home country, according to a 2004 written account provided by Huang Xiaodong, the president of the Zhuhai International Culture Association.

Thriving Metropolis

Zhuhai’s favorite son would probably be stunned to see his hometown today. For generations, this city was a quiet fishing village on the South China Sea. That all changed in 1980, when China’s reformist leader Deng Xiaoping designated the city as one of the country’s special economic zones—basically a laboratory for free enterprise removed from socialist constraints.

Foreign investment quickly flooded Zhuhai, which grew steadily and continues to surge economically to this day. Factories, warehouses, and office parks line this city’s churning thoroughfares. Zhuhai attracts visitors from across China because it is an easy transit point to Hong Kong, only a short ferry ride away, as well as Macao, an internationally renowned gambling hub, which is right next door.

Youngsters participate in an art class at the school.

Zhuhai’s economic growth has helped support the establishment of numerous universities throughout the city. The Zhuhai/Xiangzhou public school system, which serves about 90,000 students, is growing rapidly, adding as many as 6,000 new students per year, its director, Wang Wei, told us in an interview.

Much of that student growth is fueled by migrant families who have come to Zhuhai from remote provinces in search of jobs and a better life. To accommodate their needs, the district is continually searching for land suitable for building new schools, Mr. Wang said. It has also supported the establishment of numerous private schools serving families of different income levels, including migrants, he said, as well as schools run or sponsored by state-owned Chinese businesses.

Yung Wing, a migrant of another sort, would probably have admired the ambition of the new families arriving in Zhuhai every year. After a life defined largely by his travels, he found his final resting place in the country that enchanted him more than a century and a half ago. Mr. Yung, who died in 1912, is buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery, in Hartford, Conn.


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