What Was it Like to be a Chinese Student in 19th Century America?

Imagine the scene:

“This group of boys, dressed in silk gowns, their queues flapping, was too much for New Englanders, be they small-town folk or city dwellers, to ignore. In Springfield, for example, the boys’ dinner at a local hotel was interrupted when an American woman, dining at a nearby table, stood up and wordlessly approached the Chinese youths and started dreamily fondling their queues … They were less amused a few days later when, while visiting Hartford, American children chased them down the street, pushing and shoving each other for a better glimpse of the strange, new breed of humans that had arrived on their shores. … The more fearful among them recalled the horrific stories circulated back home about Americans and their desire to turn the Chinese boys into sideshow curiosities.”

In 1872, when 30 Chinese students arrived on America’s east coast as part of an educational program sponsored by the Chinese government, they attracted quite a bit of attention.

Yung Wing in his Yale College class album (Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University)

They weren’t the first to study in the area though.  The first Chinese student ever to receive a degree in the U.S. was Yung Wing, who came to America for high school in 1847 and received his diploma from Yale University in 1852.  Yung then spearheaded an educational mission to send 120 Chinese boys to study in the U.S. for 15 years, arriving in dispatches of 30 per year.

What would it have been like to be one of those Chinese students in the 1800s?

Part of the answer can be found in letters and diaries kept by the students, which authors Leil Leibovitz and Matthew Miller used to write a book called Fortunate Sons: The 120 Chinese Boys Who Came to America, Went to School, and Revolutionized an Ancient Civilization.

“We were amazed to find how meticulous these men had been about documenting their lives,” Leibovitz said about writing the book. “So you really just had to open the boxes, which to my amazement and great fortune, no one had thought of doing in the century that passed.”

Yung Wing also published a memoir recounting his experience, as did Li En Fu, one of the 120 to participate in the educational mission.

Here, in their own words, is how Chinese students experienced 19th century America.

How did they apply?

Here’s how students apply today.

Yung Wing wrote in his memoir, My Life in China and America, that he was attending the first English school in China when he got a unique opportunity:

“[Schoolmaster Rev. S.R. Brown] left China in the winter of 1846.  Four months before he left, he one day sprang a surprise upon the whole school. He told of his contemplated return to America on account of his health and the health of his family. Before closing his remarks by telling us of his deep interest in the school, he said he would like to take a few of his old pupils home with him to finish their education in the United States … When he requested those who wished to accompany him to the States to signify it by rising, I was the first one on my feet.” 

The 120 boys who followed him in 1872 had rather a different experience.

Six boys from the first detachment in 1872, shortly after arriving in San Francisco. From left to right: Chung Mun Yew, Liang Tun Yen, unidentified, Sze Kin Yung, unidentified, New Shan Chow. (Public domain photo)

In When I Was a Boy in China Li En Fu recalled, “A school was established at Shanghai to receive candidates, and announcement made that the government had appropriated a large sum or money to educate one hundred and twenty boys in America, who were to be sent in four detachments …”

“… I was taken to the Tung Mim Kuen, or Government School, where I was destined to spend a whole year, preparatory to my American education … It was afternoon, and the Chinese lessons were being recited. … At half-past four o’clock, school was out and the boys, to the number of forty, went forth to play.  They ran around, chased each other and wasted their cash on fruits and confections. …

After breakfast the following morning we assembled in the same schoolroom to study our English lessons. The teacher of this branch was a Chinese gentleman who learned his English at Hongkong. The first thing to be done with me was to teach me the alphabet. … It took me two days to learn them. The letter R was the hardest one to pronounce, but I soon learned to give it, with a peculiar roll of the tongue even. … A year thus passed in study and pastime. Sundays were given to us to spend as holidays. 

It was in the month of May when we were examined in our English studies and the best thirty were selected to go to America, their proficiency in Chinese, their general deportment and their record also being taken into account.” 

According to Ning Qian in his book Chinese Students Encounter America, “The parents of the first group of 30 boys sent to America in 1872 had to sign an agreement to ‘accept the will of destiny should the child become ill or die’ during the study.”

How did they get there?

Here’s how it’s done today.

In the 1800s, the only way to get from China to America would have been by boat.  Yung described his journey like this:

“The tops of the masts and ends of the yards were tipped with balls of electricity. The strong wind was howling and whistling behind us like a host of invisible Furies. The night was pitch dark and the electric balls dancing on the tips of the yards and tops of the masts, back and forth and from side to side like so many infernal lanterns in the black night, presented a spectacle never to be forgotten by me. … We landed in New York on the 12th of April, 1847, after a passage of ninety-eight days of unprecendented fair weather.” 

The SS Great Republic, one of the ships that carried Chinese students to America, being built in 1866 (Public domain image)

Li arrived by boat to San Francisco, which “impressed my young imagination with its lofty buildings – their solidity and elegance. … But the ‘modern conveniences’ of gas and running water and electric bells and elevators were what excited wonder and stimulated investigation.”

To get to New England, where he was going to study, he had to take a train – the transcontinental railroad, completed only a few years earlier (and built, ironically, largely by Chinese laborers):

“Nothing occurred on our Eastward journey to mar the enjoyment of our first ride on the steamcars – excepting a train robbery, a consequent smash-up of the engine, and the murder of the engineer.  We were quietly looking out of the windows and gazing at the seemingly interminable prairies when the train suddenly bounded backward, then rushed forward a few feet, and, then meeting some resistance, started back again.  Then all was confusion and terror. Pistol-shots could be made out above the cries of frightened passengers.  Women shrieked and babies cried. Our party, teachers and pupils, jumped from our seats in dismay and looked out through the windows for more light on the subject.  What we saw was enough to make our hair stand on end.  Two ruffianly men held a revolver in each hand and seemed to be taking aim at us from the short distance of forty feet or thereabouts. Our teachers told us to crouch down for our lives.  …

In half an hour the agony and suspense were over. A brakeman rushed through with a lamp in his hand. He told us that the train had been robbed of its gold bricks, by five men, three of whom, dressed like Indians, rifled the baggage car while the others held the passengers at bay; that the engine was hopelessly wrecked, the engineer killed; that the robbers had escaped on horseback with their booty; and that men had been sent to the nearest telegraph station to “wire” for another engine and a supply of workmen. One phase of American civilization was thus indelibly fixed upon our minds.” 

When he finally arrived in Springfield, Massachusetts, Li was assigned to a host mother, who “put her arms around me and kissed me. This made the rest of the boys laugh, and perhaps I got rather red in the face ; however, I would say nothing to show my embarrassment.  But that was the first kiss I ever had had since my infancy.”

What were their studies like?

Here’s what it’s like today.

When Yung graduated from his American high school, he applied to continue his studies at Yale University. He found the academic requirements there fairly stringent:

“How I got in, I do not know, as I had had only fifteen months of Latin and twelve months of Greek, and ten months of mathematics … But I was convinced I was not sufficiently prepared, as my recitations in the class-room clearly proved. Between the struggle of how to make ends meet financially and how to keep up with the class in my studies, I had a pretty tough time of it.  I used to sweat over my studies till twelve o’clock every night the whole Freshman year.”

Yung wrote to a friend, “One has no time to think or analyze except study. There is also great excitement among the students themselves…mental excitement … I enjoy its influence very much.”

Engineering students at Yale University, including educational mission member Luk Wing Chuan (Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library - accessed on cemconnections.org)
Engineering students at Yale University, including Luk Wing Chuan (Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library – accessed on cemconnections.org)

The boys who came as part of the educational mission lived with American families during their high school years and, according to Leibovitz and Miller, student Y.T. Woo called his host mother:

“… a strict disciplinarian.  When we held our knives and forks too low at meals, she would correct us.  When she heard us talking in our rooms in the attic after nine or ten p.m., she would shout from below, ‘Boys, stop talking, it is time to sleep.’”

The students were required to attend classes in Chinese language and culture on top of their normal academics, including during summer holidays.  But it wasn’t all work.  Leibovitz and Miller quoted an American classmate as saying that “at dances and receptions, the fairest and most sought-out belles invariably gave the swains from the Orient the preference.”

Yale crew team of 1880, featuring Chung Mun Yew in the center (Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University)

And an American student told this story about classmate Chung Mun Yew’s time as coxswain of Yale’s crew team:

“He was told he must swear at the oarsmen to make them row their best; for he usually sat in his place in silence.  Swearing did not come naturally to him, for he was grave and impassive; but finally, being told he must curse them, he would, at the most unexpected moments, and without any emphasis mechanically utter the monosyllable “damn!” whereat the crew became so helpless with laughter, they begged him to desist.” (Leibovitz and Miller)

Yale’s 1880 varsity crew team in the New Haven harbor. Chung Mun Yew is at the helm. (Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University)

What was it like when they went home?

Here’s what it’s like today.

After being in America for over 6 years, Yung experienced some serious culture shock on the way home:

“As we approached Hong Kong, a Chinese pilot boarded us. The captain wanted me to ask him whether there were any dangerous rocks and shoals nearby. I could not for the life of me recall my Chinese in order to interpret for him … So the skipper and Macy, and a few other persons who were present at the time, had the laugh on me, who, being a Chinese, yet was not able to speak the language.”

And, like many modern students, when Yung saw his mother again after so much time away, he had to endure some motherly nagging:

 “The interview seemed to give her great comfort and satisfaction.  She seemed very happy over it.  After it was ended, she looked at me with a significant smile and said, ‘I see you have already raised your mustaches.  You know you have a brother who is much older than you are; he hasn’t grown his mustaches yet. You must have yours off.’ I promptly obeyed her mandate, and as I entered the room with a clean face, she smiled with intense satisfaction, evidently thinking that with all my foreign education, I had not lost my early training of being obedient to my mother.”

The return of Li En Fu and the other boys who participated in the educational mission was a bit different.  The politics of the day led to them being recalled to China early, where, upon their arrival, they spent several days in prison on suspicion of being spies.

Books:
Leil Leibovitz and Matthew Miller, Fortunate Sons: The 120 Chinese Boys Who Came to America, Went to School, and Revolutionized an Ancient Civilization
Yung Wing (sometimes written Wing Yung), My Life in China and America
Yan Phou Lee (different spelling for Li En Fu), When I Was a Boy in China
Ning Qian (trans. T.K. Chu), Chinese Students Encounter America

3 comments

  1. I was eager to read the article after reading the title. After reading it,I find that the story is very interesting. If we create a time machine. I would like to be the first Chinese International student who could study in America.

  2. This article has an inclusive and vivid presentation of the Chinese students’ life in America during the past. It is amazing to see such a meticulous document. Thank you, Jess, it is an excellent one 🙂

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