For all those Chinese parents looking to get their kids into Harvard or Yale, they should take their noses out of those how-to-books writen by parents of successful students and instead read the biography of one of their countrymen. Yung Wing’s My Life in China and America (China Economic Review Publishing) is the biography of China’s first graduate from Yale — way back in 1854.
But Yung isn’t a guy to just rest on the merits of his college degree. This is a guy who was at the center of many of the major events in China in the 19th century — both through contacts and luck. He tried to be a lawyer in Hong Kong, but was forced to flee because the British lawyers knew that as a Chinese lawyer — and fluent in Cantonese, Mandarin and English — he would take all their business. Yung was a tea trader in the interior, a witness to the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom rebellion (1845-64), a machinery importer and a government official.
What Yung is most known for however, is the creation of a Chinese educational commission in the US that from 1871 to 1881 supervised Chinese boys education at major colleges in the US. One of the surprising things about the commission is that one of its roles was to make sure the boys still received instruction in Chinese, because Yung had completely lost his ability to speak Chinese after his youth in US.
The commission ultimately ended in 1881 due to some scheming by a fellow minister who disliked Yung. Yung falls into the background of Chinese history afterwards. He tried to provide some financing for the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5 that falls through — and meant selling Taiwan to a foreign power as a treaty port. The book wraps up at the end of the 19th century with the coup of 1898 where Yung is forced to hide from the coup plotters on the island of Taiwan under the protection of a Japanese general.
For those interested in Chinese history of the 19th and early 20th century, this biography is definitely worth reading. Yung Wing was a strong Chinese patriot and also a strong Christian, but don’t think this book is a Christian missionary tract. It’s Yung’s patriotism and his love of China that shines through every page. We don’t even learn that he is married — and to a white American woman at that — until the 20th chapter when he mentions she had died and then only briefly.
At 150 pages this book is brief but a good summary of life in China in the 19th century.