Born in 1828 to a poor farming family in Macau, Yung Wing was sent to attend foreign missionary schools in southern China at a young age, in hopes that learning English would lead young Wing to a more prosperous career path. In 1847, when Yung was 19 years old, he accompanied his former headmaster Reverend Samuel Robbins Brown to New England to continue his Western education. After attending the Monson Academy in Massachusetts for three years, Yung was accepted into Yale College and diligently began working toward earning a Bachelor of Arts degree. At Yale, Yung fully embraced the American college experience, participating in debating societies, singing in the college choir, playing football, and competing in English composition contests. On October 30, 1852, Yung Wing took the next logical step in his embrace of American culture: he became a naturalized American citizen. Two years later, he became the first person of Asian descent to graduate from Yale.
Inspired by his mostly positive experiences in America, Yung soon returned to China in hopes of encouraging other Chinese students to seek their educations in the United States as he did. It wasn’t until 1871, however, that Yung was able to persuade the Chinese government to send 120 young boys to America in order to gain Western educations. The students who made up Yung’s “Chinese Educational Mission” were subject to strict rules and restrictions on what they could study, and were mandated to return to China before they turned thirty years of age so they could use their newfound knowledge to serve their home country.
The students, like Yung Wing before them, excelled in their studies and enthusiastically embraced the activities, fashion, and even (in some cases) the Christian religion of their New England schools and host families — much to the horror of Chinese supervisors who journeyed to Connecticut several years later to evaluate the students’ progress. Between the supervisors’ reports about the “de-nationalization” of the Chinese students and increasing racial animus against Chinese immigrants in late 19th century America, the Chinese Educational Mission found itself pressured from all sides, and was recalled in 1881, not even ten years after it was created.
Yung Wing, who had followed his students back to China in the early 1880s, attempted in vain to implement Western reforms in the country of his birth, and found himself a political enemy of the state after a coup d’etat in 1898. When he appealed to the American government for re-entry into the United States, he was informed that his citizenship had been revoked amid increasing tensions between the United States and China. Nevertheless, Yung was able to re-enter the United States illegally with help from his friends, and settled in West Hartford, Connecticut, where he penned a memoir titled My Life in China and America before passing away in 1912. Today, Yung Wing is remembered as a great educational pioneer who worked tirelessly to bridge the cultural and diplomatic gaps between China and the United States in the nineteenth century. He and his American wife Mary are buried in Hartford’s Cedar Hill Cemetery, and a statue of young Yung, donated in 2004 upon the 150th anniversary of his college graduation, graces the hallway of Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library.
“Notable Residents: Yung Wing,” Cedar Hill Cemetery Foundation
“Yung Wung: Avon’s Educational and Cultural Pioneer,” connecticuthistory.org
Yung Wing, “My Life in China and America (1909),” archive.org