October 30: Yung Wing –– Immigrant, Path-Breaking Student, Missionary, Educator, Outcast & Refugee


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. His parents hoped 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. There he began working diligently toward earning a Bachelor of Arts degree, and fully embraced the American college experience. He participated in debating societies, sang in the college choir, played football, and competed 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 after that, he became the first person of Asian descent to graduate from Yale.

A statue of Yung Wing, donated by his hometown of Zhuhai, China in 2004, located in Yale University’s Sterling Memorial Library.
Inspired by his mostly positive experiences in America, Yung returned to China in hopes of encouraging other Chinese students to seek their educations in the United States. It took until 1871, however, for Yung to persuade the Chinese government to send 120 young boys to America to seek 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 30 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 to evaluate the students’ progress. Between the supervisors’ reports about the “de-nationalization” of the Chinese students and Americans increasing racial animus against Chinese immigrants in late 19th century, the Chinese Educational Mission found itself pressured from all sides and was recalled in 1881, less than 10 years after it was created.

Yung Wing, who had followed his students back to China, 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. 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 19th 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.

Further Reading

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