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  • Writer's pictureAnna Wang

Fortunate or Unfortunate Sons?

Updated: Dec 15, 2020

Many Chinese think a foreigner can't write about China. The difficulty is factual. For one thing, there is a language barrier; for the other, China had stayed in isolation for thousands of years. China is a hard nut to crack, but not impossible. In fact, books about China by foreigners often provide fresh angles on China and get to the core of China's problems.

The most accurate description of Chinese peasant life I've ever read is Pearl S. Buck's novel The Good Earth. Liel Leibovitz and Matthew Miller's Fortunate Sons: The 120 Chinese Boys Who Came to America, Went to School, and Revolutionized an Ancient Civilization also tackles a difficult slice of China's history. It recounts the story of the Chinese Educational Mission (1872–1881), a project to educate a group of 120 Chinese students in the United States.

The story is well-known in China. Many are familiar with the graduates' achievements, but a native Chinese's attention is usually focused on those who brought technology to China, like Jeme Tien-Yau, father of China's railroads. Fortunate Sons puts mission graduates at the center of the political struggles of the time. It presents a broad picture in which graduates are deeply involved in China's transition to modernity.

The Chinese Educational Mission was initiated by Yung Wing (1828 – 1912). Yung was born in Canton, the first Chinese province to see Christian missionaries. At seven, Yung was enrolled in a missionary school. In 1847, he was brought to the United States and in 1854, he graduated from Yale and became the first Chinese student to hold a degree from an American university. Coming back to China, Yung was discovered by Zeng Guofan: a prominent statesman of the Qing Dynasty. Yung told Zeng that China was in desperate need of men who knew Western science and engineering.

In 1871, the Chinese government agreed to send groups of students to the United States, and Yung was appointed to lead the mission. He recruited 120 students. They were mostly teenagers, though some were under the age of ten. They arrived in New England in 1872, where they lived with host families and enrolled in public schools.

The Chinese government sent a conservative supervisory official to supervise. He wrote secretly to the court, reporting that the boys were neglecting their Chinese heritage and had adopted American customs, such as playing baseball. Meanwhile, the Chinese government had hoped that some of the boys would attend military academies, but the US government refused to allow it. The mission ended abruptly in 1881. "At the time of the mission's closure, over sixty of the students were enrolled in American institutions of higher education. Of that number, twenty-two were at Yale, eight at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, three at Columbia, one at Harvard, and the rest at disparate colleges and technical schools."

“Orientals” Baseball Team at Hartford, Connecticut. Source: Washington State University

When the boys returned, they were confined and interrogated before being sent home. Most of them lived in obscurity for the first few years. As the century drew to a close, graduates were sprinkled throughout the Qing hierarchy, doing what traditional Chinese intellectuals couldn't. They handled matters like diplomacy, military concerns, mining, and railroads.

Their collective fate changed after the Hundred Days' Reform. It was a failed attempt to reform undertaken by the young Guangxu e\Emperor and his supporters. The pre-mature reform was resisted by the conservative and powerful Empress Dowager Cixi. In the end, the reform was thwarted and Guangxu ended up under house arrest. While Cixi went about prosecuting Emperor Guangxu's supporters, she began her version of reform, cautiously changing several industries, such as the navy, the telegraph, and the railway. During this period, "Beijing needed qualified men who were not infected with the emperor's revolutionary zeal, men who possessed knowledge of Western technology and reverence for Eastern philosophy in equal measure." The mission graduates finally got their chance to shine.

But reforming a few industries couldn't save the empire from its deeply rooted corruption. In 1900, a Chinese secret society known as the Boxers embarked on a violent campaign to drive all foreigners out of China. Cixi saw this as a chance to get rid of foreign presence and declared war against 11 foreign countries. The empire was once again defeated. "Unsure how to restore its credibility and regain the nation's trust, the Qing court… began promptly to execute, exile or force suicide on any mandarin deemed responsible for the shameful defeat." The mission graduates were suddenly in great demand to fill the vacant positions.

The most capable of them were entrusted with the responsibility to put checks on the foreigners. In 1904, the British tried to colonize Tibet. The mission graduate Tong Shao-yi was sent to Lhasa to tackle the British. Meeting the arrogant and rude Lord Curzon, most of Tong's colleagues at the delegation considered the case hopeless. But Tang had a different opinion. "In America, he had learned that in democracies even the most imperious men were still subject to the will of the people." He knew that Britain's invasion of Tibet was unpopular with British voters. Furthermore, Tang identified a weak link in the British delegation: Lord Kitchener, second to Curzon in the colonial hierarchy, who was opposed to the invasion and had a passion for Chinese porcelain. Tong arranged to have a few choice items of his fine collection delivered to his new friend. The domestic pressures in Great Britain and Kitchener's continuing opposition to the invasion eventually wore Curzon down. In 1906, Britain and China signed an agreement that amounted to Britain's acceptance of China's suzerainty over Tibet. It was a rare, if not only, victory for Chinese nationalism.

Like Yung Wing, the mission graduates wanted to introduce Western education to China. They were involved in setting up more than 100,000 modern schools and educating more than 2.9 million students. In 1905, the imperial exams, China's 1300-year-old educational model, was abolished. It was decided that officials would be appointed according to ability. The students of the Chinese Educational Mission finally rose to lead the country.

In 1911, following the Wuchang uprising, the Republic of China was established in the southern provinces. In February 1912, the Qing court issued its final edict, announcing the emperor's abdication. Graduates of the educational mission took the most senior positions in Yuan Shikai's new administration: Tong Shao-yi was named prime minister; Liang Dunyan was appointed minister of foreign affairs; Cai Shaoaji and Liang Ju-hao were appointed Liang Dunyan's deputies; Tsai Ting Kan was a senior adviser to the president. "…now that they had power, they were intent on using it to create a republic as democratic, as rewarding, and as innovative as the one they had come to admire as teenagers in America."

The Chinese Educational Mission Reunion. 1890. Source: Washington State University

"Yet China, whether ruled as an empire or a republic, proved to be especially resistant to the types of change the mission graduates had hoped to introduce." It soon became clear that Yuan Shikai was a bigger despot than the former emperors. Hungry for power, Yuan extremely disliked the fact that he was under the check by an elected parliament. He used all his treachery to crackdown on the dissidents, dissolved the national and provincial assemblies, and took control over the government. In November 1915, a specially convened "Representative Assembly" voted unanimously to offer Yuan the throne. In December 1915, Yuan "accepted" the invitation and proclaimed himself Emperor of the Chinese Empire.

Even before Yuan self-proclaimed as an emperor, three months after assuming office, Tong had resigned because he couldn't endure being a rubber stamp for Yuan's dictatorial decisions. It didn't take long for Liang Ju-hao and Liang Dunyan to follow suit. Yuan's bold move to restore monarchy was met with harsh criticism domestically and internationally. In June 1916, he died of kidney failure.

With Yuan gone, the various factions again wrestled for control of China. Gradually, the influence of mission graduates began to decline after an incredibly tumultuous period marked by the rise and fall of several clashing regimes. "Mostly in their sixties in the 1920s, [the mission graduates] no longer had the energy to fight. China, they agreed, had no future. All that was left was its past."

Fortunate Sons answers the question why Western-trained Chinese elites can't save China. The story of their successes and failures proved the bankruptcy of the Chinese philosophy of "ti-yong." "Ti" means "essence" and "yong," "practical use." The prevailing belief among the established officials at the time was "China would modernize on its own terms, incorporating the cream of Western ingenuity and technology while maintaining its own cultural sensibilities." First the court, then the republic all thought that they could put the mission graduates' English skills and Western training in practical use under the essential frame of Chinese social structure. The mission graduates themselves were very likely passionate advocates of this philosophy too. "They wanted change, not revolution. They wanted progress, and at every turn, progress was denied." Sadly, this philosophy of "ti-yong" is still prevailing in today's China. That's why the authors, Leibovitz and Miller, comment in the introduction that "although much has happened in Chinese history over the course of the last 100 years the fundamental challenge facing China has not changed since the boys first tackled it."

I mentioned the difficulties foreign authors might encounter when writing about China, and one of them was the language barrier. Luckily, Yung Wing and several graduates left autobiographies, diaries, and letters written in English. Drawing on these first-person accounts, local newspaper reports, and archived documents, Fortunate Sons tells a remarkable tale, masterfully interweaving distinctive personalities with major events that molded China's historical approach to modernity.

However, as a native Chinese reader, I found that the book dedicated too many pages to explaining the historical background of things. I sometimes had to skim through the background sections just to read the stories of these 120 students. Still, I am hesitant to call the explanation of the background a waste of effort, even though I only found the stories of individual graduates to be of particular interest. I assume the background information might be necessary for most western readers to learn about what was happening in China at the time. Since so many forces were at play in China during the twilight of the 19th century, the extra historical information might be necessary for Western readers. I felt the same frustration a few years ago when I read Honour Due: The Story of Dr. Leonora Howard King. This book also dedicates large portions to the historic background, which to me felt redundant.

Even with the arguably unnecessary historical background, many parts of the book reinforced my belief that foreign authors provide fresh angles on Chinese issues. In the book, Liebovitz and Miller write: "Despite the long marches and great leaps forward, China's slow stumble toward modernity, still very much a work in progress may just as well have begun with a single touchdown at Yale College." When studying Chinese history, I was showered by phrases like "long march" and "great leap forward," but it had never brought to my attention that why social movements in China tended to have names with a sense of movement while real reform remained out of the question.

The book is titled Fortune Sons. They were fortunate because they spent their adolescent years in America and were the first group of Chinese to have their eyes opened to the outside world. They saw in person how democracy and science can bring about progress. But they failed to modernize China because they were products of the traditional Chinese system. As such, they believed that the best way forward for a man with aspirations was to be noticed by an established official who could open doors for them. In this sense, I question whether the book's full title, Fortunate Sons: The 120 Chinese Boys Who Came to America, Went to School, and Revolutionized an Ancient Civilization, correctly reflects the book's themes. Did they revolutionize an ancient civilization? Definitely not. Are they fortunate sons? Maybe.

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