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American Friendships with Chinese Students, 1847–1930

Pictured, left to right, Rong Hong, Tang Guo’an, and Mei Yiqi

For more than 170 years Chinese students have come to the United States. They made friends with American teachers, students, families, and business people. Some came as Christians while others became followers of Christ after they arrived. Christian students set up clubs to encourage each other in their walks of faith.

The First Chinese Graduate from a US College

In 1847, Rong Hong (Yung Wing) and two other Chinese young men came from Hong Kong to the US when their missionary teacher, Samuel Brown, returned to the US with his wife who was ill. Rong became a Christian while studying at the Monson Academy, a college preparatory school in Wilbraham, MA.1

Rong was accepted to Yale College, but he needed funds to pay for his tuition. Members of “The Ladies’ Association” in Savannah, GA, (through a connection with Brown), sent him money. He also worked as a steward at a boarding house club and as a librarian for a debating society.2 Rong discussed his plan to bring other Chinese to study in the US with a college friend, Carroll Cutler, who later became president of Western Reserve College in Cleveland, OH.3 During college vacations Rong stayed in Springfield, MA, with Dr. Alexander McClean and his wife, Rebekah (Samuel Brown’s sister).4 After graduating from Yale in 1854, Rong returned to China.5

The Chinese Educational Mission

Once Rong rose in position, he presented his study abroad program for 120 teenagers to Viceroy Zeng Guofan, the top Chinese official. In 1872 the first group of thirty students of the Chinese Education Mission (CEM) came to the US to gain technical skills.6 Rong, as Chief Commissioner, connected with the secretary of the Board of Education for Connecticut, who asked families in Connecticut and Massachusetts to open their homes to two to four students each and provide two years of homeschooling to prepare them to attend local high schools.7

Over the years, twenty-one married couples and sixteen single females hosted students. Most were members of Congregational churches who lived in small rural villages.8 They were told not to try to convert their pupils to Christianity, though the students were to “observe the regulations of the family in which they live.”9

William Lyon Phelps was a schoolmate of the Chinese students in Hartford, CT. He later wrote: “They had excellent manners, were splendid sportsmen, alert in mind, good at their studies, good at athletics.” His closest friend, Cho, was dignified, serious and a great translator of Caesar. Every Saturday they went shooting birds together.10

Rev. Joseph Twichell, pastor of Asylum Hill Church in Hartford, “gloried” in the honor of marrying Rong to Mary Kellogg, a daughter of one of Hartford’s leading physicians, in 1875.11 They named their two sons Morrison Brown and Bartlett Golden.12

In the winter of 1877–78, five students called upon the pastor of a Congregational Church in East Hampton, MA, to express their interest in making a public profession of their faith. Rong advised against the proposed action because it could endanger the government supported educational project. So instead, the students held weekly prayer meetings, Bible studies, and Christian doctrine classes with the pastor. In May, 1878, they organized the Chinese Christian Home Mission with a hope of taking Christianity back to China.13

The CEM Students are Recalled

In 1880, a newly arrived commissioner in the US, Wu Zideng, sent negative reports about the students to Beijing, including losing their ability to speak Chinese, playing sports, and becoming Christians.14 He wrote “they should be recalled without delay and should be strictly watched after their return.”15

After thirty years of a growing anti-Chinese movement in California, Congress began to debate restricting Chinese immigration. This disgusted Viceroy Li Hongzhang, who oversaw the CEM after Zeng Guofan died.16 This debate resulted in the Chinese Exclusion Act, signed on May 6, 1882. It prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers.17

When Viceroy Li withdrew his support from the CEM in March 1881, only two students had completed their college degrees.18 The recall was temporarily postponed after Reverend Twichell gathered support from Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) and others to sign the Yale President’s letter urging the decision be reconsidered.19

Despite this support, the Chinese Educational Mission was recalled in July.20 On the eve of their departure in August, some of the students and families gathered together to sing hymns and hear Twichell say a few words and a prayer.21 One American woman wrote to a Chinese mother that her son “will be a useful man and serve his country with honor to himself and to his parents.”22 Phelps’ friend, Cho, gave him “his great gun as a pledge of eternal friendship.”23

After the CEM students arrived in China, one wrote about the terrible reception they received.24 Viceroy Li rescued many of them by placing them in technical colleges and in mining, railroad, and mining ventures where they slowly grew in responsibility.25

The CEM students did not forget their time abroad. Like Rong, former CEM students named their children after their American friends. When some made it back to the US, they visited their American families or brought their children to live with them.26

Rong’s wife died in 1886. When Rong was recalled to China in 1895, his older son was entering Yale, but his younger son needed a place to live. After Twichell and his wife offered their home, Rong appreciated “this act of self-denial and magnanimity.”27

Boxer Indemnity Scholarship Students

While serving as Chinese minister to the US, Liang Cheng, a former CEM student, heard that President Theodore Roosevelt was considering returning the excess from the US share of the Boxer Indemnity to build a preparatory school in Beijing in order to send one hundred Chinese students a year to the US. He wrote, thanking the US for this “signal act of generosity.”28 On May 25, 1908, Roosevelt signed the executive order.29 In 1910, Liang invited the sisters, Louise and Mary Bartlett, to visit China where they stayed for a year.30

Tang Guo’an, a former CEM student, accompanied the first two groups of Boxer scholarship students in 1909 and 1910 to the East Coast. He was able to visit close friends. He returned to serve as the founding president of Tsinghua College.31

Rong lived long enough to meet some of the next generation of students.32 After he died at age 84 in Hartford in 1912, Rev. Twichell presided over his funeral service.

Influential Friends

After hat maker Henry Fearing hosted the first and second annual conferences of the Chinese Students’ Alliance (CSA) in his grove in Amherst, MA, in 1905 and 1906, the students elected him as an honorary member of the Alliance. When the students presented Fearing a loving cup as an expression of their love and honor in 1914, a local newspaper reported, “No one can measure what an influence this one humble man may have on China’s teeming millions because he has loved ‘the stranger within our gates.’”33

When the first Boxer scholarship group arrived too late in the fall of 1909 to attend college, they were divided up and sent to preparatory schools. Arthur Clough, the principal of Lawrence Academy in Groton, MA, made a “profound impression” on Zhang Fuliang because of his humble service.34 In 1912, Zhang and Mei Yiqi (president of Tsinghua from 1931–48) became Christians at a Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) summer camp.35

After Harry Edmonds, a YMCA man, heard about a Chinese student’s loneliness in New York City in 1909, he organized the Cosmopolitan Club at Columbia University to bring international students and Americans together. Later he asked John D. Rockefeller for funds to build an International House in New York City that opened in 1924.36

In 1911, the YMCA set up the Committee for Friendly Relations Among Foreign Students (CFR).37 Willard Lyon, the son of Presbyterian missionaries in Hangzhou, China, became CFR’s executive secretary.38 The CFR promoted “sympathetic and helpful relations between Americans and the foreign students” and recommended that universities set aside counselors for international students.39

Pastor Xu Qin (Huie Kin) of the First Chinese Presbyterian Church in New York City and his wife, Louise Van Arnan, offered a dormitory on the third and fourth floors of their home and Sunday dinners for forty or fifty. All six of their daughters married Chinese students, serving China in the fields of education, religion, medicine, and rural reconstruction.40

Chinese Students’ Christian Association

A group of twenty-four Chinese students began the Chinese Students’ Christian Association (CSCA) in 1909.41 Members of the first executive committee became presidents of universities in China, the director of the YMCA in China, and a government official in the 1920s. The eight charter or “cooperative” members included Henry Fearing, Xu Qin, an American woman, a Chinese woman, and four missionaries serving in China.42

The CSCA provided fellowship through local campus groups, yearly conferences, monthly journals, and yearbooks. Traveling secretaries visited students on campus, encouraging members to “cultivate the spirit of Jesus and apply his principles to their life and work.”43 When the Chinese Revolution disrupted finances coming from China in 1911, the CFR and community organizations gave students emergency aid. More than three hundred attended CSCA summer conferences in 1915.44

Although today’s Chinese students have better English language skills and may be less lonely because of the large numbers of fellow students, American friendships and hospitality still play key roles in building cross-cultural bridges and introducing Jesus.

Note: For information about students mentioned in this article, see entries in the Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity at https://bdcconline.net/.


  1. Joseph H. Twichell, “Appendix,” in Yung Wing, My Life in China and America (New York: Henry Holt and Co, 1909), 252; Yung Wing, 31.
  2. Yung Wing, My Life in China and America (New York: Henry Holt and Co, 1909), 36, 38–9.
  3. Twichell, “Appendix,” 255; Western Reserve College in Cleveland, OH is now Case Western Reserve University.
  4. Yung, 28.
  5. Yung, 39.
  6. Edward J. M. Rhoads, Stepping Forth into the World: The Chinese Educational Mission to the United States, 1872–1881 (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2011), 8, 9, 18.
  7. Rhoads, 68, 70.
  8. Rhoads, 49, 56, 60, 61.
  9. Rhoads, 151.
  10. William Lyon Phelps, Autobiography with Letters (New York: Oxford University Press, 1939), 83, 85.
  11. Thomas E. LaFargue, China’s First Hundred: Educational Mission Students in the United States, 1872–1881 (Pullman, WA: Washington State University, 1987), 42.
  12. Morrison School in Hong Kong was named after Robert Morrison, the first Protestant missionary to China in 1807. Rong met David and Fanny Bartlett when he arrived in the US, Yung, 14–15, 24.
  13. Joseph H. Sawyer, “The Chinese Christian Home Mission,” in The Independent, July 5, 1894, 13–14.
  14. Rhoads, 144–158.
  15. Yung, 204–205; 210.
  16. Rhoads, 171–172, 222.
  17. Stacey Bieler, “Patriots” or “Traitors”? A History of American-Educated Chinese Students, (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2004), 13.
  18. Rhoads, 313–132.
  19. Yung, 211–215; General Ulysses Grant wrote a personal letter to Viceroy Li. Rhoads, 173; LaFargue, 50.
  20. LaFargue, 52.
  21. Rhoads, 176.
  22. Bieler, 10.
  23. Phelps, 85.
  24. Bieler, 11–12.
  25. Bieler, 12.
  26. Rhoads, 211–212.
  27. Yung, 223, 227–228.
  28. The Qing dynasty paid the Boxer Indemnity to the to thirteen Western countries and Japan for the loss of lives and property during the Boxer Uprising during the summer of 1900. Bieler, 27–32, 47, 68; The United States received 7.5% of the Indemnity.
  29. Bieler, 49.
  30. LaFargue, 40.
  31. Forty-seven students came in 1909, 70 in 1910 and 73 in 1911. Bieler, 44, 57, 66–67, 68.
  32. Bieler, 16.
  33. Bieler, 217.
  34. Bieler, 102.
  35. Bieler, 102–103.
  36. Bieler, 210.
  37. The funding came from Andrew Carnegie, Cleveland Dodge, and William Sloane. Mary Thompson, ed., Unofficial Ambassadors: The Story of International Student Service, (New York: International Student Service, 1982), 23.
  38. Thompson, 23; Ryan Bean, “Selling the Mission: The North American YMCA in China 1890–1949” (Chungli, Taiwan: Institute of History, National Central University, 2012). Retrieved from the University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy, https://hdl.handle.net/11299/140888. Accessed June 1, 2021.
  39. Thompson, 38; The CFR created the first census of foreign students studying on American campuses in 1916. It was the forerunner of the Institute of International Education (IIE) established in 1919 and the National Association of Foreign Student Advisors (NAFSA) in 1948. Martin Tillman, “Life Begins at 50,” NAFSA Newsletter, Oct/Nov 1998, 1, 34.
  40. Bieler, 152–156.
  41. For a description of the first executive committee, see Bieler, 222. “I. Active Members,” Chinese Christian Student Association (CSCA): Registration book, 1910–1914 (Box 104, Folder 2), p. 13–17. Kautz Family YMCA Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries.
  42. “Cooperative Members,” Chinese Christian Student Association (CSCA): Registration book, 1910–1914 (Box 104, Folder 2), p. 32–33. Kautz Family YMCA Archives.
  43. Bieler, 222.
  44. Thompson, 27–8, 33.
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Stacey Bieler

Stacey Bieler is the author of “Patriots” or “Traitors”? A History of American-Educated Chinese Students that focuses on the 1900-1930 generation of Chinese students in the US. She has enjoyed friendships with Chinese students and scholars since 1982. Her blog is at https://www.staceybielerbooks.com/.View Full Bio