Living and Learning in New England

Yung Wing’s Educational Plan

Mrs. Fannie P. Bartlett
The CEM’s educational plan had two components: to educate the Chinese students in Western science and technology by placing them in American schools and colleges; and, simultaneously, to continue the boys' Chinese studies under Chinese teachers who would accompany the students to America.  It was assumed that the youths, all in their early adolescence, would quickly master the English language, enabling rapid progress in their Western studies; and that their Chinese studies would provide them with a grounding in the traditional moral and cultural precepts ensuring their loyalty to the existing Confucian state.  After fifteen years of study and practical experience in America, the students would return to China as adults fully equipped to become leaders in China’s efforts to cope with a rapidly changing world.  It fell to Yung Wing 容闳, as the architect of this scheme, to create on American soil the structures of living and learning that would allow the Mission to begin its work.

Liang Tun Yen
He modeled his plan upon his own experiences in New England where he had lived with the Bartlett family of East Windsor, Connecticut, while gaining an education, first at Monson Academy in Massachusetts, later at Yale College in New Haven, Connecticut, graduating with the Class of 1854.  In July 1872, about one month before the departure of the First Detachment, he left Shanghai for the United States with the aim of preparing the foundations for the CEM’s operations and its administration in the part of the country where he himself felt most at home.  At Yale he consulted the president and faculty of Yale College, then, acting upon their advice, sought practical guidance from the Secretary of the Connecticut State Board of Education, Dr. Birdsey Grant Northrop.  Northrop recommended that the students be domiciled two or more at a time with families throughout New England, “where they could be cared for and at the same time instructed, till they were able to join classes in graded schools.”1 To this end, Northrop distributed a circular letter to churches throughout Connecticut and Massachusetts asking that families volunteer to house the “children” who were coming to America.  The response was prompt: by October 1872, more than 120 families had offered to accept two students each into their homes.

Yung Kwai
 The families who boarded the CEM students were distributed in some forty separate communities, most clustered in or near the Connecticut River valley, and all within a day’s journey of the Mission’s headquarters.  Though surviving records are not complete, available sources indicate that a total of about sixty families hosted the foreigners in their homes.  Some students seem to have resided with one host family for the duration of their school years; others moved from one location or host family to another as changes in their educational or domestic circumstances required.

Headquarters in Hartford

Woo Yang Tsang
Although Yung Wing had intended Springfield to serve as the administrative center of the Mission, Dr. Northrop persuaded him to locate the headquarters in Hartford.  After the American Civil War, Hartford had become one of the most prosperous cities in the country, with well-developed manufacturing and service industries as well as residential housing.  During its early years the Mission’s offices and classrooms for the boys’ Chinese studies were in rented rooms on Sumner Street, while the Commissioners and other staff lived in one half of a nearby duplex house on Willard Street.  However, Yung believed that a permanent residence for the Educational Mission in Hartford would create a stronger bond with the United States and lessen the possibility of the Chinese Government’s withdrawing its support for the venture.  Thus in November 1875 the Chinese Government authorized him to purchase land for the construction of a permanent home for the Mission.  A large three-story brick structure, with up-to-date conveniences of steam heat and gas illumination, was erected at No. 400 Collins Street, on spacious grounds planted with “fruit trees, grape vines, and hundreds of square feet of lawn.”2 The total cost of the project was about $55,000.3 The new headquarters, containing offices, classrooms, and living quarters for administrators and 75 students, opened in April 1877.

Families and Schools

Tsai Shou Kie
The homes where the CEM students were lodged were those of well-educated, deeply religious and respected families of New England.  They treated the young foreigners as their adoptive children, providing firm but supportive discipline infused with Christian beliefs and traditions, though not to the degree of actively proselytizing them.  Many boys were tutored by their American guardians in English and other subjects prior to attending school.  Once settled in their new homes, the boys generally thrived on this mixture of nurture and discipline and came to view their hosts as foster parents.  The warm and loving friendships that developed between the students and their American families would last for the rest of their lives.  In this home environment the boys rapidly became fluent in American English, and were soon able “to enter the arena of student life on equal terms with American boys of the same age.”4 However, since their braided queues and long gowns were the objects of ridicule, the Commissioners permitted the boys to wear Western clothing but ordered them to retain their queues (prescribed by Chinese law) which they coiled under their hats or tucked beneath their shirts.

Chang Hon Yen at high school graduation
Secondary education in New England high schools and the privately funded academies had reached a high level of development by the last quarter of the nineteenth century.  In its essentials the curriculum was derived from the classical European model, which stressed close study of the languages and texts of Greek and Roman antiquity, but included some history, mathematics, and natural science.  Progressive schools, many of which were attended by the CEM boys, offered instruction in practical skills such as navigation, surveying, and cartography, as well as music and other fine arts.


Centennial Reception

The American public was given a chance to observe the work of the Educational Mission in August 1876 when the Chinese students were escorted by their American and Chinese teachers to the Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia.  An exhibition of the boys’ efforts in map-making, drawing, English composition, and other skills was set up in a gallery prepared by the Connecticut State Board of Education where visitors could view examples of the students’ schoolwork.  During his visit to the Exposition President Grant asked to meet the boys, and at a specially arranged introduction, he and Mrs. Grant made a point of shaking hands with each of the students.  A Chinese customs official assigned to the Chinese delegation, Li Gui 李圭, noted in his travel journal that the Mission students made a good impression on visitors to the Exposition and expressed approval of some “tolerably good” essays in Chinese included among the students’ other efforts.5

Prize Winners and Athletes

CEM Building, Hartford, CT
The press in the communities where the boys lived and studied paid close attention to their academic progress, noting prizes and awards, especially when these were earned for accomplishments not usually associated with Chinese culture.  Some students gained considerable notice as orators; others were praised for their command of Latin and Greek and their facility in classroom translation or public recitation from the great authors; still others won recognition for the excellence of their penmanship.  By some accounts, in the social arena the boys were equally graced with success.  An American classmate at Hartford Public High School recalled that “at dances and receptions, the fairest and most sought-out belles invariably gave the swains from the Orient the preference.”6

Chin Mon Fay
Scholastic and social honors were paralleled by success in athletics, which had never been a feature of school life in China.  The Chinese boys quickly mastered American field games such as football, baseball, and hockey, their long queues hidden from sight so as not to afford “too strong a temptation for opponents,” 7 thereby winning the lasting admiration of their contemporaries.  They made up a baseball team from their own ranks (six boys from the First Detachment, three from the Second) and called themselves the “Orientals”— immortalized in a photograph taken in 1878 in front of the elegant new Headquarters on Hartford’s Collins Street.  For the few who would return to the United States in later years as diplomats or other representatives of the Chinese Government, it was often as the champions of their youthful days that they were hailed in the press and remembered by their American friends.

Chinese Studies

Ting Sze Chung
While the Chinese boys were acquiring Western learning, manners, and athletic prowess, they were receiving training in the Chinese language and the Confucian classics.  The Commissioners prescribed one hour every day to be devoted to the study of Chinese.  However, because classroom exercises in Chinese could only be held in Hartford, every three months the students were required to travel to Hartford where two weeks were given over to the memorization and recitation of the ancient texts, with composition and writing of Chinese in the approved style.  In the summer, while their American classmates were enjoying the long vacation, the Chinese students were required to spend six weeks in Hartford attending Chinese class, from 9:00 to 12:00 in the morning, 2:00 to 4:00 in the afternoon, and 7:00 to 9:00 at night.  In addition, the boys were required to assemble on days specified by Chinese astrological formulas to hear the Commissioners read the sixteen moral maxims excerpted from the Kangxi 康熙 Emperor’s “Sacred Edict” 圣谕, and to perform ceremonial obeisance to the reigning Emperor.  These ritual activities had been stipulated in the terms of the Educational Mission’s creation with the express aim of “counteracting the seductive influence of foreign learning” on the youths.8

Tso Ki Foo
 This schedule of bilingual education was hard to bear.  Furthermore, the emphasis upon rote memorization of Confucian texts, together with the demand for unquestioning obedience to their teachers and to conventional etiquette, proved extremely distasteful to the Chinese boys as they grew into young men.  The mansion on Collins Street was splendid, comfortable, and well equipped.  But for the students it was “The Hell House,”9 where the monotony of their enforced study of the classical texts of their native culture contrasted painfully with the sense of personal freedom they had acquired in the schools, the homes, and the playing fields of New England.  Nevertheless, the strict training in their Chinese studies probably gave the students the linguistic and cultural competency necessary to enable them to function as bureaucrats in the various departments of Government where they were placed in later years.

High School Graduates

The Chinese students had adapted remarkably well to life in New England.  They had been warmly welcomed in the communities where they lived and studied; and despite increasingly strident anti-Chinese sentiments, voiced primarily in California, they do not appear to have encountered the kinds of abusive racial discrimination and violence directed against immigrant Chinese laborers in the West.  Discipline and perseverance in spite of the constraints of a system of bilingual education assured the academic success of the CEM students.  By the summer of 1879 the boys of the First Detachment had received their certificates of graduation from their high schools or academies.  In seven years they had reached a level of competence equal to that of their American schoolmates, while at the same time adhering to the demanding schedule of their Chinese studies.  As high school or academy graduates they were now fully qualified for higher levels of training or study in American institutions.  The students of the later detachments were expected to follow in their turn.  The next step in the Mission’s educational program would be gaining admission to a college or technical institute.



1. Yung Wing (1909), 189.

2. Robyn (1996), 42.  From 1881 the building's adddress was 352 Collins Street (on the site of today's St. Francis Hospital).

3. Yung Wing's own estimate in his letter to the editor, printed in article, "Chinese Education," Harper's Weekly, 18 May 1878, 398. Cf. Hung (1955), 61: "$43,000"; LaFargue (1987), 41: "$75,000".

4. Yung Kwai (2001), 16§.

5. Hung (1955), 62.

6. Phelps (1939), 85.

7. Ibid., 83.

8. Qian & Hu (2003), 75; Qian & Hu (2004), 86.

9. Yung Shang Him (1939), 8.