Yung Wing statue at Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library

The Graduate

New Haven is a place where students from around the world come to learn, which is one reason the city is both the cultural and multicultural capital of Connecticut.

Of course, there was a time when foreign students didn’t study here at all, and while the city’s seaport status meant it was long a stopover for people of all nationalities, it was still unusual—indeed, unprecedented—when Chinese native Yung Wing (容闳) graduated Yale in 1854.

Yung—in China, the surname goes first—was born in 1828 near the island of Macau, and was able to attend an English missionary school there. He learned English and other subjects until his father died in 1840, forcing him to work to provide for his mother and siblings. But he was eventually able to resume his education at a different institution: the Morrison Education Society School, led by Samuel Robbins Brown.

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Brown was a notable Connecticut missionary, who would also open two schools in Japan—and, significantly for Yung’s future, Brown was a Yale graduate. When the schoolmaster’s health declined in 1846, he decided to return to the U.S., and to take three of his students with him. Presented with the unusual opportunity to continue his education in the United States, Yung quickly volunteered.

On his arrival in April of 1847, the young man embarked on a tour of New York and New England. After three years at a preparatory academy in Monson, Massachusetts, his application to Yale was accepted. With assistance mustered by Brown, and by performing menial jobs serving better-heeled students, he managed to scrape enough together to pay his way.

Despite economic and cultural disadvantages, Yung distinguished himself. He earned a prize for one of his English compositions and served as a member and assistant librarian of Yale’s prestigious Brothers in Unity Society.

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Upon graduating in 1854, he became the first Chinese student to get a degree from a North American university. As Yung’s memoirs, My Life in China and America (1909), dryly recount, “My nationality, of course, added piquancy to my popularity,” referring to the resulting media hubbub. By then, it had become Yung’s goal to use his learning and status to reform China’s educational system, returning on a ship that sailed from Sandy Hook to Hong Kong.

But first he had to raise his profile in his native land. Through merchant and translation work—and a bout of fisticuffs with a Scotsman who harassed him for being Chinese, which struck a chord with compatriots who’d had enough of westerners pushing them around—he grew in renown. He helped develop a modern military arsenal for the government, later introducing the infamous Gatling gun to China.

Having gotten a foot in the door of the bureaucracy, he was finally able to embark on his educational plan in 1870. He contributed to the Chinese Educational Commission, which chose 120 Chinese male students to pursue 15 years of study in America. By 1872, Yung was shepherding the program’s first contingent throughout New England, while living in Hartford himself.

In 1875, Yung wed Mary Kellogg, an Avon native. (Yung had another marriage in his younger years to a Chinese woman, though it’s unclear what happened to her.) Their marriage announcement in the New York Times describes the wedding guests as wearing the finest Chinese and Western fashions. Together they would have two sons, both American citizens.

But things would take a turn. Fearing CEC students were becoming too Americanized, and with the U.S. signaling that it was going to renege its promise of admitting the students to Annapolis and West Point—which would’ve added a military component to the students’ education—the Chinese government shut the commission down in 1881. Despite their educations being cut short, the program’s enrollees would have profound effects back in China, becoming statesmen and engineers.

Yung spent the next many years shuttling between China and Hartford, with his wife dying of a protracted illness in 1886 and his eldest son entering Yale in 1894. But in 1898, the ruthless Dowager Empress Cixi effectively deposed Zaitian, the young reformist Chinese emperor, and Yung’s life was suddenly imperiled, for he was a known proponent of reform. With a bounty on his head, he tried to return to the U.S.—but not without more trouble.

By then, America had become especially intolerant of immigrants from China, with new workers barred from the country under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, extended by the Geary Act of 1892. In practice, the law’s scope widened beyond manual laborers to VIPs like Yung. As U.S. Secretary of State John Sherman wrote in 1898, “In view of the construction placed upon the naturalization laws of the United States by our highest courts, the Department does not feel that it can properly recognize as a citizen of the United States.”

But sympathizers managed to sneak him back into the country anyway, and in 1902, he was able to witness his second son graduate from Yale, four years after his first son had done the same.

Yung Wing died in Hartford in 1912, never having regained his former status in either country—until history got ahold of him, anyway. Here, his achievement as the first Chinese graduate of an American university has led to renewed interest in his life, and his name was even floated as a candidate for the title of one of Yale’s new residential colleges.

Yung’s home village was consolidated into the city of Zhuhai, and in 2004 the city government donated a statue of him to Yale. Portrayed as a young man in traditional Chinese dress, with an expression that adopts different airs as the viewer circles around, he gazes over the Linonia and Brothers Room in Sterling Memorial Library, which houses his former responsibility, the books of the Brothers of Unity, and embodies the cause to which he devoted his life.

Written by Anne Ewbank. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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