Yale’s tercentennial celebration spread across the Pacific Ocean to China this summer, where University ties date back nearly 150 years.
In May, Yale President Richard Levin led a delegation that traveled to Hong Kong and mainland China to celebrate the University’s 300th birthday and to formally announce several global initiatives, including the Center for the Study of Globalization. A Yale group continued the celebration this summer with a series of events in the United Kingdom.
The convoy to China made international headlines because Yale has an unusually long and strong connection to the Communist country.
At this year’s Commencement, Levin spoke to graduates about his trip to China and why it is important for graduates to not confine their experiences to the Western Hemisphere, particularly as globalization takes its effect on the economy and civilization at large.
“China matters because one-fifth of the world population lives there,” Levin said at graduation.
In 1854, Yale made history when it awarded Yung Wing a bachelor’s degree. Wing was the first Chinese student to graduate from an American college, and his historic graduation was the first in a string of events that developed Yale’s connection with China.
Wing returned to China and became an advocate for the modernization of China, and he successfully persuaded the emperor to send 100 Chinese students to secondary school in Connecticut. Some of those students went on to study at Yale. Wing’s story is a personal example of the symbiotic relationship Yale shares with its Eastern companion. Today, more than 300 Yale students hail from China, and many American undergraduates continue their education in the Far East after receiving a degree in New Haven.
Yale’s influence also reaches China in name. Yale graduates, participating in the missionary group Yale-in-China, founded the Yali Middle School and the Hsiang-Ya Hospital, Medical School and Nursing School in Changsha 100 years ago. And Yale was also the first American university to teach the Chinese language.
The connections continue to the present, ranging from AIDS education programs in Hunan directed by Yale nurses to the newly launched China Law Center at Yale.
Levin was received in China, in his own words, “like a rock star.”
His arrival in Beijing led the news of every major TV network and newspaper throughout China. His face graced the covers of major magazines and his voice was heard over radio airwaves.
Strobe Talbott ’68, director for the new globalization study center at Yale, added to the glamour of the Yale delegation. The former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State formally launched the center he is directing at a tercentennial gala in Hong Kong. More than 500 guests attended that ceremony, most of them Yale graduates living in the Far East.
Administrators said the excitement about the Yale convoy, which included Dean of the Nursing School Catherine Gillis and Yale-China Association President Nancy Chapman, was due in part to the University’s deep roots in China and the unique timing of the trip.
The delegation left for the trip one month after a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet during a routine surveillance trip. The Chinese pilot was lost at sea. Tense negotiations followed the accident as the Chinese government refused for several months to return the spy plane to the U.S., which made an emergency landing in China after the crash.
Levin was the first American leader to meet with China President Jiang Zemin after the incident.
“I think in a certain way we were fortunate beneficiaries of greater public attention because of that event,” Levin said.
University Secretary Linda Lorimer said the timing and Yale’s strong connections to China explain why the presidents of Harvard and Stanford universities were not received with such a huge reception upon their visits several years ago.
Celebrating in London
China was not the only stop for Yale administrators and alumni wishing to spread the news of the school’s 300th birthday. In July, more than 400 members of the Yale Alumni Chorus performed a memorial concert at Yale’s early benefactor Elihu Yale’s gravesite in Wrexham, Wales.
The celebration continued when alumni from all over Europe congregated in London for symposia and a party. Speakers included Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead and Dean of the Graduate School Susan Hockfield.
The European tercentennial tribute included tours of Oxford and Cambridge universities, a concert at St. Paul’s Cathedral featuring the British Philharmonic Orchestra and a gala at the British Royal Courts of Justice.