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Months before he was beheaded, Horace Tracy Pitkin must have sensed the coming disaster.

Whispers of unrest probably arrived by train from Peking, at the other end of the line. In Shandong province, flood and then drought had destroyed the crops, and the countryside bristled with discontent. Citizens were tired of famine.

Lured by the vision of a land unmarred by Western corruption and a people ready for Christian enlightenment, Pitkin, Yale Class of 1892, had left with his young bride shortly after graduation for the farthest reaches of the Western world — Paotingfu, China.

But before long he sent his wife and child back home to the United States — at the dawn of the new century, China was a powder keg ready to explode. The weakened Qing dynasty was desperately trying to regain power from the hungry “foreign devils” carving the land into sections. “The Fists of Righteous Harmony,” a superhuman band of roving martial artists, were preparing to crush the foreign, Christian imperialists and their Chinese supporters.

Foreign missionaries were the primary targets. Pitkin, however, decided to remain in China after his family left. He was, after all, a Yale man and a missionary of God.

By January 1900, the 20th century had already become violent. The Boxers moved through the northern provinces, unleashing a wave of fire and murder. On their way to the capital, they burned the rail station in Paotingfu, slaughtering around 200 missionaries and Chinese converts.

Word would later reach New Haven that Pitkin had been murdered while attempting to save two women missionaries. His death was the first disheartening episode in Yale’s relationship with China, and a bloody way to start the new century.

At the time, the shocked Yale community could hardly have imagined that only a century later, Yale would be a preeminent American influence in China, and Beijing would welcome a Yale president “like a rock star.”

This Saturday, Yale President Richard Levin will lead a convoy to China, underscoring the administration’s decade-long commitment to making Yale a global university. As Yale steams ahead with its globalization efforts, the University’s three-century long relationship with China also figures prominently in its plans for the next century.

“We’ve had nothing but warm relations,” Levin said. “I think the Chinese are interested in sustaining a long-term relationship with Yale.”

As Pitkin’s gruesome beheading shows, the Yale-China connection has not always been so warm. From its missionary roots, Yale’s involvement in China has grown in fits and spurts with the roller coaster politics of the 20th century. At times tenuous, at times strong, the connection has managed to survive to this day.

“Our history has definitely been affected by events on the world stage,” Yale-China Association Executive Director Nancy Chapman said. “We’ve definitely felt the impact of ups and downs.”

For God, for China, and for Yale

But the current nature of Yale’s relationship with China differs drastically from its original incarnation. Although today it is a reciprocal relationship of intellectual exchange, the Yale-China interaction began primarily as a series of a monetary and missionary endeavors.

The Yale-China connection can be traced back nearly two hundred years before Pitkin lost his head at the hands of the Boxers. University namesake Elihu Yale, whose donations allowed the school to move to New Haven from Saybrook, earned his fortune through his work with the East India Company, and some of his money from the China-Trade probably helped found Yale.

But the University’s involvement in the vast, relatively uncharted land of China did not truly begin until the Second Great Awakening of the 1830s, when a revival of American Christian sentiment invigorated missionaries to seek work outside of American soil. A steady stream of Yale men left New Haven for the other side of the world to convert Chinese citizens.

“I think we forget that Yale was a very religious school, and very prominent in the Great Awakening,” Chinese historian and Sterling Professor of History Jonathan Spence said. “China was such a huge country of ‘heathens,’ and yet seemed ready for an enlightenment.”

Growing interest in China resulted in a mid-century renaissance of Chinese studies at Yale. In 1854, Yale produced the first Chinese graduate of an American university, Yung Wing. Soon after, Yale also became the first university in the United States to hire a professor of Chinese language and history. Samuel Wells Williams set about educating Yale students, eventually inspiring Yale to lobby Congress to rescind the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, a law that limited Asian immigration to the United States.

During the latter part of the century, China’s borders were more penetrable than ever before due to the disastrous Opium Wars of the 1840s and the inroads of the imperial foreign powers. Pitkin was one of the new wave of missionaries who lost their lives when frustration with foreign encroachment reached a boiling point during the Boxer Rebellion. Several colleges, including Bryn Mawr, Oberlin and Grinnell, also lost graduates during the rebellions.

Back at Yale, Pitkin’s dismayed friends were not satisfied with the monument erected to the University’s first “missionary martyr” in Woolsey Rotunda. They wanted to make sure that “Pitkin’s sacrifice was atoned for somehow by us Yale men.”

So the group of friends — Lawrence Thurston, Arthur Williams, Warren Seabury and Brownell Gage — decided to create a permanent Yale missionary presence in China dedicated to the memory of the their fallen comrade. Despite the recent violence, China still seemed like one of the areas most accessible to western influence.

“China presents itself as unquestionably the most promising field in the world for the kind of work which a university mission is fitted to undertake,” professor Harlan Beach wrote at the time.

In 1901, these four men founded the Yale Foreign Missionary Society — which would later become the present-day Yale-China Association — and set to work establishing a school and hospital in Hunan, a province in Central China.

Opening doors

The Yale Foreign Missionary Society, called Yale-in-China throughout most of the 1900s, would become Yale’s primary connection with China for the greater part of the century, suffering the ups and downs of China’s foreign affairs as politics and policy changed through the years.

The creation of Yale’s campus in China was a long and difficult process, interrupted by upheavals and constantly threatened by Chinese distrust of foreign influence. Seabury and Thurston would eventually both have plaques in Woolsey Rotunda next to Pitkin’s: Thurston contracted tuberculosis in 1903 while attempting to find land for the program, and Seabury drowned in a swimming accident in China four years later.

The Yali Academy — later known as the Yali Middle School — opened its doors to Chinese students in 1906 in the ancient walled city of Changsha. There, students were instructed in both Western and Chinese subject matter. Soon, recent Yale graduates began to be recruited as short-term instructors, known as the “Bachelors.” By 1918, due to the generosity of Edward Harkness, construction was completed on a new, state-of-the-art medical college, hospital and middle school campus.

Era of ‘enlightenment’

Relations between the local Chinese government and students and the Yale staff members were delicate from the start. Although Yale-in-China almost immediately reduced the religious nature of its work, the original missionary causes and attitudes remained a campus presence, and a source of tension, through the years.

“Right from the start, the Chinese felt real caution about linking education with Christian training,” Spence said. “If you wanted to become a nurse or doctor, why did you need Christian training?”

During the rice riot of 1910, and again in 1927 when Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist Party took over the Chinese government, rising anti-foreign sentiment forced the Yale administrators to evacuate.

“We have been made aware of the almost bottomless gulf of pride, prejudice, and misunderstanding between the east and west,” Gage wrote in a letter home.

Even during times without overt political strife, the students and Changsha residents resisted American control. Yale-in-China, which was “manned and controlled by Yale men,” was not intended to be a reciprocal program: Americans were in Changsha to educate and “enlighten” the Chinese.

Even in the 1950s, 20 years after the program had transitioned to minimal American oversight, many at Yale still viewed the Chinese as the primary beneficiaries of the arrangement.

“[Yale-in-China’s] enlightening effect on a new generation of Chinese may be of as great significance as its contributions to a past generation,” the Yale Daily News reported in 1951, during Yale-in-China’s 50th anniversary.

Many at Yale remained hopeful even after the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, when the United States became the enemy of China. The News reported on Feb. 12, 1951 that Anson Stokes, one of the original members of the program, expressed his hope that Yale-in-China would “save for China the strong institutions based on Christian faith and idealism of Yale.”

Leaving the mainland

But after surviving the horrors and privations of World War II, as well as Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, most of Yale-in-China’s staff were evacuated from the country by 1951.

With the expulsion of the last staff member, Yale’s involvement in mainland China ended for nearly 30 years. Only in1980, after China had opened its doors to the West once more, did Yale return to Changsha.

Deprived of a campus in China, the Association turned to the British colony Hong Kong, and in 1954 began cooperating with New Asia College. Funding from Yale allowed the recently-founded college to construct institutional buildings, and soon the Yale Bachelor program began once more sending graduates to teach English.

The Yale-in-China Association’s new role also necessitated a change of mission. In contrast to the Yale-in-China organization, with its Christian missionary roots, New Asia college had been founded by refugee scholars from mainland China, with Confucianism as its guiding principle.

“The aim of this group of scholars was to preserve traditional Chinese culture and to balance it with Western training,” Peter Man, the current secretary of New Asia College, said in an e-mail.

Former U.S. President Richard Nixon’s diplomatic visit to China in 1972 ushered in a new era of cooperation and intellectual exchange. Gone were the days of “enlightening the heathens.”

“The shift [of outlook] began in the early 1970s, when we expanded our mission from educating Chinese people to [include] educating Americans about China,” Chapman said. “People here realized that Americans didn’t know as much about China as they should have.”

With the change in mission came a change in name, the “Yale-China Association.” In 1980, contacts with Hunan Medical College — Yale’s original medical school — were established, and the Bachelor program in the mainland resumed once more.

Return of the ‘rock star’

The reestablishment of diplomatic ties with China allowed Yale to embark on a new stage of its relationship with the country as Levin launched the University’s globalization initiative for Yale’s fourth century.

“It really was about six years ago that we started thinking seriously about a major commitment to internationalism,” Levin said. “Pretty early on, we realized that China should be a major focus. I believe it’s destined to be the number two economic power. It’s an immense pool of creative talent.”

In celebration of the University’s 2001 tercentennial, Levin led a Yale convoy to China. He told the Yale Daily News in 2001 he was treated “like a rock star.”

On his trip next week, Levin will be honored by three major Chinese universities: Fudan in Shanghai, as well as Peking and Tsinghua Universities in Beijing.

Levin will receive an honorary degree at Peking University, and he will deliver the keynote speech at a Shanghai conference commemorating the 25th anniversary of of China’s “Open Door” policy — when Chinese students were first allowed to leave the country to study. During the week-long trip, Levin and the rest of the Yale delegation will have briefings with senior Chinese government officials and scholars.

“China’s opening has come at a great time because [the Chinese] can have access to an awful lot of knowledge and intellectual partnership at Yale,” said Yale-China Association Chairman David Jones Jr. ’80 LAW ’88, who accompanied Levin on his 2001 trip.

Opportunities flourish

The decade preceding Levin’s first trip to China witnessed a flowering of new China-affiliated programs at Yale. The Richard U. Light Fellowship began funding Yale students to study East Asian languages in long-term immersion programs in 1996. Light, a Yale graduate, donated a “substantial sum” for the creation of a foundation that would encourage Yale students to become more informed about Asia.

“This put Yale at the forefront of study abroad [and] intensive language study in Korea, China, Taiwan and Japan,” Yale Center for International and Area Studies Associate Director Nancy Ruther said.

The large number of students studying Chinese language, culture and history at Yale, as well as the approximately 300 Chinese students at Yale yearly, prompted undergraduates to found the Yale College Chinese Partnership Program, or YCCP, in 2001. The organization pairs language students with native speakers and hosting forums on modern China.

“It provides a venue for Yale people who are interested in Chinese culture to be able to interact with one another,” YCCP President Alexander Millman ’06 said.

And a century after the Boxer Rebellion inspired its foundation, the Yale-China Association also has expanded its programs. In addition to a two-year English Teaching Fellowship for recent Yale graduates (the descendant of the Bachelor program), the Yale-China Association currently organizes an annual exchange between New Asia College and Yale students. The Legal Education Fellowship program also sends U.S.-trained lawyers to China to teach law in their Chinese universities.

Chapman said she believes the future of the organization’s interactions with China ought to focus on the development of China’s non-governmental, not-for-profit sector. Already, the association sends students to China for summer internships with non-governmental organizations, and has begun training Chinese health care professionals to deal with China’s burgeoning AIDS epidemic.

“China is only now beginning to realize the extent of its AIDS crisis,” Chapman said. “This is a totally non-political issue — between the [United States] and China.”

Legal wrangling

Yale has also become involved in China’s political arena, with Yale Law School’s 1999 founding of the China Law Center. The center aims to assist the legal reform process within China and to increase outside understanding of China’s legal system. China Law Center Associate Director Jamie Horsley said this initiative complements the United States’ policy regarding China.

“What we and others at Yale are doing [complements] U.S. foreign policy goals in helping China build rule of law,” Horsley said. “[It] includes governance and a more open governing style and building respect for citizens’ rights and the importance of law in helping to cure arbitrary government action.”

The China Law Center, led by Yale law professor and former U.S. State Department official Paul Gewirtz, has established Yale as a leading force in China and Chinese law. At the State Department, Gewirtz spearheaded the U.S.-China legal cooperation initiative, which was agreed to by then-U.S. President Bill Clinton LAW ’73 and Chinese President Jiang Zemin at summit meetings from 1997-98.

China, now an emerging global force, has drawn attention in the Law School community.

“China is now a force in the international world — the universities see China as a great source of talent and as a potential partner,” Horsley said.

The China Law Center is often invited by Chinese leaders to undertake initiatives in the Chinese legal system. The China Law Center frequently sends a team of leading experts in the U.S. legal community. The center also conducts research and teaching while promoting academic exchanges with Chinese educational institutions.

Yale’s long-standing and currently strong reputation in China makes the University’s legal convoy a welcome force in the Chinese legal community.

“It’s clear that Yale University has a wonderful reputation in China,” Horsley said. “Our ability to capitalize on the world-renowned reputation of Yale University has definitely helped us to gain access and acceptance very quickly in China for our programs.”

While other colleges and universities have legal programs in China, Yale’s program is a leading one.

In a letter from Woodbridge Hall dated Nov. 19, 1912, former Yale President Arthur Hadley said the University’s partnership with China complements Yale’s intellectual mission.

“The more a university reaches out into new fields, whether of thought or of action, the more surely does it keep itself alive at heart,” Hadley said.

As Levin embarks on yet another Chinese trip, Yale’s once-bloody history in the Far East seems like the distant past. Few people stop to notice Pitkin’s dusty bronze monument in a gloomy alcove of Woolsey Rotunda, or the cluster of China-related memorials that have joined it since its creation.

A country on the verge of rebellion and revolution a century ago, China today is emerging as a global power. And Yale, one hundred years later, has a deeply-rooted stake in its future.