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Yung Wing was the first Chinese student to graduate from an American university. He received a degree from Yale College in 1854, and later returned to China, where he became a successful tea merchant, interpreter and assistant to foreign missionaries. He returned to the U.S. in the fateful year of 1864 to buy armaments for China, and even tried to enlist in the Union Army. He had become a naturalized American citizen in 1852 and married an American woman in 1876. He also organized the Chinese Educational Mission, which sent hundreds of Chinese students to the U.S. during the 19th century. In 1876, he received an honorary doctorate of laws from Yale in recognition of his valuable work. His son Bartlett also graduated from Yale, and Yung’s grave is in Cedar Hill Cemetery near Hartford.
Yung’s binational, bicultural career paved the ways for the hundreds of thousands of Chinese who came after him, seeking to use their American education to benefit both their home country and the United States. In a broader sense, he represents not only China’s turn toward the West, but that of foreign students around the world. He represents the turn of Yale students toward active engagement in global affairs, through intensive study of science and technology, liberal arts and cultural heritages.
One amusing story ties Yung even more closely to Yale. He offered to donate his large collection of Chinese classical texts to the Yale library on the condition that Yale establish a professorship in Chinese studies. When the Yale faculty declined his offer, he noted that, reluctantly, he would have to give his collection instead to another place — Harvard. Hearing this, the Yale faculty changed its mind, and did establish the first professorship in Chinese studies in the United States, which was taken up by S. Wells Williams in 1877. Yung’s collection became the nucleus of the Chinese collection of Sterling Library, and it now ranks as one of the leading East Asian collections in the world. A statue of Yung stands in front of the International Room in Sterling Library.
Because of Yung’s dedication to learning, the links he forged between China and the U.S. and the model he offers for international education and cultural exchange, it is only fitting that Yale signal its dedication to truly global learning by naming a college after him.
Peter Perdue is a professor of history. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Oct. 18
Because of an editing error, a previous version of this column mistakenly referred to Yung Wing by his given name, not his family name.