Sunday, April 27, 2014

Book Review: Fortunate Sons

“Fortunate Sons” told the story of the first group of 120 young boys to be sponsored by the Manchu government in Beijing and entered the U.S. for a western education. The first cohort rode on the newly completed transcontinental railroad from San Francisco to Hartford Connecticut in 1872. These boys grew into adulthood in America and played important roles the early bilateral relations between China and the U.S.

Sending boys to America for a western education was Yung Wing’s idea. He had undergone just such an experience, becoming the first Chinese to graduate from Yale in 1854.

When he went back to China, he eventually met and became a trusted assistant to Zeng Guofan, the most powerful official at the imperial court. Zeng felt the sting of Western imperial powers and the unequal treaties imposed on China. He asked Yung for his ideas on modernizing China, Yung proposed sending boys to the U.S. for further education.

By the time Yung accompanied the first of three batches of 40 boys to America in 1872, Zeng had died and succeeded by Li Hongzhang, who became Yung’s chief patron in court. Li shared Zeng’s desire to modernize China.

With the help of Yung’s friendship and connection with the Christian missionaries, the boys were dispersed to families in Connecticut to attend schools preparatory to entering leading universities in America.

By and large these boys, at ages of 12 and 13, adapted to American life and quickly became fluent in English. Some even excelled in baseball and all worked diligently to get to the top of their class. Anti racist bias had not yet found their way to the eastern parts of the U.S. Their female classmates found the Chinese boys exotic and more attractive than their more ordinary white classmates.

The first group of students graduated from high school in 1876 and they were accepted into such elite schools as Yale, MIT and other Ivy schools. The race riot that rampaged through Chinatown of San Francisco incited by Dennis Kearney was a year away in the future.

By 1881, Li Hongzhang came under severe political pressure at the imperial court and was forced to abort the mission to educate the boys sent to the U.S. Only two had completed their college education and received their degrees. Over 60 of them were sprinkled in various colleges; Yale had the most with 22, MIT with 8, Columbia with 3 and Harvard 1.

The last contingent was to return to China in September 1881. Before boarding ship in San Francisco, the now young men challenged the local team to a baseball game. The local team couldn’t hit against the lefthander on the Chinese team and lost.

Some of these men found positions in the government. Others built some of the first railroads in China. Others found schools and universities. Among the more notable were Tong Shaoyi and Liang Dunyan.

Tong was one time the right hand man under Yuan Shikai before becoming disillusioned by Yuan’s greed for power. He led a delegation to Lhasa and successfully negotiated a treaty with the Brits that gave possession of Tibet back to China.

Liang was the southpaw pitcher who became Minister of Foreign Affairs. He convinced America to use some of the indemnity funds to send Chinese students to America. He started Tsinghua prep school to prepare the student before sending them overseas.

The book was as much devoted to the life of Yung as the boys he brought to America. By accident, he became the hero of his Yale freshmen class by scoring the equivalent of the winning touchdown in the traditional annual scrum between the freshmen and sophomore class.

Yung met or intersected with the lives of many historical figures. Besides Zeng and Li, Yung met some of the leaders of the Taiping Rebellion and flirted with the idea of joining them. In the U.S. he met Mark Twain and shook the hands of President Ulysses Grant.

Yung was to cross the Pacific numerous times in the service of the Chinese government. On March 2, 1875, he married Mary Kellogg. By then he was in his early 40”s, well past the age when Chinese men married for the first time.

The book did not record whether Yung met Anson Burlingame during his stay in China. There was no question that he and his charges benefitted from the Burlingame Treaty of 1868 which respected the sovereignty of China and stipulated that citizens of each was to protected by the other.

By the time, the last of Chinese mission returned to China, it was just one year before the Exclusion Act of 1882. It was an America radically different from the one Yung first entered.

In September 1898, the famous 100 days of reform came to an end, and Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, the lead proponents of reform had the escape beheading by sneaking out of China. They did so with Yung Wing’s help.

Yung himself was not so fortunate. His US citizenship was revoked for no justifiable reason and he had sneaked back into the U.S. He died penniless and alone in a San Francisco flophouse on May 29, 1912 less than one year after China became a republic.

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