Fortunate Sons: The 120 Chinese Boys Who Came to America, Went to School, and Revolutionized an Ancient Civilization

By Lamb, Connie | Comparative Civilizations Review, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

Fortunate Sons: The 120 Chinese Boys Who Came to America, Went to School, and Revolutionized an Ancient Civilization


Lamb, Connie, Comparative Civilizations Review


Liel Leibovitz and Matthew Miller. Fortunate Sons: The 120 Chinese Boys Who Came to America, Went to School, and Revolutionized an Ancient Civilization New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009

In 1850, at Yale University, the annual football match of freshmen vs. sophomores was underway. A freshman spectator on the sidelines dressed in a long robe with his long hair in a queue was trying to understand this mass of bodies pushing against each other when he saw the ball pop loose from the group. He picked it up and ran as fast as he could toward the goal line. The players stood in amazement for a moment, then a sophomore ran after the freshman and pulled on his queue. The pain made Yung Wing drop the ball, which he kicked across the goal line winning the game for the freshman team - a true upset. The boys hefted Yung to their shoulders in celebration. Thus begins the book Fortunate Sons about Chinese students in America, in particular the Chinese Educational Mission of 1872-1881, which Yung Wing championed and directed.

This introductory story demonstrates that the book reads like a novel - like historical fiction - except that it is true and well documented. The book is divided into three sections. Part I tells of Yung Wing who was brought to America by a Christian missionary. Yung graduated from Yale and returned to China with the goal of encouraging the Imperial Court to send Chinese students to the United States for education in western knowledge. The book describes his work and eventual success in the creation of the Chinese Educational Mission (CEM) and his return to America to direct the program. Part II explains the journey of the 120 Chinese students, thirty per year for four years, and their experiences living with New England families and attending school. Part III details their return to China when the mission abruptly ended and then follows a few of them through their lives and activities. It provides an overview of Chinese history from the 1880s into the 1900s, including the French attack on Foochow, the war with Japan, the demise of the monarchy, and the struggle to modernize China.

In 1847, at the age of 19, Yung Wing was taken to America by a missionary-teacher, Reverend Samuel Brown, who schooled Yung while serving in China. Rev. Brown lived in Connecticut, so Yung lived there too and was the first Chinese student admitted to Yale University, graduating in 1854. He returned to China and the rest of part I explains his adjustment back in his homeland, the challenges China was facing, the corrupt Qing dynasty, the increasing European presence, and Yung's work to earn money for his own stability. He helped found an arsenal with purchased Western technology, which produced guns and cannons. He also aided in establishing an engineering school near the arsenal where local Chinese students could train in designing, building, and operating the Western machines. He finally became a mandarin, in recognition of his knowledge and abilities. He promoted the idea that China should send students to America and pay for their education at the finest colleges there, with the idea that they would become the future leaders of China unburdened by antiquated thinking and superstitions (p. 85). They would learn Western skills that would help their country to modernize.

In the late 1800s China was ravaged by poverty, population growth, and aggressive European armies. Driven by a desire for progress and reform, called the Self Strengthening Movement, the Chinese Imperial Court agreed to send students under the direction of Yung Wing to America to study at New England's finest schools. The students chosen to go (with their parent's permission) were 11-14 years old and were expected to stay in America for 15 years, going to high schools and universities to learn skills that would help them advance China toward modernity. The students sailed across the Pacific Ocean, landing in San Francisco in September 1872. To these boys, mostly from poor families in Southern China, the bustle of the city, the strange language, the hotel amenities, and the new technology were amazing and difficult to comprehend. …

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