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Yung Wing Posted In: Profiles

When Yung Wing arrived in America in the late 1840s, he had “not the remotest idea,” he later wrote, that he would one day become the first Chinese student to receive a degree from any university in America, let alone from Yale. 

Wing College Shield

The Yung shield derives from the Chinese character for “mutual,” to highlight Yung Wing’s efforts to facilitate mutual exchange between the United States and China. His travels between the two nations created many metaphorical bridges while requiring him to travel across literal harbors, as signified by the enclosure of white space by sections of dense pattern.

Yung was brought to study in the United States by a Yale-educated missionary who had been his teacher in Hong Kong. Initially, he was to return to China after completing preparatory school in Connecticut, but Yung decided to stay and continue his studies.

He scrounged up some money from sponsors to take the Yale entrance exam. “How I got in, I do not know, as I had had only fifteen months of Latin and twelve months of Greek, and ten months of mathematics,” he wrote in his memoir My Life in China and America.

During his four years at Yale, Yung sang in choirs, played football, and joined the Boat Club. After winning two awards for English composition and despite nearly failing calculus, he graduated from Yale in 1854.

Not enough for the pioneering student and fervent supporter of education, Yung returned home “determined that the rising generation of China should enjoy the same educational advantages that I had enjoyed.” As he lacked the connections and experience to make that vision a reality, Yung spent the next decade dabbling in business and law in Hong Kong and southern China until he had built the political connections needed to realize that ambition.

Eighteen years after graduating from Yale, he secured approval for his plan: the Chinese Educational Mission, which would send 120 young Chinese men to the U.S. to study and develop skills they could use to build up China upon their return. Yung’s students arrived in New England in the early 1870s and lived with host families while they studied English and prepared for entrance into U.S. universities. Yale was their destination of choice, and 22 of the visiting students were admitted to the institution.

The mission, and Yung’s own life, did not end well. Chinese officials were suspicious of how Americanized many of the young students were becoming. After some of the students were barred from enrolling at West Point because of anti-Chinese sentiment, the officials called the educational mission off.

Yung Wing 1Yung himself got caught up in the maelstrom of political change at home and rising racism in the U.S. He found himself on the losing side of a change of government and tried to flee for the U.S. Sadly, his American citizenship had been revoked due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. He managed to return to Hartford, CT without papers, and died there in poverty.

Despite the ultimate closure of the educational mission, Yung achieved his goal of expanding access to Western education for students in China.

Among the students who were able to attendYale because of Yung’s efforts were Tang Guoan, a co-founder of Tsinghua School, which later became China’s prestigious Tsinghua University; Zhan Tianyou, the engineer known as the “Father of China’s Railroads”; and Hong Yen Chang, the first Chinese immigrant licensed to practice law in the United States.

Yung was a catalyst for change. While China was benefiting from the contributions of Yale alumni from Yung’s program, Yale was rapidly becoming known for its strong Chinese studies program. Yale’s East Asia Library grew from Yung’s personal collection of Chinese books after his death. Most importantly, Yale and the United States began a long and fruitful series of educational exchanges with China. Today, Yung’s legacy lives on through the Chinese Cultural Yung Wing Scholarship, funded by the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China; the scholarship supports one year of language study for a Yale student.


  1. Margaret Tung • April 6, 2015

    #yungcollege Reply

  2. Yunming Zhang • April 8, 2015

    a predecessor to study, to reimagine and a future to fulfil. Reply

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