AURELIA DOCHNAL chronicles the beginnings of the Yale-China Association, as part of a feature series on the organization.

Twelve decades ago, on February 10th, 1901, in the building now known as the Yale Visitor Center, a group of young Yale alumni founded what is today the Yale-China Association. Originally the Yale Mission  (soon changed to “Yale-in-China”), the founders and their supporters, which included then-University President Arthur Hadley and his predecessor, Timothy Dwight, established the organization with dreams of teaching Christian character and ethics in China while respecting Chinese traditions and cultural achievements. Why China in particular? Given Yale’s long history of interaction with the country, it seemed like a logical destination: over 30 Yale graduates had conducted missionary work in China in the 19th century, Yale professors like Harlan Beach had engaged intellectually with Chinese traditions at length, and Yung Wing, Yale class of 1854, the first Chinese to graduate from an American university, had inspired another 120 Chinese young men to follow in his footsteps and study in America on the “Chinese Educational Mission.”

Yung Wing graduated from Yale in 1854, the first person from China to receive a degree from an American college. (Source: The Yale-China Association: A Centennial History, Nancy E. Chapman and Jessica C. Plumb)

Yale-in-China’s first emissaries arrived in Beijing in 1902, just one year after the city had been overrun by Boxer rebels and later foreign troops. A general suspicion towards foreigners reigned across the country, with memories still fresh of the enslavement of millions of Chinese to foreign opium, the forced opening of Chinese cities and ports, the disastrous economic penalties of bloody wars, and the massacres and destruction of the Taiping rebels, followers of the god these foreign missionaries preached. Yale-in-China’s founders identified education and medical work as crucial areas for the Yale Mission to build on. They eventually chose Hunan, a Southern province of then 21 million people traditionally hostile to foreigners, as their location. Finding a permanent home in Hunan’s capital city Changsha proved more difficult than expected, as locals were unwilling to rent or sell land to foreigners, and space was generally scarce in the crowded city. By Christmas of 1906, however, a building in the heart of the city was renovated to provide classroom space and a Western medicine clinic. A small Yale community had gathered in Changsha, including Dr. Edward Hume, Yale class of 1897 and a graduate of the Johns Hopkins Medical School, with dreams of establishing a hospital and medical school in the city.

Dr. Edward Hume (right) is pictured with two Chinese colleagues at the door of the mission’s first clinic and hospital, housed in a converted inn in the crowded center of Changsha. (Source: A Centennial HistoryChapman and Plumb)

From the Yale medical clinic and preparatory school grew the network of institutions that in time came to be known as Yale-in-China: the Yali High School, the College of Yale-in-China, and the Xiang-Ya Hospital, Medical College, and Nursing School. As the preparatory school grew in size and reputation, Edward Hume opened a small hospital, working to gain trust from locals whose customs were deeply rooted in traditional Chinese medical practice. 

With the medical help and diplomatic skills of Dr. Yan Fuqing, a Shanghai-born physician who was the first Chinese graduate of Yale Medical School, and a prominent figure throughout Yale-in-China’s history, Hume secured funding and land from the Hunan authorities to build a modern hospital, medical school, and nursing school. This 1913 agreement, known as the Xiang-ya Agreement (with “xiang” signifying Hunan and “ya” Yale), was a uniquely collaborative partnership and a turning point in Yale-in-China’s development. Hume and Yale graduate Nina Gage also pioneered the previously little-known nursing profession in China. Gage was a founder of the Nurses’ Association of China, which, in 1908, coined the modern Chinese words for nursing and nurse (护士, hu shi). 

Representatives of the two parties to the innovative Xiang-ya Agreement: Drs. Yan Fuqing and Edward Hume (first and second from right) representing Yale-in-China, with officials from the Hunan government. (Source: A Centennial HistoryChapman and Plumb)

1913 was also the year that the Yale Mission was officially renamed “Yale-in-China,” as its Executive Committee back in New Haven sought to emphasize the organization’s primary commitment to education instead of religion. Yali Academy pivoted to instilling nondenominational values of the “Yale Spirit.” Yali Spirit was bolstered in 1908 with the introduction of recent Yale graduates serving as teachers for two-year stints and known as ‘bachelors’ for their B.A. degrees (and now called ‘Yale-China Fellows’).  Carrying on through the 1911 Revolution and the warlord period, Yale-in-China continued to grow. The College of Yale-in-China opened in 1914 and the construction of the Xiang-ya Hospital building was completed in 1918 with 180 beds. Yali High School’s, as the preparatory school became known, reputation grew, while the medical and nursing schools thrived, producing thousands of new doctors, nurses and graduates familiarized with western culture, language and medicine.

The Xiang-ya Hospital after completion, viewed from the new middle school campus. (Source: A Centennial HistoryChapman and Plumb)

Today, the Xiangya Hospital, School of Medicine, and School of Nursing are nationally renowned institutions. Yali High School is one of the top secondary schools in China. However, the legacy of Yale-in-China extends beyond individual institutions. The program continues to contribute to mutual respect, knowledge exchange, and understanding between China and the United States. Recent Yale graduate “Fellows” twelve decades later are still serving as teachers at Yali and other schools in Hong Kong and mainland China. Robust student exchanges, fellowships, and training programs in the arts, medicine, and education fields continue to form new generations of world citizens–although some of these programs have been paused by COVID-19 in 2021.

In collaboration with the Yale-China Association, China Hands Magazine is returning to our Yale roots to explore the complex, impressive, and often dramatic history of the organization. In this first article we have looked back on Yale-China’s founding. This year marks its 120th anniversary, and we will be sharing weekly articles largely sourced from Nancy E. Chapman and Jessica C. Plumb’s The Yale-China Association: A Centennial History about notable themes, figures, and events from the organization’s rich past. The photographs in this article are also from the book. We invite you to follow along via Yale-China’s Instagram page

Aurelia Dochnal can be contacted at Aurelia is a student at Yale and history researcher at the Yale-China Association. She is an editor at China Hands, and is leading the Yale-China History Project to examine Yale’s long history of collaboration with China and to celebrate the organization’s 120th anniversary this year.