120th Anniversary of Yale-China: Mao Zedong and Yale-China

AURELIA DOCHNAL explores Mao Zedong’s relationship with Yale-China in the 1900s.

In his 1903 search for a base in China, one of Yale-China’s founders, Lawrence Thurston, heard from a local missionary that “Hunan people would be as influential as any people in the Empire.” Beyond influencing the eventual decision for Yale-China to settle in Changsha, the crowded but ambitious capital of Hunan, this observation seems a foreshadowing of the rise of Mao Zedong, then a young boy living in Hunan. 

In the mid-1910s, well after the organization’s establishment in Changsha, Dr. Edward Hume M.D., Dr. Yan Fuqing M.D., and other Yale-China pioneers founded the Xiangya Hospital, Medical College, and School of Nursing (read more about their extraordinary achievements here). With these new modern buildings, the “Yale-in-China” campus moved away from its cramped central city buildings, like the renovated Changsha inn once used by Dr. Hume as a medical clinic, courtyard pictured below.

Nina Gage, the first Dean of the Xiangya School of Nursing, with a student in an interior courtyard of the Yale-China clinic and hospital. (Source: A Centennial History)

In the spring of 1919, Mao Zedong left his librarian position at Peking University, where he had immersed himself in the intellectual world of New Youth magazine, the leading publication of the New Culture movement, and met influential figures exploring Marxist thought, like Li Dazhao. He returned to Changsha to teach at a local high school. He began writing for and editing a journal, the Xiang River Review, devoted largely to news of student demonstrations leading the May Fourth Movement (May 4, 1919), a period of intellectual ferment directed against the corrupt Beijing regime’s submission to Japanese Treaty of Versailles demands. The Hunan governor at the time, Zhang Jingyao, a ruthless general and frequent subject of Mao’s attacks against the rampant corruption in Hunan government, ordered the closure of the magazine. 

Hunan native Mao Zedong rented part of Yale-in-China’s former medical clinic in 1919. (Source: A Centennial History)

Unfazed by the brutal suppression of his journal, Mao was appointed editor of a student journal, Xin Hunan (New Hunan), at Xiangya Medical College, whose Dean was the aforementioned Dr. Yan. In its manifesto, Mao wrote that all power or “authority”— a word he printed in English, which he was struggling to learn at the time— that might try to silence the publication would be ignored. The English wording may have been a way to reference the New Culture movement, which sought to modernize Chinese society and free it from traditions hindering scientific progress and competition with the West. He may have believed that, as the journal had ties to Yale-in-China, it would receive some measure of protection. He was wrong, and the governor General Zhang suppressed the magazine after the first issue appeared with continued criticism of his government and articles praising socialism.

In 1920, General Zhang was ousted from power, and Mao returned to Changsha after a stint working in Beijing. He announced his plan to realize a long-time dream: founding a “Cultural Book Society.” This society was intended to spread ideas of New Culture, the intellectual and cultural precursor to the politically-charged May Fourth Movement promoted by the New Youth journal, throughout Hunan. The Society’s first venture was a collectively-owned, dividend-less bookstore stocking foreign and Chinese-language titles, and backed by wealthy business leaders who, along with Mao, supported the then-blossoming Hunan independence movement, which sought a separate constitution and self-governance for Hunan province. 

A Xiangya Medical College class in 1917 (Source: A Centennial History)

The store space was rented from the Xiangya Medical College, and also hosted the New People’s Study Society, a study group of various local students and young people, including Xiangya students. The bookshop business flourished, with several branches spanning seven counties and various local outlets. By 1921, the main office of the company grew too cramped in the Xiangya building, so Mao was forced to move out. The success of the business was significant: Yale historian Jonathan Spence points out that thanks to, in part, the bookshop’s boom, Mao was chosen as one of the delegates at the First Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in Shanghai in 1921.

In 1925, as political unrest grew and so did the divide between Chinese and foreign institutions, the president of Yale-in-China at the time wrote a report forwarded to Washington about “Bolshevik disturbances” in Changsha. He claimed that the Hunan governor had “received a list of twenty leaders of agitation, including Mao Tse-tung, known to be the leading Communist propagandist here.” Mao’s reputation as a revolutionary and his previous connections with Xiangya Medical College had not escaped the keen and worried eye of the Yale-in-China administration.

With Mao’s rising prominence also came respect and admiration for the work of Xiangya Hospital. He once wrote in a letter, “If you cannot be cured at Xiangya Hospital, you cannot be cured at hospitals in Beijing either.” Xiangya’s reputation for advanced western medicine training coupled with its transition, under the Xiangya Agreement, into mostly Chinese leadership by the 1920s, established its place as one of the top medical institutions in central and southern China. 

Mao Zedong meeting with Dr. Yan Fuqing, first Dean of Xiangya Medical College, who served as Minister of Health in the 1930s. (Source: Xiangya website)

It is not surprising that Mao, a prominent and outspoken Hunan native, encountered Yale-in-China’s various institutions throughout his time in Hunan. While his ties were not directly to the organization, their intermingled stories in a rapidly changing, dramatic political landscape seemed to prove that early 1903 prophecy: Hunan, its people, and its institutions, both local and foreign, would have staggering significance in the years to come. 

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. 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. This article is additionally sourced from Jonathan D. Spence’s Mao Zedong and Jung Chang’s Mao: The Unknown Story. Thank you to Marek Dochnal for finding the Yale-China reference in Jung Chang’s biography of Mao. We invite you to follow along via Yale-China’s Instagram page

Aurelia Dochnal can be contacted at aurelia.dochnal@yale.edu. 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. 

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