BRIAN WANG shares the story of Wang Chenghsu, a Chinese student who claimed the coveted oratory prize at Yale, capturing wide attention.

On March 3, 1915, at 8:00 p.m., the Lampson Lyceum was abuzz with anticipation. Since its construction in 1903, this building had played host to countless brilliant minds and numerous major gatherings at Yale.

Unfolding was a much-awaited oratory contest, where five participants vied for the James Ten Eyck Prize (also known as the Townsend Prize). Established in 1888 to honor the eponymous Yale journalist Henry James Ten Eyck (1856–1887, B.A. 1879), this prize was open to members of the junior class at Yale and held great prestige as one of the most esteemed literary awards of the university.

Among the five contestants was Morris Hadley (1894–1979), a son of then Yale President Arthur Twining Hadley (1856–1930). An active debater on campus, Morris Hadley planned to deliver a lecture on the topic “The Literature of War.” 

Another notable contender was Wang Chenghsu (also known as Wang Zhengxu, Henry Chenghsu Wang, or C.H. Wang), the only Asian student in the competition. Born in 1893, Wang hailed from a Christian family in Ningbo, China. Prior to matriculating at Yale in 1912, he attended Tsinghua Preparatory School, where he achieved the second-highest grade in his cohort. Financed by the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship, Wang studied economics at Yale.

Figure 1. Wang was a member of the Yale Chinese Student Club, from The Yale Banner and Pot Pourri, 1913-14.

Wang’s speech was on “China and the European War,” a subject he had a natural advantage in. With profound eloquence, he voiced his grave misgivings about the extension of World War I to the Far East and Japan’s encroachment on Chinese land and economic rights.

“Because of the violation, our people have suffered many horrors of war. Following the entrance of Japanese into the neutral territory, stories of atrocities and property destruction have been frequently reported.…The intrusion of Japan has given rise to a situation at once disastrous and dangerous to the interests of China and the world at large.”

The sense of urgency permeating Wang’s speech was no exaggeration. In late 1914, exploiting the distraction of Western Powers during World War I, Japan took control of Kiaochow (Jiaozhou, now Qingdao) in Shandong province, China, which had been under German colonial rule since 1897. Adding to the complexity, in early 1915, with the aim of expanding its military and economic influence in China, Japan presented the notorious Twenty-One Demands to the Chinese government. These demands—including claims to all rights in German-leased territories, exclusive privileges in mining and railroad construction, and control over China’s northeastern territory—triggered widespread anti-Japanese demonstrations in China and among Chinese students in America.

Recognizing the danger of China’s territorial division, Wang made an emotional appeal to the international community, specifically to the United States—the only major nation maintaining a neutral position in the Far East due to its “Open Door Policy,” which advocated equal trade opportunities for all Powers in China and the preservation of China’s territorial integrity.

“[Japan’s demands], if granted, would lead to the end of the ‘Open Door Policy,’ a policy so wisely advocated and inaugurated by your great statesman, John Hay, and which has so far worked out admirably to the mutual advantages of China and the Powers. With Europe aflame, Belgium bleeding, Japan is laying her deadly hand on China. Is it not time to raise a righteous voice of indignation and of encouragement to the couse [cause?] of a sister republic in distress?” Wang asked, with an accent of anger.

Figure 2. Clipping from Hartford Courant, March 15, 1915.

Wang’s impassioned plea earned applause from both his peers and the three judges, leading to a unanimous decision to award him the laurel. While Wang was not the first Chinese student to win an oratory prize at Yale—Shanghainese student Yun-Hsiang Tsao (class of 1911) had previously won the James Ten Eyck prize in late 1909 and the De Forest prize in 1911—given the fierce competition and the immediate significance of his speech, his victory garnered wide attention.

The news soon spread beyond Yale, capturing headlines across the United States and China. Unlike Yun-Hsiang Tsao, whose 1909 victory was viewed as a manifestation of the “yellow peril in Yale” by The Chicago Daily, Wang received positive nationwide press coverage. Nearly all news reports highlighted the fact that one of the defeated contestants was none other than a son of President Hadley, a noteworthy detail that spoke volumes about Wang’s achievement. The China Press, an influential English newspaper in Shanghai, declared “Chinese Orator Bests Hadley’s Son at Yale.” The Austin America, for another, took a step further, running the headline that claimed “Chinese out-talks American.”

Against the backdrop of anti-Asian racism in the early twentieth century, Wang’s impressive oratory allowed Americans to see the Chinese in a new light. In a 1916 book titled Kingdom Preparedness, writer Bruce Kinney (1865-1936) captured this sentiment:

“Who are some of the people we are inclined to ridicule? … In 1915, the famous Townsend prize for oratory at Yale was won by Cheng[h]su Henry Wang, a Chinaman. Among the contestants was Morris Hadley, son of Yale’s president. Think of it! [A] Chinaman using a tongue foreign to him and winning in oratory over the picked young men who were native to that language in one of our greatest universities.”

Yet, the impact of Wang’s victory extended beyond accolades and headlines. On March 21, The New York Times devoted two columns to Wang’s win. Featuring extensive excerpts from his speech, the news report brought the precarious situation in the Far East to the attention of the American public. Nevertheless, The New York Times did not solely present one side of the story. In order to provide a “balanced” view, it also included heavy citations of an article in North China News stating that the “Japanese demands of China” were only “a counterblast to German pretensions.” 

“That Japan desires a large share in the expansion of China’s commerce and a predominant influence in the affairs of the Far East, no one would dispute. Her geographical position marks her out for such destiny. But even if her honor permitted her to form the wish, that position is not enough to enable her to defy the whole world, whose attention must sooner or later be aroused to that defiance.”

With the benefit of historical hindsight, this justification for Japan’s actions in China may appear overly bullish. But at any rate, with most Americans uninformed about events unfolding on the other side of the Pacific, Wang’s victory served as a timely reminder, highlighting this urgent issue for the American public. 

Response from a Japanese Student

Not everyone was happy with Wang’s speech, especially among those Japanese students at Yale. Two days after the contest, a letter to the editor signed “I Shimahara” (presumably Itsuzo Shimahara, B.D., 1915) appeared in Yale Daily News, where the author expressed his discontent with Wang’s speech. Despite not being present at the contest, excerpts of the speech carried in the college daily still made him “feel most regretful that there is a serious misunderstanding and prejudice, and even hatred of one another among some people in China and Japan.” 

While acknowledging that Japan was not free of blame, Shimahara denied any allegations of Japanese violations against Chinese inhabitants or their property. He attributed China’s mistrust of Japan’s military intentions in Chinese territory to a mere misunderstanding, asserting that Japan’s involvement in China was motivated by necessity and for the betterment of the entire yellow race, because if Germany took full control over Kiaochow in the following decades, the entirety of Asia would be jeopardized.

To substantiate his point, Shimahara appealed to an “expert in Eastern matters” who wrote under the pseudonym “A Friend of China.” A correspondent associated with the magazine The New Republic, “A Friend of China” argued that Japan may be compelled to involve itself in China’s affairs due to China’s perceived inability to develop independently.

The viewpoint of Shimahara, as well as “A Friend of China,” encapsulated the essence of Japan’s “Monroe Doctrine for East Asia,” a cornerstone of Japan’s foreign policy at the time. Similar to the original Monroe Doctrine, which established U.S. influence in the Western Hemisphere, Japan sought to assert itself as the dominant power in East Asia, countering Western imperialism and preventing encroachment by European Powers and the United States. Yet, beneath this protective facade lay a desire for dominance and control in East Asia, often leading to Japan’s intervention, if not military aggression, in other Asian countries.

Hu Shih (1891–1962), a then-student at Cornell University and later a leader of the New Cultural Movement in China, once delivered a harsh rebuttal to “A Friend of China,” stating, “In this twentieth century, no nation can ever hope peacefully to rule over or to interfere with the internal administrative affairs of another nation.… Every nation has the right to be left alone to work out its own salvation.” 

Hu Shih’s strong cosmopolitan leanings often made him an outlier among Chinese students and intellectuals, but his opposition to the Japanese Empire’s ambition for geopolitical dominance represented a prevailing consensus among the Chinese student community at that time, transcending differences in their moderate or militant stances. Despite that no direct response from Wang to Shimahara’s letter has been found, there is no question that his response would have aligned closely with Hu Shih’s.

As the war raged in Europe and the Far East, written polemics also took place in the United States among students and political figures from different countries, turning Yale into one of many micro-battlefields where contrasting opinions clashed.

China’s Unofficial Envoy

After his sensational win, Wang continued his involvement in activities both on campus and within the Chinese student community in America at large. With his excellent command of English, Wang acted as a representative of international students at Yale and was elected as the president of the Cosmopolitan Club for the 1915–1916 term. In 1908, in response to the increasingly diversified student body at Yale, President Hadley established this club in order to “bring together, for their mutual benefit, socially and intellectually, men of all nationalities in [the u]niversity.” Wang, actively engaged in the club, showed much eagerness to help his fellow students gain insight into China. On March 20, 1915, the club hosted a special Chinese tea event where Wang delivered a concise lecture titled “Tea Drinking in China” to his Yale peers.

Beyond the Yale campus, Wang was also enthusiastic about political engagement. On November 8, 1915, Wang was invited to participate in a forum discussion on the Far East issue organized by The Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Science (BIAS). Though only a young undergraduate at Yale, he stood shoulder to shoulder with esteemed participants, including the renowned history guru Professor Albert Bushnell Hart (1854–1943) of Harvard University and the former lecturer at the University of Chicago Dr. Toyokichi Iyenaga (1862–1936).

The forum, centered around the theme “The Monroe Doctrine and the Far East,” attracted a large audience. Due to the overwhelming number of attendees, the venue had to be changed from the Music Hall to the more spacious Opera Hall at BIAS. Despite the relocation, numerous people still couldn’t secure seats. 

Various topics were discussed during the forum, igniting heated discussions from the very start. Dr. Iyenaga found himself at the center of attention, juggling multiple tasks on stage. On the one hand, he had the task of affirming Japan’s respect for the American Monroe Doctrine to Professor Hart, who advocated for a stronger national defense as Japan grew increasingly militant. On the other hand, Iyenaga also sought to whitewash Japan’s implementation of the “Monroe Doctrine for East Asia” and rationalize their interventionist policies and demands on China.

Figure 3. The headline from The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, November 7, 1915.

Iyenaga, in point of fact, was a propagandist subsidized by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His position, as he expounded in an article published shortly after the forum, was that the upfront task for Japan was to build a close relationship with China, safeguard their common interests, and awaken China from “[the] morbid torpor in order to [e]nsure her future prosperity and avoid conflict.” In his view, Japan was entitled to bring efficiency and uniformity to China’s military capabilities, and the so-called “Twenty-One Demands” were merely well-intentioned offers and suggestions for China’s betterment.

During the forum, Iyenaga reiterated that the Japanese version of the Monroe doctrine was only a remake of the original, taking into account the unique geopolitical circumstances of the Far East. Specifically, he attributed the necessity of Japan’s intervention in China’s affairs to China’s weakness, which, as he maintained, was the “chief cause of trouble in East Asia for the past few decades.”

On the contrary, Wang minced no words in pointing out the imperialist nature of Japan’s “Monroe Doctrine for the Far East”: “For some reason or other, the Monroe Doctrine, after it is transplanted, takes on new colors, so that it is hard to distinguish it from imperialism.… If Japan would take the high place that America does, it would be welcomed. But the Monroe Doctrine is incompatible with the sovereignty of other nations; it is an obsolete shibboleth.”

“China’s weakness is no excuse for Japan’s exertions,” Wang continued. “Every nation must stand on its own feet. If Japan were sincere and truly wanted to help us, then China would ask to be left alone. She is capable of solving her own problems…. ‘Rome was not built in a day.’ China is working hard. She has her problems, and what she wants is just to be left alone. Give her time.” 

Figure 4. Clipping from El Paso Times, November 16, 1915.

The clash of opinions between Iyenaga and Wang can be viewed as a poignant reflection of the profound tension enveloping the Far East, where underlying currents of power and ideology clashed beneath the surface. Iyenaga was not the only Japanese publicist active in America during the 1910s. As masters of oratory, these publicists sought to sway public opinion in the United States by presenting Japan’s imperial expansionist intentions under a Pan-Asianist vein.

In his 1916 book Our Eastern Question, American journalist Thomas Franklin Fairfax Millard (1868–1942) noted this diplomatic trickery: “In deceiving American public opinion, Japan has seized upon the fact that a certain long-standing policy of the United States is embodied in the Monroe Doctrine to advance the idea that Japan is herself morally entitled to announce a similar doctrine as applying to the Orient—and that such a doctrine is applicable to Japan’s present policy toward China.”

In the face of Japan’s propaganda campaign in the United States, overseas Chinese students assumed the role of unofficial envoys during World War I. Committed to safeguarding China’s territorial integrity and political autonomy, they were hopeful that the neutral United States would champion China’s cause, leveraging its political influence to curb Japan’s military expansion. While their hope was tinged with some wishful thinking, the United States was the only foreign power that showed willingness to speak in favor of China. It was, in fact, the United States that first declared its objection to Japan’s “Twenty-One Demands” on China as early as March 13, 1915, pressuring Japan to modify some of its demands.

Wang’s Post-Yale Life

After graduating from Yale in 1916, Wang continued his studies at Princeton, where he obtained his master’s degree in history and politics the next year. Following a brief period working on Wall Street, Wang, under the auspices of the International YMCA, embarked on a journey to France to serve Chinese workers who were deployed during World War I to perform manual labor for the Allies. During his time in France, alongside writing letters on behalf of those workers and imparting necessary knowledge to them, Wang also conducted an investigation into the wartime economy.

Figure 5. Wang (first from the right) was elected as the Chairman of the Eastern Alliance of Chinese Students in 1917, from The Chinese Students’ Quarterly, vol. 5.1, 1918.

The end of World War I in 1918 did not bring about the improvement in China’s situation as Wang had hoped. In 1919, during the Paris Peace Conference, despite President Woodrow Wilson’s (1856–1924) mediation, the rights over Shandong province, previously held by Germany, were transferred to Japan instead of being directly returned to China. This decision sparked outrage throughout China, igniting the flames of the May Fourth Incident, which significantly shaped modern Chinese history. China’s prolonged negotiations with Japan over the Twenty-One Demands remained unresolved after the Great War, echoing the lingering specter of Japan’s imperial ambitions.

In 1918, Wang returned to China and became a bank manager in Shanghai. He maintained his connection with Yale by establishing the Yale Club of Shanghai and assuming the role of its secretary in 1920.

However, Wang’s life was far from settled. In the 1920s, he ventured beyond China’s borders once again, taking on the role of manager at the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC) in Singapore and the Hong Kong branch of the Hefeng Bank later.

By 1936, Wang and his wife, Eling Tong (Tang Ailin, 1894–1980), made their home in the bustling city of New York, as Wang assumed the position of the first president of the newly established New York Office of the Bank of China. As the top-level delegate of China in the American business circle, he was tasked with fostering economic and diplomatic relations between China and the United States. 

Wang’s tenure in New York lasted only three years, as he was swiftly reassigned to China and later designated to Yangon in Myanmar, where his stay proved to be equally transitory. The Japanese invasion of Myanmar in 1942 forced him to flee to Kunming, Yunnan province, where he found refuge from the war that ravaged the entirety of Asia. When the war finally ended in 1945, Wang had been relocated to Calcutta and Hong Kong before eventually settling down in Washington DC, United States.

In 1984, at the age of 90, Wang’s journey came to an end. He passed away from a heart attack in Rockville, Maryland.