Historic Chinese Educational Mission in Connecticut Explored in Museum Exhibit

NBC Connecticut

Building bridges between different parts of the world. An education mission about 150 years ago, brought dozens of boys from China to our state to study and learn in order to help modernize the country.

Walking through the Connecticut Historical Society Museum, you’ll find "Journeys," a unique exhibit filled with artifacts and photos, chronicling a group of Chinese boys who came to Connecticut in the 1870s.

“They’re among the pioneers of Asian American history who had paved the way for others to follow," Journeys Research Historian Dr. Karen Li Miller said.

Miller says this educational mission was the brainchild of Yung Wing, the first Chinese graduate from an American university. He received his diploma from Yale.

From his positive experiences there, he pitched the creation of the program to the Chinese government. From 1872 to 1881, around 120 boys were sent to Connecticut to learn and gain knowledge in fields the Chinese lacked at the time.

“The hope was an emphasis on the modernization of China in fields like the telegraph and the railroad, mines and military spheres,” Miller said.

The boys made a month-long journey by boat and train from Shanghai to Hartford. They were supposed to be in America for 15 years and then come back. Some developed an affinity for American culture, playing baseball and football.

“They were also able to develop their love of sports and really develop their English language skills, so many of them became translators and diplomats,” Miller said.

That included the first prime minister of the Republic of China, Tang Shao Yi, who called himself “Ajax.” Another boy was Chung Mun Yew, or “Munny” as he called himself in English.

“We heard stories about him [Munny] of being a student at Yale and being the coxswain for the Yale crew team," Bruce Chan said.

Chan, his grandson now living in Toronto, says Munny’s experience led him to return to China as a diplomat and became a leader developing China’s railroads. He says seeing his grandfather’s story presented to the public was an honor.

“It's so rare and such a privilege. It’s something very special,” he said.

Museum staff have found a majority of visitors had no idea this mission existed.

We get a chance to share lesser-known history that has had a long-lasting impact.

-Karen Li Miller

Jason Chang, an Asian studies professor at UConn, says this mission helped bring needed cultural exchange at a time when knowledge of China in Connecticut was limited and skewed.

“The stereotypes at the time were that they were heathens, menial laborers,” Chang said.

He says students interacting with host families and classmates allowed them to shape how people in Connecticut saw Chinese people, casting them as leaders, not just students.

“Sometimes the children teach us more than the teachers in some ways,” he said.

Lessons Chan says could apply in our world today.

“We can look back to as a model for international understanding and exchange across national boundaries,” he said.

If you’re interested in exploring the exhibit, it will remain at the museum through the end of July next year.

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