Fortunate Sons: The 120 Chinese Boys Who Came to America, Went to School, and Revolutionized an Ancient Civilization

Fortunate Sons: The 120 Chinese Boys Who Came to America, Went to School, and Revolutionized an Ancient Civilization

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by Liel Leibovitz, Matthew Miller

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“Thoroughly enjoyable . . . an outstanding tale of cross-cultural fertilization.” —Booklist  See more details below


“Thoroughly enjoyable . . . an outstanding tale of cross-cultural fertilization.” —Booklist

Editorial Reviews

San Francisco Chronicle
Highly readable.— William Wong
New York Times
A useful reminder of how long exchanges between our two countries have been under way, and of the risks and rewards that these connections have brought to both sides.— Deborah Fallows
William Wong - San Francisco Chronicle
“Highly readable.”
Deborah Fallows - New York Times
“A useful reminder of how long exchanges between our two countries have been under way, and of the risks and rewards that these connections have brought to both sides.”
Deborah Fallows
Leibovitz and Miller…are specialists in narrative history rather than Sinology, so their book will be most satisfying to readers who have had the least exposure to China and its history…Still, the story of these 19th-century scholars is a useful reminder of how long exchanges between our two countries have been under way, and of the risks and rewards that these connections have brought to both sides.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
With its surging storyline, extraordinary events, and depth of character, this gripping tale of 120 Chinese boys sent to America—and scattered about New England—in 1872 reads more like a novel than an obscure slice of history. Leibovitz and Miller chronicle an unknown yet transformative period in the relationship between an arcane East and a progressive West. Slivers from diaries and correspondence record encounters the boys enjoyed with President Grant, life in the same New England community Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe called home, and China’s reluctance to accept the returning over-confident "Americanized" citizens. Nevertheless, this education, combined with their ambition and bond, translates to a 'Cantonese Clique’ that filters into high-profile government positions in China and results in revolutions in industry and international relations. Chaotic regal battles and merciless wars lead to tragedy, but the tenacity and hope on displayed bring slow reform and triumph. Though the boys were well equipped with the tools for progress, '’the problems they faced are the problems still facing China today,’’ and their tale stands as a unique, engrossing, and affecting chronicle. (Feb.)
Library Journal
Not only do Leibovitz and Miller (coauthors, Lili Marlene: The Soldiers' Song of World War II) narrate a fascinating cultural exchange unknown to many of today's readers, but they also share the personal stories and finer points about a very interesting time. In 1872, the first group of what would total 120 Chinese boys, with an average age of nine, came to America to learn about our progressive and modern country. Their disembarkation in San Francisco, rail trip across the country, lives with host families, and attendance of the best schools in New England are meticulously described. Also noted are the cultural differences; acceptance and ignorance exhibited by both sides; and the diversity of the Chinese the boys met, from California prospectors to the New England gentlemen who were their teachers. After nine years, the boys, grown to young men, were recalled when differing opinions of the exchange prevailed in China. The authors source firsthand accounts, diaries, letters, and biographies for their very engaging chronicle. A dedicated website ( adds to the value of this worthwhile read. VERDICT Not to be missed; those interested in the social history of Chinese American relations and history buffs generally will find it very informative.—Susan Baird, formerly with Oak Lawn P.L., IL
Gavin Menzies
“The struggle that the boys faced between traditionalism and modernity, exacerbated by an intriguing and sometimes turbulent clash of cultures, is something that resonates clearly to this day.”
Peter Hessler
“A fascinating and well-told history of this early educational exchange between China and the United States.”
Da Chen
“I read this book in one sitting, utterly engrossed in the rugged journeys undertaken by the first generation of west-going Chinese scholars. To read this book is to understand the fundamental obstacles and frustrations all Chinese intellectuals faced then and now. A bunch of pigtailed Manchurian Yalies. What a paradox!”
Michael Meyer
“The story of the West's engagement with China is often told through the voices of colonists, correspondents and fortune-seekers who sailed East a century ago. Fortunate Sons is a captivating look at the reverse journey: a page-turning narrative about Chinese patriots schooled in the United States who returned home to modernize a moribund, imperial society. This book is a reminder that historically, US-China relations are more than political; Liebovitz and Miller have unearthed an important, and all but forgotten, story that resonates today.”
Kirkus Reviews

Desperate to modernize in the final days of empire, China launches a bold educational experiment.

By the second half of the 19th century, the Qing dynasty ruled half-a-billion Chinese, with 40,000 civilian and military officials administering the government. The imperial system's calcified bureaucracy, resistant to change, wedded to Confucianism and wary of foreign intercourse, struggled with a tottering economy, domestic rebellions and repeated humiliations at the hands of Western powers. One powerful statesman, Li Hongzhang, sought to reform the educational system by sending students to America to learn the new ways of thinking and returning them to China as a core group of future leaders. Under the direction of the Yale-educated Yung Wing, over a period of nearly a decade, 120 boys attended high schools and colleges, mostly in New England, as a part of the Chinese Educational Mission. Under assault from court critics who feared Western corruption of the young men, Li recalled the mission in 1880. Although a remarkably large number of the boys eventually rose to power and influence in China, Leibovitz and Miller (Lili Marlene: The Soldiers' Song of World War II, 2008) wisely focus on only a dozen or so, tracking their journey to Hartford, Conn., the Mission's base of operations, their acculturation to Gilded Age American society and their troubled reentry to a China tumultuously passing from corrupt empire to shaky republic. The authors' effective, quick-stroke treatment of momentous historical events, their sensitive portraits of schoolboys who became technological, military, industrial and commercial reformers and their deft juxtaposition of two cultures, one on the rise, the other coming apart, make for a rich, multilayered tale. Today, China and America warily circle each other, and China is once again furiously attempting to modernize, busy recapitulating many of the same struggles and absorbing many of the same lessons that the Mission boys learned so many years ago.

A curious, little-known episode of Sino-American history vividly told.

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Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)

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Fortunate Sons: The 120 Chinese Boys Who Came to America, Went to School, and Revolutionized an Ancient Civilization 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Aradanryl More than 1 year ago
Highly readable, it is amazing to me how much I learned easily thanks to the superb writing of these authors. The incredible dedication of Yung Wing is an inspiration. I found myself intrigued by the decisions that went into sending young children to a foreign country, awed at the sacrifice of their parents, appalled the incredible ugliness of how San Francisco treated its Chinese immigrants unfortunate enough to live there, proud of the kindness and care the New Englanders gave to the children they fostered and the quality of the education they received even though it was abruptly cut short and fascinated by the internal workings of the Chinese government. The tales of these young men, and their roles in the politics of the time kept me reading and thinking and reading some more. The intrigue woven throughout this book is spell-binding. It was a blessed day when I was given the opportunity to read this book. It is unforgettable. *Note: This book was provided through the GoodReads First Read program with the expectation of an honest review. My opinions are my own.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago