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Charlie Soong Gets an American Education
EVEN BEFORE there began to be that resentment against the Western missionaries in China, which was to culminate in the Boxer uprising, and which was almost to stamp out Asiatic Christianity for the sixth time, certain scholars and courtiers in Peking began to evince an interest in European culture. The Dowager Empress herself, the Manchu Tzu Hsi, disliked the barbarians of the outer world, but she was willing to examine their claims to civilization. It is typical of the Chinese mind that these elegants should have been tolerant enough to admit the possibility of any civilization at all outside of the Middle Kingdom. Sincerely believing all non-Chinese to be little better than savages, they still realized that people who had for centuries been sending messengers to China might be able to teach them a few things worth knowing. Marco Polo had been a valuable adviser to Kublai Khan, after all. Now there came news of universities in the capitals of Europe and in America, and the academic curiosity of the savants was aroused.
The Empress went so far as to offer a prize to such enterprising people as dared to go abroad and spend some years imbibing the wisdom, such as it was, of the West. She decreed that anybody who learned in a satisfactory manner such lessons as the foreign universities had to offer would be granted the honorable title of "Yang Han Ling": literally, that he should be considered worthy to dwell in the "Forest of Pencils." The man elected to the "Yang Han Ling" would be known as Best Foreign Scholar, and was expected to have at his finger tips all knowledge pertaining to mathematics,philosophy, politics, literature, and the gamut of science from astrology to oceanography. Quite evidently, Tzu Hsi and her subjects had an exalted idea of the ideal foreign scholar's saturation point; or perhaps she really did think it possible for a Chinese to achieve all there was of Western knowledge in a few years.
As usual, however, the Court made do with second-best, and many returned students who fell short, one supposes, of these requirements did nevertheless acquire right of entry to the Pencil Forest. This honor, with its suggestion of imperial approval bestowed upon Western-style education, was the cause of a new fashion; the Grand Tour of the Western World. Young scions of rich families set out to acquire degrees from Oxford or Cambridge or Harvard or Paris. It seems strange to us today that Chinese parents should take so lightheartedly to a program that bade fair to undermine their own civilization, but it did not seem to occur to the young men's people that three or four years in Europe or America could possibly send back the younger generation in a dissatisfied state, ambitious to remold their world.
To understand this trustful attitude, we must remember the genuine contempt which the Chinese felt for any country but their own. It was inconceivable to them that there should be any dangerous attraction in such an inferior culture as the West could offer. They were absolutely confident that any Chinese youth armed with a decent background and a good training in the Classics was completely protected against barbarous ideas; he could go abroad and browse in the fields of foreign education, taking what he chose and rejecting the rest, and in the end return to China still the perfect scholar and gentleman. Of course if he should choose to bring back some new, amusing philosophy for the delectation of his peers, so much the better. The nightmare of modern science had as yet no terrors for the Chinese; they could not foresee the bitter struggle which they were shortly to undergo, or the battles they were to fight, vainly trying to keep unchanged their old ways of life. To their innocent minds all knowledge was good, and to be acquired for its own sake.
There followed exciting days for many young men, sent off as they were thousands of miles to make their university homes among strangers. Some adapted themselves quickly, others remained withdrawn from their foreign fellow students and were miserably lonely and homesick. But they all learned something. Seventy-five years ago saw the first joke in China of the "returned student" with his haughty airs, his foreign clothes and his scraps of English and French which he trots out when he wants to be impressive: today the joke is still good, and audiences titter when he appears on the stage, a stock figure of comedy in modern Chinese drama.
Yet he was more than a figure of fun; he was an object of envy to ambitious boys who had not shared his chance to see the world. The new fashion affected the hopes and desires of more and more of China's young people; a foreign education was to become after a time as much a part of an upper-class Chinese child's aspiration as is a college education to our own Middle West youngsters. In 1870 the Grand Tour was still a privilege of the most wealthy families' sons, but there was one honest young man in China who dreamed a dream to which he had no right.
He too sailed for America, but his future in the West as it had been mapped out for him was of a different sort. His was no idle pleasant outlook of elegant study and snobbish retirement; he was destined for a simple hard-working life. The first step for him was to help his uncle, like a good obedient young man, in one of the family shops in Boston.
Soong Yao-ju's family had sober, cut-and-dried plans for him, in which the newfangled foreign education played no part. Yao-ju himself had other ideas, but he kept his own counsel after the usual manner of nine-year-old boys.
It is not a matter of record which boat took Soong Yao-ju to America and thus in one trip changed the future of China forever. He told his children later that even at that age he was rebelling against the notion of becoming a shopkeeper and fitting into the conventional complicated pattern of a trading family in nineteenth-century China. The Soongs came originally from Shansi, fleeing from a civil war to Hainan some years before Yao-ju's birth. In the generation before his they had joined the other pioneers of South China and sent out branches to America, founding businesses up and down the east coast of the United States. In China they say that the Cantonese have always been travelers and traders: Yao-ju's family adopted the customs and talents of their neighbors. We in America know only the outside of those shops in Chinatown which we pass when we go slumming, peering curiously into the dark windows as we make our way to a meal of chop suey and chicken chow mein. To us they are just little shops, independent businesses, we assume, which belong to stray Chinese who have somehow drifted into our cities.
Actually, few Chinese shops inside or outside of China do not belong to some vast family of traders. Each small establishment is an outlier of the system; each proprietor is some relation of the owning family. Most of the big fortunes of China have been founded on tiny, dingy one-room shops or big, elaborate restaurants and curio marts stationed here and there throughout the provinces, and the Chinese "stores" in America and Australia and France and England are founded on the same system.
Yao-ju was sent with an uncle to one of his family's outposts in Boston, where he was supposed to learn the business American fashion, which is also Chinese fashion, from the ground up. The uncle was on his mother's side and was the first tea-and-silk merchant to emigrate to America; he was owner of the shop and had no son. Therefore he followed the old custom and adopted Yao-ju as his heir and successor, to return with him to Boston and learn the intricacies of trade: the boy was to grow up in that city in his adopted father's house. Someday, decreed the family dictator, Yao-ju would be a shopkeeper on his own, but that day was a long way off. The nine-year-old boy would not be a man according to Chinese opinion for at least another six years.
Yao-ju served his apprenticeship for three of those years, living a Chinese life in a Chinese house in the heart of Boston. Then he made an acquaintance that was to change his entire career. Two boys from Shanghai began to drop into the shop to chat with their compatriot. Wan Bing-chung and New Shan-chow, cousins, had been sent to the United States as members of the Chinese Educational Mission, a gallant venture organized by Dr Yung Wing, a Cantonese graduate of Yale. The mission was to last only ten years, but one of Fate's patterns began to be woven when those two boys, future brothers-in-law of a Shanghai girl who was to marry Yao-ju, first strolled into the Boston shop.
The two young students talked to the wistful little boy behind the counter, telling him of their life at school and of the camp where they were sent each summer. Probably they boasted a little. They visited the shop frequently and kept criticizing young Soon -- that is how he spelled his name in those days -- for remaining behind the counter and being satisfied with night school, in America, where a first-class education was so easy to obtain. (They considered it first-class.) Yao-ju listened, and his mouth watered for a similar chance. Urged by his new friends, he approached his uncle with a request for permission to leave his work and go to school regularly.
It was no use. Naturally his uncle and what other members of the family were in America did not sympathize with such an outlandish ambition. Yao-ju had his future, a very good one; he was to act as all the other Soongs had acted, working like an industrious little ant to build his clan higher and higher, and developing into a shrewd trader and a credit to the family. That was that.
The insidious influence of America, however, had penetrated into that Chinese house. When Yao-ju was thirteen or fourteen he acted like an American boy and did what an American boy would have done -- he ran away. It was unfilial, but inevitable. He knew Boston Harbor by heart, and he simply stowed away aboard the cutter S.S. Schuyler Colfax, "a second-class sidewheeler," which as it happened was bound for the South. Not that Yao-ju knew or cared where it was bound for; he just wanted to get away.
Of course he was caught and brought before the captain, Charles Jones. Captain Jones was a kindly man and pious. He must have had some imagination besides. Instead of simply kicking young Yao-ju ashore at the next port, he began to wonder how and why it had come about that a Chinese boy had stowed away on his ship at Boston. Yao-ju, eager and bright and terribly in earnest, told him all about it -- how he wanted to go to school and his uncle wouldn't let him. He was growing up: a little later it would be too late for him. He begged for permission to work his way, to stay out of Boston and the shop, to find a chance to fulfill the destiny he had chosen instead of that which was being forced upon him.
Yao-ju had always possessed a definite personality, and the captain, as mentioned, was both kindly and pious. He felt rather guilty about that uncle in Boston, but after all he was bound for the South, and in the meantime he could think it over . . . . Yao-ju got the job, as cabin boy.
On Sundays the captain talked to him about Christianity. Whenever the Colfax came into Boston Harbor, Yao-ju disappeared mysteriously and reappeared only when they were safely away from that dangerous city. Really there wasn't much the captain could do about returning him to his uncle . . . . But when the Colfax came into Wilmington, North Carolina, during a voyage, the skipper went ashore purposefully and looked up friends of his, Colonel Roger Moore and Mrs Chadwick, who was an ardent worker in the Southern Methodist Church. They discussed Yao-ju, and Mrs Chadwick handed him over with his problem to the Reverend T. Page Ricaud, pastor of the Fifth Street Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Dr Ricaud was fascinated by the story of the little heathen and his spiritual search. As a result Soon Yao-ju was baptized as Charles Jones Soon. He asked for that name as a Chinese compliment to his first benefactor.
An occurrence like this must have attracted considerable attention in the quiet city of Wilmington, and when Dr Ricaud several months later brought young Soon to the attention of General Julian S. Carr, it was the natural outcome of what had already happened. General Carr of Durham was a Confederate soldier, a textile manufacturer, a rich man and a philanthropist. He decided to consider giving the boy the education he wanted. Therefore Charlie's next step toward the Chinese Revolution was made into the little town of Durham, N.C., to which the general summoned him on approval. He came, he was seen, he conquered. The general took him into his own large house, where for many days he was more or less on exhibit to the other children of the neighborhood, who had never before seen a Chinese.
The general selected for Charlie the Methodist Trinity College, then a small place in Randolph County. The first year the boy spent in preparatory school, but he learned very quickly and was soon doing college work. He lived at Professor W. T. Gannaway's home and studied with the president of the college, Dr Braxton Craven. Mrs Craven helped him in the first difficult steps when his English was still uncertain. Already it had occurred to these good people that Charlie Jones Soon must have been sent to them by Providence for a special purpose. Properly trained, could he not be a source of great good in his native land? Before Christmas of the first year the boy was at Trinity he was taken into the church, and Dr Craven preached on the text, "Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature."
One can imagine the high hopes held by his friends of Charlie's future godly works among the heathen of his native land. It was the time described by Pearl Buck in one of her best books, Fighting Angel: all over America church folk were eagerly collecting funds to support their missionaries, stern young people with a "call" to go out and save the souls of benighted pigtailed Chinamen. Charlie's benefactors must have thought this cabin boy had been sent to them as a manifestation of the Divine Plan. American missionaries were very well in their way, but how much more effective a home-trained native pastor could be! It behooved all good Methodists to treat him kindly and to cherish and instruct him in the ways of the Lord.
Meantime the founder of the Soong family was living as General Carr's own son, calling the veteran "Father Carr" and worrying about his financial dependence upon the older man. During school vacations he insisted upon earning what he could by selling books and cord hammocks, which he had learned to make aboard the Colfax, from house to house. It was all very much like a Horatio Alger book: Charlie was indeed a typical Alger hero, bright and good and independent and willing and poor and lucky. Civilization does seem to follow the lines laid down for it by its current literature. General Carr, the Alger millionaire, reaped his proper reward twenty years later when he went out to China. "They treated me like a king there," he used to say musingly -- "like a king . . . . " In the meantime Charlie, after two years at Trinity, was transferred to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, in order that he might come into contact with returned missionaries.
He was not happy about leaving the Cravens. He gave one of his hammocks to Mrs Craven and made a careful and courteous speech of thanks, then broke down and "threw his arms about her neck and kissed her good-by."
In the School of Religion at Vanderbilt, from 1882 to 1885, Charlie seems to have made friends with everyone except the acting dean, Dr George B. Winton, who wrote rather sourly:
Soong, or Soon as we called him . . . was a harum-scarum little fellow, full of life and fun, but not a very good student. He gave no evidence of having any special interest in religion, even less in preaching. As a matter of fact, when he went back to China he soon became interested in some business enterprise. In the course of time he married a woman who must have been definitely his superior.
No doubt the important item in Dr Winton's report is that which follows the phrase "As a matter of fact." These afterthoughts are usually significant. Charlie's departure from the service of the Church puzzled and grieved many of his old friends, and at the time he was not at liberty to explain his action. Let us see what a contemporary, the Reverend Mr Tuttle, remembers of him:
For two or more years I enjoyed the pleasure of personal acquaintance with Brother Soong, having met him at Vanderbilt University in 1883. In 1885, during my first year at Fifth Avenue, he spent several weeks at my home, and the people of that church felt that he was their son in the gospel and missionary to his native land. He preached for Fifth Avenue Church two or more times during his stay with me, speaking good English, and to the spiritual edification of all who heard him.
Another classmate, James C. Fink, says:
The writer was a student there at the time and had the pleasure of having the acquaintance and friendship of Charlie Soon (he dropped the "g"). He was of a most genial and friendly nature, and I remember that on introducing him to some of the boys, he smilingly remarked, "I'd radder be soon den too late."
His roommate at Vanderbilt (J. B. Wright, later pastor at Cairo, Georgia) says that he was short but strongly built, of a jovial disposition, and very popular with all the students.
He continued to spend his summers with "Father Carr" at Durham and was a favorite of one of the town's leading businessmen, James H. Southgate: he became devoted to Mr Southgate's sister Miss Annie. He sent her a photograph from Vanderbilt and corresponded with her, after he returned to China, until she died in 1886.
He had written in one letter to her, "I love you more than anyone in America." When the news reached him of her death he wrote to Southgate:
It is a matter of great sorrow to learn of the death of Miss Annie, though on the contrary do rejoice to know that she is happier in heaven than could possibly be on earth. And no doubt all these work for good to them that love God. May God comfort you all and sustain you with His tender love and grace and finally when our work is done in this life we may all meet her on that happy shore where there is no parting.
Miss Annie was one of my best friends. Her Christian example is worthy of attention. When I left America I had no idea of such event would have occurred so soon and that we are not permitted to meet again on this side of Jordan. O this is sad to think of the sweetest flower God has plucked off and took away from us; but that very identical flower is blooming in the garden of God in heaven. Happy art thou who sleeps in the Lord. And thrice happy art thou who being translated from earthly sorrow to heavenly joy. May God keep us from sin and weakness and finally translate us to His home where we will meet all our friends and loved ones and to live with Christ forever.
It is a fragment of Charles Soong himself, direct from his heart, that is exposed in this letter. Enmeshed in the conventionalities of two cultures, tied up with quotations, down in the middle of the tangle we see the puzzled and homesick boy.
Even in America he must have had a good deal of the charm that was to set a new fashion in teaching when he went to Shanghai. It is pleasant to speculate on the meetings that were held in Wilmington and Durham, the tea parties and committees and sewing circles that must have gathered to discuss the fate of the Chinese boy. One sees him firmly installed in the favor of the little town, going from door to door to sell his cord hammocks, greeted in each house by church members who had already, of course, met him or at least taken a peep at the general's strange protege. No doubt he was often invited indoors for a cup of coffee and a piece of pie before he sold his hammock. Oh, the peaceful gardens of Durham and the neat cord hammock that swung in each, all for the good of the heathen Chinee!
In later years, telling his children about those school days in North Carolina, he was fond of remembering a certain Hallowe'en night soon after he was first entered at Trinity. He came into his room in the dark that evening to encounter a grinning pumpkin head sitting in the corner, a candle flame flickering behind the holes of eyes and mouthful of jagged teeth. Now a Hallowe'en pumpkin head is no novelty to an American boy, but Charlie had never seen one before. At first he had no idea what it could be, and then he had far too many ideas. He stopped dead in his tracks and stared, while his hidden classmates stifled their giggles. It is possible that Charlie Soon thought swiftly of ghosts before he reminded himself that now he was a Christian boy who didn't believe in such things . . . .
"He didn't hesitate more than a second," said his daughter Eling, telling her father's story more than fifty years later. "He walked straight up to that pumpkin and punched it in the nose. Of course it smashed. After that the boys never made fun of him any more."
A photograph of Charlie in North Carolina shows a sturdy boy in the American clothes of his time, his hair parted almost in the middle and slicked down on each side. The legs are crossed, the hands disposed in a carefully careless position. He is staring straight ahead, an earnest frown on his young brow. His nose turns up, and his mouth and chin are determined. He looks a healthy, hopeful young man, the sort who comes into his convictions early.
The picture, with its fancy-scrolled chair and background of drapery, is a perfect period piece. It is difficult to believe, while looking at it, in Charlie's background: the twisted streets, the incense-laden temples, the low green fields of the Orient. This young man's very watch chain, draped jauntily across his waistcoat, speaks of American classrooms and student church meetings.
It is bewildering to turn from the daguerreotype and read the legend over it:
INFLUENCE FELT IN MODERN CHINA
Copyright © 1941 by Emily Hahn