1858  — 1913

Tang Guo'an

Pioneer in modern education; early diplomat

Tang Guo’an (Tong Kai-son) was born in October 1858 in Guangdong Province near Macao and was raised in a Christian family. Tang studied in the U.S. with the second contingent of the Chinese Educational Commission (CEM), sent in 1873. After public high school and preparatory school at Phillips Exeter Academy, he spent one year at Yale College, in 1880-81. Then the CEM was cancelled and all the students were recalled to China, due to acrimony between the two governments.

From 1890 to 1899, Tang held important positions in the the Kaiping Mining and Engineering Company near Tianjin and the Chinese Imperial Railway Administration, in Liaoning. From 1900-1903, when North China experienced total disruption by the Boxer Uprising and war, Tang took refuge in Hong Kong, where he served as the first board chairman of the new city Chinese YMCA.

The next four years were spent in Shanghai, where Tang again worked for railway companies and took leadership in the YMCA and other voluntary civic associations. He earned a national reputation as a writer and speaker promoting moral and social reforms.

In 1907, Tang Guo’an was recruited to join the Foreign Office in Beijing where, along with other former CEM students of the “Young China” group of reformers, he endeavored to recover China’s sovereign rights, ceded to foreign powers through the unequal treaties. Tang Guo’an first served as English interpreter and secretary for Yuan Shikai and other high-level officials. He then worked on two major China - U.S.initiatives — halting the international opium trade and resuming the education of Chinese students in the U .S.

In February 1909, Tang was a commissioner and the spokesman for the Chinese delegation to the first international Opium Conference meeting in Shanghai. His closing speech, translated and distributed into several European languages, inspired a strong conference resolution urging immediate actions to stop the trade in China’s foreign concession areas. In December that same year, Tang accompanied Chinese students to the U.S., the first to study there in thirty years.

Tang Guo’an became the director and then founding president of the Tsinghua School in Beijing, the forerunner of Tsinghua University, which was set up to prepare students for study in the U.S. Tang supervised initial faculty recruitment, fund-raising and construction planning until his early death in August 1913, at the age of 54.

Extended Story

During his eight years in the United States as one of the first Chinese to study there, Tang Guo’an completed public high school in Northampton, Massachusetts at the head of the class of 1879, and then attended college preparatory school at Phillips Exeter Academy. He entered Yale College in 1880 and in his first year won a prize in Latin composition. But his promising time at Yale came to an abrupt halt after only one year. All the CEM students were recalled to China by the Qing imperial court due to concern about the cultural impact of American education joined with anger over anti-Chinese riots and legislation in the United States.

Tang’s father was a poor village farmer who died while Guo’an was in the United States. His mother died a few years after his return. In 1884, Tang married a young woman from Hong Kong. They had no children but adopted a nephew Tang Yiguo (or Baoxin).

In his early thirties, Tang Guo’an began to gain stable employment within the Tang clan’s wide network of influence. From 1890 to 1898, he was English secretary and assistant to the director of the Kaiping Mining and Engineering Company at Tangshan near Tianjin. Director K. S. Tang (Tang Jingxing) managed both Kaiping and the China Merchant Steamship Company of Shanghai. K. S. and his successor developed North China’s shipping and rail distribution, extending the mine’s railway to form the core of the Imperial Railway. Sometime in 1899, Guo’an moved to Liaoning as resident manager of the Chinese Imperial Railway Administration.

Tang Guo’an took refuge in South China sometime in 1900 while the Boxer War was disrupting North China. He found work in business in Hong Kong and around 1901, he helped the new China YMCA national director, Fletcher Brockman, launch the Hong Kong Chinese YMCA, serving as the first chairman of the board.

From 1903 to 1907, Tang lived in Shanghai, where he served first as chief auditor for the Canton-Hankow Railroad and then worked again for the Imperial Railway Administration. He served as treasurer and board member, as well as an author and editor, for the Shanghai YMCA In the spring of 1907, he was elected a national board member.

In Shanghai, Tang Guo’an gained a national reputation as a writer and speaker, actively promoting moral and social reforms. He joined the Anti-Foot-Binding Society, was elected president of the city’s branch of the Yale Alumni Association, became an honorary fellow of the American University Club, and served on the board of the World Chinese Students Federation.

Tang teamed up with another returned student, Yan Huiqing (W. W. Yen) in debates sponsored by the foreign and Chinese YMCA clubs, in writing for the English section of a new YMCA national bilingual newspaper, and then in launching an English-language section of the new South China Daily (Nanfang bao) in order to use Chinese public opinion to influence foreign actions in China.

Tang Guo’an wrote several articles for missionary journals in 1905 that gave a constructive critique of the Christian mission establishment in China. These essays revealed a personal commitment to the Christian faith and showed how that faith fueled his strong sense of moral and social justice.

In 1907, Tang Guo’an made a major shift of career to government diplomacy. He left for Beijing to join the Foreign Office, along with a number of other former CEM students recruited to help recover China’s full sovereignty by rescinding those special rights ceded under duress to foreign powers.

At first, Tang Guo’an coordinated oversight of the Jing-Feng Railway linking Beijing to Fengtian (now Shenyang) and served as English interpreter and secretary for Yuan Shikai and other high-level officials. Tang also took on an additional job as English tutor for Yuan’s family, needing to supplement his low salary.

Soon, however, Tang Guo’an was spending his time working on two major initiatives of Yuan Shikai and his kinsman, Tang Shaoyi (later, the Republic’s first Premier): 1) to work with the United States on a basis of equality and mutual benefit to speed up international cooperation in stopping the opium trade, and 2) to resume bilateral sponsorship for educating Chinese students in the United States after a three-decade hiatus. Both initiatives were belated fulfillment of much earlier goals of the visionary Rong Hong.

Throughout February 1909, Tang Guo’an was a commissioner and the spokesman for the Chinese delegation to the first International Opium Conference at Shanghai, the first such forum in which China was positioned as an equal participant. Tang’s detailed report, in impeccable English, on China’s rapid progress in eradicating domestic opium sale and use put pressure on Western powers to do the same, beginning in the treaty ports they controlled.

Tang gave an impassioned speech at the close of the proceedings, in which he pressed for greater support for the anti-opium movement. Tang Guo’an appealed to the conference delegates to remember the higher moral law transcending culture and politics, citing both Confucius and Christ on the Golden Rule. He stressed the broader importance of the opium issue in arousing Chinese patriotism and foreshadowing China’s new relationship of friendship and equality with the rest of the world. Tang offered China’s official gratitude to those non-Chinese who had done so much for the cause, including British Christian parliamentarians and missionary statesmen such as J. Hudson Taylor and Benjamin Broomhall of the China Inland Mission (CIM).

Later in 1909, Tang turned his full attention to the field of education, on assignment to the new Office for Study in the United States, set up jointly under the foreign affairs and education ministries to resume state-sponsored American education for Chinese students. The program was supported by reparation funds paid by the Qing court to the United States in excess of actual claims for American losses during the Boxer Uprising. Again, China missionaries had paved the way for this initiative by lobbying against the large amounts demanded by the 1901 Protocol and advocating the return of any excess.

Tang Guo’an was heavily involved in the planning and negotiation of the program during 1907-08 and was one of three officials in charge of selecting Chinese students to send to the United States. In December 1909, he accompanied the first group of forty-seven boys to America. After twenty-eight years, Tang was able to revisit the familiar places and close friends of his youth.

For the next several years, Tang Guo’an was busy alternating attention to his major duties in both opium eradication and founding the new state preparatory school for the China-U.S. exchange program. He traveled to Europe and the United States, both to explore ideas for the school and to represent China at the December 1911-January 1912 session of the Opium Commission at The Hague. This session produced the first international regulation of the narcotics trade: the International Opium Convention.

Returning to Beijing in 1912, he was immersed in the pressing needs of Tsinghua School, which had closed for half a year due to the Republican revolution of October 1911. Tang Guo’an became the founding president and was to leave a strong personal imprint on the college. Although Tsinghua was a secular state institution with an emphasis on science and technology in the curriculum, Tang set a high moral tone for the students. The largely Christian staff and faculty stressed the importance of personal discipline to “cultivate the whole human character” as the beginning of true talent.

During late 1912 and early 1913, President Tang recruited high-quality faculty among returned students and made a series of critical decisions for the college, finally resigning the presidency just one day before he died of heart failure on August 22. In addition to his legacy in the founding of modern education, Tang Guo’an’s part in the development of railways and shipping, the ending of the opium trade, and the recovery of China’s sovereign rights together constitute a major contribution.


Photo: The Chinese Students’ Monthly (December 1909). Courtesy of Center for Research Libraries, Chicago, Illinois. [cropped]


  • Carol Lee Hamrin, “Tang Guo’an: Pioneering China’s Rights Recovery Movement,” Carol Lee Hamrin, ed., with Stacey Bieler, Salt and Light: Lives of Faith that Shaped Modern China(Eugene, OR., Wipf and Stock Publishers, Pickwick Publications, 2008).

About the Author

Carol Lee Hamrin

George Mason University Research Professor and Senior Associate for Global China Center