Yan Huiqing was born in 1877, the third son of Mrs. Yan and Yan Yongjing, who was establishing a mission and boy’s boarding school in Wuhan. In January 1879, the family moved to Shanghai where his father became one of the founders and the first principal of St. John’s College, sponsored by the Anglican Church.
Having completing his preparatory study at St. John’s, Yan Huiqing went to the United States in 1895. He spent two years in the preparatory Episcopal High School (EHS) in Alexandria, Va., earning honors for English composition and debate. He was graduated from the University of Virginia in September, 1900, with a major in moral philosophy.
Yan returned to Shanghai in August 1900 and began teaching English at St. John’s, which he did for six years. He often served as interpreter for YMCA-sponsored debates or lectures by distinguished visiting speakers on the social reform topics of the day. In 1905, Yan served as the first chairman of the board of directors for the World Chinese Students Federation.
Yan also became a close associate of Tang Guo’an, one of the Chinese Education Mission students to study in the United States, who was a businessman and YMCA board director. The two men teamed up as partners for a debate in November 1903 against two Westerners as part of a regular series of exchanges between the foreign and Chinese YMCA clubs. The next year, the pair wrote articles for the English section of a new YMCA national bilingual newspaper. They were soon invited to launch an English-language section of the new Nanfang Bao (South China Daily).
In 1906, Yan Yongjing and his younger brother, Yan Deqing, were among those who sat for the first Chinese government examination for returned students from Europe and America. Yan tested second and his brother fourth among those receiving the highest honor, the doctoral (jinshi) degree. Though Yan Huiqing was then appointed to the Ministry of Education, he asked for a delay so he could finish editing a new English and Chinese Standard Dictionary for Commercial Press in Shanghai.
In late 1907, Yan successfully applied for the position of second secretary in charge of the English language work in the Chinese legation in Washington, D. C. During his time there, Yan took a year’s course of study at George Washington University’s law school and became a life-long member of the American Society of International Law. In the fall of 1908, Yan assisted Tang Shaoyi, Special Envoy to the United States, hosting one hundred Chinese students in Washington during the Christmas holidays. His good work brought him promotion to first councilor in 1909. Yan was soon reassigned to Beijing to set up a press bureau for the foreign ministry.
The son of Viceroy Li, whose family Yan had served as tutor, took him under his wing and arranged a favorable marriage for him to the sister of Sun Baoqi, then the Governor of Shandong, formerly Minister to both Paris and Berlin. She had studied in Paris while living with her brother there. Due to her family’s influence and her ability to speak French, the Imperial Court invited her to interpret for meetings involving the wives of foreign envoys. Their family eventually included three daughters and three sons.
Early in 1911, he became a junior counselor, applying his knowledge of international law in the Foreign Affairs Office. One early assignment was to negotiate with Great Britain on restricting the import of opium into China. At the same time, he was admitted to the prestigious Hanlin Academy, which performed secretarial and literary tasks for the Imperial court and served as a reservoir of officials for senior positions in the government.
The Republican revolution of 1911 brought Yan and other young officials with Western training and a progressive outlook onto the fast track for promotion. Yan Huiqing was catapulted to the position of Vice Minister and Counselor. Due to the poor health of the foreign minister, Yan usually briefed President Yuan Shikai each morning and accompanied him in meetings with foreign diplomats.
Yan embarked on an illustrious diplomatic and political career in a new post-imperial China. He contributed his knowledge of international law as China sought to assert its national interests and limit the special privileges for foreign interests in China granted by the unequal treaties of the nineteenth century. The new government redefined the vast empire as the Chinese nation-state and successfully defended most of that territory, so that the lengthy border then is essentially that of the People’s Republic of China today.
As a diplomat abroad, Yan served as China’s representative in Berlin, moving to Copenhagen after China joined the Allies against Germany. From there, at the end of World War I, he traveled directly to Paris to attend the peace conference as part of the Chinese delegation. The Chinese delegates refused to sign the final Treaty of Versailles in protest, defying orders from China’s government to do so. The next year, when Yan Huiqing became Foreign Minister, he continued the pursuit of full sovereign rights, regularizing relations with Russia and Germany to gain their support. Next, he sought gains outside the League structure at the Washington naval conference in 1921-1922, hosted by the United States and attended by nine nations having interests in East Asia and the Pacific.
During the years 1920-1926, Yan was never a member of a political party but served the many alternating civil and military governments based in Beijing as Prime Minister and Foreign Minister five times each, sometimes concurrently, as well as Minister of Agriculture and Commerce in his father-in-law’s Cabinet.
Yan often served reluctantly, partly from a sense of duty to the country and partly out of obligation to lend his prestige to help strengthen his associates among the civilian leaders. Yan agreed to his brief appointment as Premier in 1924, for example, only because diplomatic efforts to restore China’s tariff autonomy were at a standstill while the country was “without any government.’
When the capital shifted from Beijing to Nanjing after the Northern Expedition of 1926 united the country under Chiang Kai-shek’s presidency, Yan left government until 1931. During his years out of office, Yan became engaged in both business (industry and finance) in Tianjin and in many national civic organizations, including the YMCA, hospitals and disaster relief agencies, professional associations, as well as the Mass Education Movement (MEM) where he served as a trustee and finance committee chairman. He founded the Western Returned Students Association and raised funds for its headquarters in Beijing. He served as a board member for several prominent schools including St. John’s, Peking Union Medical College, and Nankai, Tsinghua, and Yanjing universities.
Recalled to diplomatic service in the midst of the Manchurian crisis, Dr. Yan became Ambassador to the United States and also representative for China in the League of Nations in Geneva. A high point of his career was obtaining the League’s formal censure of Japanese aggression in early 1933, following its attack on Shanghai. This in turn led to Japan’s withdrawal from the League. Diplomacy did serve to deny legitimacy to Manzhouguo and to make the “non-recognition doctrine” a standard political practice.
While in Geneva, Yan also negotiated the normalization of Sino-Soviet relations in hopes of obtaining Moscow’s cooperation against Tokyo. He was then appointed China’s first ambassador to the Soviet Union. Relations soured with conflict over their Xinjiang border region and disagreement over Manchuria, and Yan’s health broke down, even requiring a stay of several months in Berlin on his way back to China. There he arrived in late 1936 and spent an additional two months in recuperation.
Yan attempted in 1936 to retire completely due to health concerns, but soon was called back to public life in civic efforts to deal with the Japanese occupation 1937-1945. He revived and reorganized China’s Red Cross to assist the massive waves of refugees from areas that had been destroyed. In 1941, Yan led a nongovernmental delegation to a conference of the Institute of Pacific Relations on his fourth visit to the United States. From 1939-1942, the Yan family sought safety in Hong Kong, along with many others from the mainland.
In the late 1940s, during China’s civil war, the elderly Yan was serving on the advisory committee of the Shanghai municipal government. In February 1949, as communist forces neared Nanjing and Shanghai, he led an unofficial peace delegation of Shanghai civic leaders to meet with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai in North China. He raised several issues of concern with CCP leaders, including whether there would be continued religious freedom and protection of property rights for industrialists and financiers. Preventing bloodshed appeared to be Yan’s main motivation for undertaking this risky venture despite his advanced age and poor health.
After his return to Shanghai, in early May Yan turned down face-to- face requests from both Chiang Kai-shek and his son to come to Taiwan, explaining that his failing health precluded such a move. On the establishment of the PRC in October 1949, Yan wrote approvingly of the new Common Program in Shanghai’s new official Liberation Daily.
Yan Huiqing died in Shanghai within the year, at the age of seventy-four on May 24, 1950. His funeral service was held in his family’s home church, Church of Our Saviour, and his burial was at the Bubbling Well Road cemetery, beside his parents. He was survived by his widow, three daughters and three sons.
Dr. Yan’s political leadership and firsthand experience with the major international forces of his day served China well. He applied his Christian ethics and patriotic commitment to promoting China’s strength and well-being. In the eyes of his peers, “his success was due to his keen analysis of events and his sound judgment of people and how to deal with them. Yen was noted for his clean reputation, strong interest in culture and art, astute philosophical observations, and sense of humor.”
- Carol Lee Hamrin, “Yan Yongjing and Yan Huiqing: Bridging the East and the West” in Salt and Light: More Lives of Faith that Shaped Modern China, Vol. 2, ed. by Carol Lee Hamrin with Stacey Bieler (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2010), 15-40.