Leighton Stuart’s energetic actions to restore normal educational activities at Yenching University commenced immediately after he and his two companions were released in 1945, but were suddenly brought to a halt when he was asked to become American ambassador to China. He had just celebrated his seventieth birthday. From July 19, 1946 to August 2, 1949, when he finally left China, Stuart was engaged in unremitting toil, the cumulative strain of which finally broke his health.
General Marshall nominated him to be ambassador because Leighton Stuart had become the most prominent American in China, with the most extensive network of friends in high places all across the spectrum of Chinese society; the deepest respect on all sides; the most intimate knowledge of Chinese language and culture; remarkable wisdom, knowledge, and insight about Chinese politics; and a personality supremely suited for the task of bringing opposing parties together.
From the beginning, his mandate was clear: To do everything possible to promote and achieve the American government’s policy of bringing about a coalition government composed of Nationalists, Communists, and smaller parties. Regardless of what he thought about this policy, which had been decided in Washington against the objections of the Nationalist government, he devoted all his energy and superb abilities to carry it through. He was freed from the ordinary administrative duties of an ambassador, which were carried out by an able deputy, while he spent countless hours in meetings with Americans, Nationalists, and Communists in what proved to be an increasingly impossible quest for a peaceful settlement to a bitter civil war. He travelled often from the capital in Nanjing to confer with Chiang Kai-shek when he was in Kuling or elsewhere.
His account of this tumultuous and history-shaping period reveals a man of extraordinary patience, resilience, self-control, sagacity, shrewdness, and political acumen. He explains why the conquest of China by the Communists resulted from a complex interplay of factors, including: The Nationalist government was horribly riddled by corruption, and Chiang Kai-shek made some colossally disastrous military decisions. The government’s failure to rein in inflation wreaked financial havoc that totally ruined its credibility with the people. The Communists were better organized, disciplined, and (relatively) “clean” – at first - and their military and political leadership was nothing less than brilliant.
And the Americans made inexcusable blunders in their vacillating policy that robbed the Nationalists of any hope of victory. After he had returned to Washington, Stuart discovered that both military and diplomatic personnel had so poisoned the minds of the President, State Department, members of Congress, and the press that American aid was withheld at critical moments when it might have made a decisive difference.
He was aghast to learn that a White Paper issued by the State Department asserted that the Nationalists “lost” China on their own; nothing the U.S. could have done would have changed the outcome of the conflict, which, it claimed, was basically only a civil war, discounting the substantial support given by the Soviet Union to the Chinese Communists and the strong links between the two.
The document also revealed and quoted vast quantities of communications that had been classified as “Top Secret.” This was perfidy, even treason, committed at the highest levels of the American government. Earlier, like the Nationalists, he had been shocked by the unnecessary concessions that President Roosevelt had made at Yalta. These provisions allowed the Soviet Union to benefit from Japan’s surrender in ways that greatly enhanced Chinese Communist military power. Later, it came out Roosevelt’s chief advisor, Alger Hiss, was a Communist agent.
Among the “top secret” documents that were revealed were the dispatches that Stuart had sent to Washington in the last months of 1949, when the Nationalist hold on mainland China was disintegrating. In these messages, Stuart severely criticized the Nationalists, including Chiang, and opposed “further U.S. aid and political support to China’s government” (Shaw 265). These documents reflect his “complete loss of faith and interest in Chiang as the leader of the Nationalist government” (Shaw 239).
At that time, he had also actively supported Vice President Li Tsung-jen, who had taken over leadership after Chiang had resigned.
This support for Li and his critical comments apparently overrode all the high praise of Chiang that Stuart had written before and after his return to the United States and cost him the friendship of both Chiang and others in the Nationalist government. In his later years, as Stuart lay bedridden, Chiang refused the suggestion of the Chinese ambassador to the U.S., Wellington Koo, to send flowers to him on his 75th birthday. This rejection by those whom he loved and admired so much must have been a deep disappointment to Stuart.
Though his tone is restrained, Stuart’s autobiography makes clear his anger and dismay that pro-Communist officials had shaped America’s policy in a way that ensured a Communist victory. This would explain what Stuart called “the aberrant and contradictory policies of the United States Government” from the end of World War II and the beginning of the Communist attack on Korea in 1950, policies that fatally weakened the National Government.
Earlier in his account, after describing in detail the evils of the Communists and the corruption and inefficiency of the Nationalists, Leighton Stuart had given his assessment of the vacillating and totally insufficient supplies of American aid in the civil war. He offered his assessment of the fundamental reasons for America’s disastrous actions and inactions:
We Americans mainly saw the good things about the Chinese Communists, while not noticing carefully the intolerance, bigotry, deception, disregard for human life and other evils which seem to be inherent in any totalitarian system. We kept Communist meanings for such objectives as progressive democratic, liberal, bourgeois, reactionary, imperialist, as they intended we should do. We failed to realize fully the achievements [of the Nationalist government] to date and the potentialities of Chinese democracy. Therefore, we cannot escape a part of the responsibility of the great catastrophe – not only for China but also for America and the free world – of the loss of the China mainland (Stuart 237-238).
Now, after the Communist victory, he saw that the Americans had not only been guilty of their usual idealism and naivete but had been deliberately misled by people who knew what they were doing.
Not unsurprisingly, Leighton Stuart’s years of tireless service caused several strokes and led to a total physical collapse that necessitated complete rest and led to his resignation as ambassador in November 1952. In his letter of acceptance, President Truman acknowledged Stuart’s “lifetime of service … and devotion to China’s welfare,” writing that “this devotion to your mission beyond the ordinary call of duty made heavy a contribution to the long illness which you have so unfortunately suffered since your return to the United States” (Stuart 287).
Reflections in retirement
On China: Stuart had lived most of his life in and for China, and he cherished both a deep affection for its people and culture and a passionate desire that they would enjoy the benefits of true independence from foreign powers. He writes that he understood their “grievances and ambitions [so much] as to become identified with them in these sentiments, with the result that they have become dominant elements in my own life, coloring my attitudes and controlling my activities” (Stuart 289). He longed for China to have a truly republican form of government that would enable it to benefit all of mankind.
As for the Chinese people, he observes that “their basic virtue is perhaps that of personal loyalty,” and their main faults were “mutual jealousies and suspicions” (Stuart 290). His own experience, however, revealed to him “their virtues much more than their faults” and has contributed to his great appreciation for their culture.
On personal suffering: Two “periods of sequestration” [enforced solitude] during the war against Japan and later as he recovered from his long illness helped him “to understand and appreciate the appalling amount of suffering in the world today,” and gave him “an almost mystical sense of identity with all of suffering humanity,” as well as “a glimmering insight as to the function of pain in moral growth” (Stuart 294-295).
On Communism: Stuart repeats his “passionate belief in personal freedom as the elementary right of every human being and the condition without which most, if not all, of the other benefits we seek become worthless. This is the very essence of democracy, which rests on the conviction that people can govern themselves better than even the best form of paternalistic or despotic government can” (Stuart 295).
In that light, he asks,
Shall an atheistic, soulless, and totalitarian communism conquer and dominate the world or shall the principles and practices of political, economic and social democracy and Christian faith in God and in the dignity of man become fundamental in the way of life of all men and in the family of nations? The two ideals cannot indefinitely coexist.
The Communists have proclaimed noble social objective but have adopted the vicious principle that the end justifies the means. They have developed deception into a fine art; they rely on force, fraud, and falsehood. They presumably would not hesitate to plunge humanity into a vast welter of misery and destruction if they were convinced that such conditions suited their purpose (Stuart 296).
In short, in his retirement Stuart saw and admitted that his words and actions as ambassador issued from a naïve idealism that failed to recognize the true nature of Communism. This idealism flowed naturally from his liberal theology.
When the “White Paper” referenced earlier appeared in August 1949, Mao Zedong wrote an article entitled, “Farewell, Leighton Stuart,” in which he incorrectly identified the U.S. Government’s China policy as that with which Stuart agreed, and lumped Stuart’s missionary career and diplomatic career together with what he called America’s imperialistic attempt to make China a U.S. colony.
At this point in his autobiography, Stuart offers his frank assessment of Chinese Communism. He acknowledged that at first the Communists were able to convince many people inside and outside China that they were only “agrarian reformers” whose goal was to bring true democracy to China. Soon after they came power, however, Stuart observed that they embarked on a systematic campaign to gain total control of the populace and of all private and public institutions, to silence all opponents and critics, and to engage in brutal persecution of those whom they considered to be enemies. In the process, they destroyed or turned such Christian organizations as Yenching University into instruments of the new state.
Illness, retirement, rejection, and death
The strokes that felled Stuart in 1949 disabled him for the last ten years of his life, keeping him either in bed or at home. His old friend and protegee, Philip Fugh, took Stuart into his home and cared for him lovingly until the end. Probably, Fugh was exemplifying the traditional Chinese loyalty of student to teacher, as well as recognizing all the confidence that Stuart had placed in him both at Yenching and during his years as American ambassador to China.
After the start of the Korean War, Stuart became the target of ferocious attacks in China, accused of serving as an American spy and an enemy of the Chinese people. Leading members of the Yenching faculty accused him of being an agent of American cultural aggression in China. Zhao Jichen (Chao Tsu-ch’en), Stuart’s favorite Chinese theologian, charged him with being a “U.S. secret agent, an anti-Soviet Union, anti-Communist, and anti-Chinese reactionary, and therefore a deadly enemy of the Chinese people. He is a sugar-coated pill of poison and a bayonet in a cotton roll” (Shaw 279).
Other senior faculty accused him of “collaborating with the reactionary influences” and exercising a “monopoly of the university leadership” that amounted to “imperialist aggression” that had caused several resignations. Yenching’s “promotion of the American way of life” also brought severe condemnation. These attacks by former colleagues and personal friends were made in a context of immense political change and pressure, but they demonstrated the total rejection of Stuart and his educational program by many Chinese intellectuals.
Finally, Stuart’s beloved university was formally taken over by the Communists and merged with other schools into Peking University.
Despite these and other losses, Leighton Stuart was still held in high esteem by thousands of Yenching graduates and other Chinese who had known him. Some of these who lived in the United States expressed their affection and devotion in his final years, and his funeral was well attended by both American and Chinese friends.
American policy toward China: Stuart’s recommendations for America’s policy toward China were perceptive, principled, and prescient. Followed for more they two decades, they were overturned by the “realpolitik” approach of Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon, and Henry Kissinger. In retrospect, it would seem that Stuart foresaw what would happen if the United States transferred recognition from the Nationalistic Republic of China to the Communist People’s Republic of China and fostered trade with the latter. Recent policy shifts by Presidents Trump and Biden have, belatedly, affirmed Stuart’s position.
Appreciation for Chinese culture
From his childhood, Leighton Stuart evinced a profound respect for some aspects of Chinese civilization and culture. Although administrative duties as the president of a bilingual university made immersion in the Chinese language extremely difficult, he did his best to learn the proper pronunciation of modern Mandarin as it was spoken in Beijing. He found the study of Chinese characters to be “a most fascinating feature” of the language. As he learned a new word, he tried to write its character as well. With unremitting effort, he acquired the ability to read some of the best-known Chinese classics, and then some of the greater philosophical works and the most famous novels. “This has been enough to give me some appreciation of the mellowed culture thus preserved and of the moral and spiritual ideals which are at least understood and accepted in theory by the humblest illiterates as well as by the scholars.” In time, he came to “admire the gentle humanism of Chinese literature; its emphasis on personal relationships, loyalties and rights; its cardinal belief in the order of the universe with which man as an individual and in his social organization should strive to be in harmony” (Stuart 85).
Likewise, he developed a lifelong interest in Chinese art, theater, and architecture, as seen in his supervision of the construction of the campus. He loved especially “its balanced proportion of lines.” “The skilful use of form and color in ordinary life” drew his praise, expressed in “the graceful elegance of masculine attire, traces of orderliness and beauty even in humble shops and homes, stylized penmanship in any serious writing… . One gains the impression that artistic appreciation is social heritage and that it permeates Chinese life quite generally” (Stuart 87).
More importantly, Stuart clearly admired many of the Chinese with whom he worked, for whom he offers the highest praises in his autobiography. He did not approve of the conduct and attitude of all the “returned students” who had obtained advanced degrees in the United States and who often manifested “arrogant pride” and haughty demand for high positions and salary, despite possessing only theoretical knowledge that did not equip them to meet the real needs of China.
Intellectual and literary excellence
Stuart’s autobiography is a model of graceful elegance, delicacy, clarity, and insight. He clearly possessed a superior intelligence that had been well trained and constantly augmented by assiduous study, observation, and reflection. He combined mastery of Western classics, modern thinking, and Chinese literature in a way not found among many foreigners. He must have been a most lively and stimulating conversationalist, as his countless friends, both Chinese and foreign, and his vast personal influence attest. In recognition of his educational leadership and his friendships with leaders in China, Princeton University conferred upon him the honorary degree pf D.Litt. in 1930.
Personality and character
Those friendships also reveal his deep humanity, broadness of mind, tolerance, and capacity for understanding and affirming the best in others. His wife died in 1926, leaving him “so richly satisfying a memory that she unfitted me for caring to repeat the experience.” In other words, he was so happy with her that he could not imagine finding another woman whom he would love and enjoy as much. This is in itself testifies to what surely was his courtesy, affection, faithfulness, and genuine love. He also maintained a close relationship with his son, who was named after him – another indication of his personal warmth and faithfulness.
Those who knew Stuart and worked with him obviously held him in the highest regard. For example, his sixtieth birthday was celebrated at Yenching University with elaborate ceremony, lavish entertainment, and fulsome tributes to him from Chinese of all classes, including the workers at the university. The chancellor, Wu Leichuan, highlighted his “union of Greek intellectual elements, Hebrew religious spirit, and the genial humanism of Chinese culture in a warm, outstanding personality, that won interest and friendship,” noting especially his religious spirit” that was without the narrowness of that some critics have attributed to missionary character” and calling him “a true representative of the spirit of Jesus” (Stuart 96).
Leighton Stuart repeatedly records his high admiration for the American diplomatic and military personnel he dealt with during the cataclysmic events of the last days of the Nationalist rule on the mainland. He ascribes their “professional attainments and their high standards of duty” to “our national culture,” saying, “it is quite apparent that our Christian faith has been an important ingredient in this culture as it has influenced their characters.” In contrast, “the plight of China today is largely due to the twin deficiencies of scientific training and ethical standards for her officers in a superficially modernized military system” (Stuart 224).
Although the trial of his theology in his presbytery in Virginia cleared him of a denial of orthodox beliefs, Stuart was most certainly what would be termed a theological liberal. Throughout his autobiography, he regularly criticizes those who held to traditional or conservative theology, while praising those who could be called liberal. He made his own sympathies completely clear time after time. Presbyterian conservative critics, like Old Testament scholar Oswald T. Allis, were surely correct in describing his views of the Bible as inconsistent with the traditional, and confessional, assertion of its inerrancy and unique authority. As his biographer writes, “Stuart was an embodiment of the social-gospel wing of the Christian missionary movement and was perhaps the most successful missionary of that faction in China” (Shaw 293).
Both in Nanjing and later in Beijing, Stuart sought to construct “a plausible synthesis between Christian theology and ethics on the one hand and Chinese religious and cultural tradition on the other… . As a Christo-centric liberal, Stuart believed that all religions or spiritual systems derived from the same supreme source; therefore, Stuart believed that Chinese religious sentiments and cultural traditions could complement and reinforce Christian teachings, and vice versa. In this regard, his position echoes that of his contemporaries, such as Chao Tzu-ch’en (Zhao Zichen), and of his forerunners, such as Matteo Ricci.” This synthesis was “a continuation of the great synthesis formulated by the Jesuit fathers and their Chinese converts in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries” (Shaw 294).
Our opinion of this religious program will depend on what we think of that of the Jesuits’ strategy in China. In general, evangelical Protestants rejected such a combination of biblical and non-biblical materials to build a theological edifice.
As president of Yenching University, he recruited Chinese faculty who were theologically liberal, and the chancellor, Wu-Leichuan, was a noted exponent of “contextual theology.” These men wanted to restate Christian doctrines in terms drawn from Chinese culture, even at the cost of jettisoning core elements of the faith. One’s assessment of this synthesis will determine any evaluation of Stuart’s Christian beliefs.
Though highly praised then and now by theological liberals, Stuart and his Chinese colleagues received scathing critiques from theological conservatives like Zhang Lisheng (Lit-sen Chang). Stuart sent one of his proteges, Liu Tingfang, to Union Theological Seminary, the flagship liberal school in America then and now. His son, “Jack,” attended the same institution. At his funeral, the president of Union Seminary led the service.
In his memoirs, he reaffirmed his commitment to Jesus Christ. “He has my absolute reverence and devotion. His life, teaching, death, and resurrection form a harmonious whole. His crucifixion reveals the ultimate faith and love” (Stuart 300). This clear statement surely reflects Stuart’s sincere faith in Christ, but it also seems to express a kind of theological liberalism that centers on the moral example of Jesus and the revelation of God’s love in him, rather than on his atoning work, current rule of history, and promise to return.
In his Preface to Stuart’s Memoirs, General George C. Marshall wrote, “I doubt if there is anyone whose understanding of Chinese character, History, and Political complications equals that of Dr. Stuart. His high standard of integrity made his opinions all the more important. It is the man, the character and the general range of his experience which appealed to me.”
On the other hand, he seems to have some major flaws. He was a natural diplomat, carefully crafting his words to each person according to what he thought that person wanted (or needed) to hear. Frequently, he gave the impression of dissimulation; some even accused him of lying.
He also may have trusted too much in his extraordinary ability to make friends with powerful people from different positions. This strength seems also to have concealed a weakness, that is, of thinking that he could influence people and policies more than was really the case. When confronted with the intractable conflict between the Communists and Nationalists, he attempted the impossible. Though we must acknowledge that he was obliged to promote the initial policy of the U.S. government to seek a coalition government, he should probably have realized at the outset that competing interests would make reaching terms acceptable to both sides impossible.
His biographer correctly called Stuart a classic Wilsonian idealist. As with Woodrow Wilson, Stuart’s idealism flowed from liberal Protestant beliefs, which downplayed the inherent sinfulness of human nature and exaggerated emphasis upon the basic goodness of each person. This idealism underlay many of his biggest mistakes as ambassador. Ideas have consequences.
As a seminary professor, Stuart taught New Testament Greek and published both a grammar and a dictionary that for decades greatly assisted Chinese Christians in reading and understanding the New Testament on their own, without having to know English. Surely, these were substantial contributions to the formation of an indigenous Chinese church.
Missionary Educator: Yenching University
Yenching University claimed Stuart’s highest loyalty; he invested most of his missionary career in building an institution of higher learning characterized by academic excellence, inculcation of Christian values, and a spirit of patriotic service in the students. He succeeded in all three aspects, as long as we define “Christian” broadly and in liberal terms. In the end, however, the university failed to survive Communist control, and even its separate existence came to an end soon after the Communists consolidated power. Stuart hoped, probably with some justification, that the example Yenching had set and the contribution of its alumni to society would leave a lasting impact.
Like Woodrow Wilson, as American ambassador Stuart did not succeed in achieving the policy goals he pursued with admirable skill, determination, and tireless labors. Stuart wanted to preserve space for continued American involvement in China even if the Communists came to power; thus, he showed willingness to seek some accommodation with the Communists. His efforts to create a lasting peace could not overcome fundamental clashes of interest in the competing parties, and his overtures to the Chinese Communists did not persuade them, however. Intractable conflicts of national and party interest prevented any substantive compromises. For reasons largely outside his control, his diplomatic career was a total failure.
As Shaw writes, “His American liberalism alienated the Nationalists, and his American nationalism angered the Communists. In the end, he was rejected by all sides” (Shaw 302). Furthermore, he did not fully understand the dynamism of revolutionary Chinese Communism or the brilliance of its multi-pronged campaign against the Nationalists. As he later admitted, he was too naïve in his initial assessment of them. When he realized the atheistic, totalitarian, and ruthless nature of the Communist movement, he rejected it entirely.
Evaluating his decades of service in China, however, we are forced to recognize that his brand of liberal Protestantism was inadequate to effect fundamental change in either individuals or Chinese society.
On the other hand, Stuart’s profound understanding of Chinese culture and of the longing of all people to be free engendered a hope in him that Chinese Communist rule would eventually founder on the rock of traditional Chinese values.
In the Foreward to his autobiography, Stuart stated his purpose as a missionary:
There was in China before the Communists came to power much that was good and much that was not good… . My lifetime effort and that of my missionary and educational co-laborers was devoted to making better that which was good and making less that which was not good. The visible evidence of that effort has been in considerable part liquidated: plants and equipment, churches, schools, buildings, and hospitals have in some cases been destroyed and, in my case, appropriated by the Communists for their own purposes. I feel, however, that the major part of the investment made by the patrons of missionary and educational and medical enterprises in China and by those who had devoted their lives to those enterprises – the investment in influence – has not and cannot be destroyed.
There live on, in the minds and hearts of those who gave and those who received, the benefits of the giving and the receiving. There live on in China both seeds and fruits of Christian teaching and practice. There live on in China – on the mainland and on Formosa – millions of men, women and children who are better in mind and in body in consequence of the efforts for and among them of Christian evangelists, Christian teachers, Christian surgeons, Christian scientists, and Christian social workers… The torch of education … still lights the way – on Formosa and among overseas Chinese (Stuart 3-4).
The Wikipedia article on Stuart concludes with these words:
On September 4, 2016, CCP general secretary Xi Jinping recognized Stuart during a banquet held to welcome the heads of foreign delegations attending the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, noting to the assembled crowd of diplomats, “A hundred and forty years ago, in June 1876, John Leighton Stuart, the former US ambassador to China, was born here in Hangzhou. He went on to live in China for over 50 years and was buried in Hangzhou.” Chinese historians said it was the first time since Mao Zedong’s famous essay that a top Chinese official had recognized Stuart in public, a signal of the rehabilitation of Stuart’s official reputation in modern China.
Fifty years after Stuart left China, Hangzhou officials restored the Stuart house in Hangzhou as a memorial to the family’s contributions to China. The design of the house, a New Orleans style double gallery with garconniere in the rear, was inspired by Aline Rodd Stuart’s childhood home on Chestnut Street in the Garden District of New Orleans.
The improved Chinese view on Stuart’s personality was vividly pictured in the Chinese television series Diplomatic Situation where he is the one of the main positive characters.
As noble as these ideals and achievements were, any final evaluation of Stuart as a missionary must face the harsh reality that he was a prime example of what Chinese anti-Christians have always claimed: that missionaries were really agents of Western imperialism, tools in the hands of those who sought to control China from without by eroding it from within.
In his defense, we should note that a love for, and belief in, freedom and democracy drove all his political involvement. On the other hand, we must admit that both before and after becoming the American ambassador, Stuart really was actively employed in extending – or at least preserving – American power in China. Mao Zedong was right in lumping Stuart’s missionary and diplomatic careers together.
Like Robert Morrison, the first Protestant missionary to China, who worked for the East India Company in order to be able to reside in China, Leighton Stuart provides ample ammunition for critics of foreign missionaries as instruments of Western imperialism. Or, to state things more charitably, we should say that Stuart appears to have been an emissary of political and social change, rather than fundamental transformation of character through a life-transforming relationship with Jesus Christ by faith.
Seen from that standpoint, though he meant well, by concentrating his energies on seeking to change Chinese society rather than on building the church, Stuart did great damage to Christianity in China.
G. Wright Doyle
This concludes Part 2 of 2. Part 1 may be found here.
Doyle, G. Wright, ed. Wise Man from the East: Lit-sen Chang (Zhang Lisheng. Critique of Indigenous Theology; Critique of Humanism. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013.
MacInnis, Donald E. “John Leighton Stuart.” Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions. Grand Rapids, MI: By permission of The Gale Group, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1998.
Mao Zedong. “Farewell, Leighton Stuart.” Accessed August 18, 2023 at https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-4/mswv4_67.htm.
Shaw, Yu-ming. An American Missionary in China: John Leighton Stuart and Chinese-American Relations. Cambridge, MA: Council on East Studies, Harvard University, and Harvard University Press, 1992.
Starr, Chloe. Chinese Theology: Text and Context. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016.
Stuart, John L. Fifty Years in China: The Memoirs of John Leighton Stuart, Missionary and Ambassador (1954). New York: Random House, 1954. Reprinted by Andesite Press, 2016.
Yao Xiyi. The Fundamentalist-Movement among Protestant Missionaries in China, 1920-1937. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2003.