Kuang Fuzhou was born on December 3, 1869, in a rural county in Guangdong Province. He was living in a poor family with his parents and grandparents. Like most poor children at that time, he had to help support his family by doing dairy farm work.
In January 1882, at the age of 12, Kuang traveled to Hong Kong and eventually departed for the West Coast of the U.S. Kuang went directly to Sacramento and lived with his uncle, who worked as a vegetable dealer. On his uncle’s recommendation, Kuang worked for an American family as a cook, earning $1 per week. The uncle encouraged his nephew to study English at a night school set up by the pastor of the Chinese Congregational Church, where he met his mentor, Chen Xiushi (Chin Toy), who later became pastor of the church.
Though Kuang was interested in the Christian faith, he was still troubled by his own behavior. He couldn’t easily discard his traditional Chinese faith and family ties. After the place where he was living caught on fire, he began living in the church, giving him even more opportunities to learn more about Christianity. Half a year later, he was baptized and became a church member.
One day when he was on his way home after work, he met someone from the Salvation Army. After often attending their meetings, he went forward to receive prayer by the preacher. The Salvation Army had long planned to work in the Chinese community, and Kuang now was the most qualified candidate. In 1889, he began to serve with the Salvation Army. He first went to the headquarters of the Army in San Francisco, to receive a half a year of training. After more than a year of traveling and preaching in several cities along the Pacific coast, Kuang was summoned to serve as a cook at headquarters while still preaching among Chinese in spare time. After completing courses in stenography and typing, Kuang returned to headquarters as a clerk instead of a cook. Soon he was promoted to become secretary to the ranking leader of the Salvation Army on the Pacific Coast. During the subsequent four or five years he participated in a literature club and learned to debate and to give public speeches. By the time he left the Salvation Army in 1897, he was an ensign, the first Chinese in the world to be raised to staff rank.
Though Kuang dreamed of going to college, he did not have enough savings to pay for the tuition fees. While traveling in southern California, Kuang met a student at Pomona College, who told Kuang’s dream to Dr. Cyrus H. Baldwin, the President of Pomona College (established by the Congregational Church in Claremont). Dr. Baldwin contacted Kuang and encouraged him to enter Pomona College, indicating that a part-time job would solve the problem of lack of tuition.
After five years in Pomona College, in 1902, Kuang transferred to the University of California at Berkeley. He still worked as a cook or a farm laborer after classes to make a living. Meanwhile, he served as a secretary and assistant at the university’s YMCA. After Kuang finished three more years of study and work, he earned his BA degree in 1905. He received a fellowship to study literature and education at Columbia University in New York City, earning an MA in education 1906.
In 1906, he returned to his motherland for the first time in twenty-four years. He taught English in Canton for one year. In October 1907, Kuang was one of forty-two candidates who took the first national civil service examination designed for returned students by the Board of Education, in Beijing. He scored third best among thirty-eight successful candidates and was awarded the highest-level Jinshi degree as a Doctor of Literature. He was assigned to the Ministry of Post and Communications.
On January 6, 1908, Dr. Kuang married Lin Lian’en (Dr. Laura Lum), an assistant and teacher for the Hackett Medical College for Women, the first women’s medical college in China. She was born in California of Christian Chinese parents and came back to China at the age of seven.
The assignment to the Ministry of Post and Communication, however, while prestigious was completely different from Kuang’s desires. In 1908, therefore, he joined the Commercial Press, the largest publishing company in China in the early twentieth century, publishing a wide range of books, magazines, textbooks, and dictionaries that made a significant and far-reaching contribution to the dissemination of knowledge and formation of culture in modern China. For the first several years, Kuang mainly engaged in writing or editing school textbooks in English. The people who worked with him admired both his ability and his personal character.
Kuang’s contribution to English education in Republican China was achieved through the many English texts published by the Commercial Press. In the early twentieth century, the Commercial Press occupied two-thirds of the textbook market in China. From 1907 to 1914, he edited or authored more than 30 English textbooks, including Intermediate English Grammar, English Grammar for English Grammar (I-IV), and A Class-Book of English Letter Writing. The most popular,Model English Reader, published in 1918, went through five editions and sold one million copies in the next twenty-five years. Thus, Kuang achieved his goal of serving the country through English education by his work at Commercial Press.
In 1909, he was invited to address the Educational Association of China (EAC, later the China Christian Educational Association), an organization set up by missionaries to promote the development of Christian education in China. At the meeting, Kuang recommended the standardization of courses in mission schools to comport with the curricula of the Board of Education, in order to secure full recognition by the Chinese government. Kuang’s suggestion was endorsed and later acted upon by a number of missionaries, and he was immediately elected to the EAC’s executive committee. During 1914-1926, he served as a board member of the editorial committee of EAC’s official publication, The Educational Review, and contributed to the journal’s special section called “Government Education.”
Though Kuang had no difficulty attending English services in Shanghai, he and several others organized the Cantonese Union Church in November 1915. On October 7, 1917, a new church was dedicated, with a medical dispensary for the poor, a Sunday school, a Christian Endeavor Society for youth, and other church activities. He also actively participated in the work of the China Continuation Committee, National Christian Council, National Christian Literature Association, and the China Christian Church.
Even before he arrived in Shanghai to join the Commercial Press, he had been invited to become a board member of the Shanghai-based national committee of the YMCA of China (and Korea, at the time) as well as the local Shanghai YMCA. Shortly thereafter, he became an editor of the English magazine, China’s Young Men. Kuang participated in YMCA’s work for more than thirty years and served as president of the national YMCA for ten years, continuing to share in its direction and development until his death.
In 1922, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Pomona College, the third person ever to receive that degree from his alma mater. On September 24, 1922, the New York Times published his story, already legendary, “From Coolie Boy to LL.D.”
After an extended trip around the world in 1922, Kuang further committed himself to multiple civic and philanthropic organizations. Because of overworking, in 1923 his health deteriorated. During the early summer he had an attack of facial paralysis, and the nerve responsible for facial movement on the right side of his face was damaged. Nevertheless, he continued to expand his activities beyond education, social service, and the Christian church, due to his concern for the public welfare of the common people in China.
In 1922, Kuang joined the Rotary Club of Shanghai, which had been established in 1919 as a branch of Rotary International. Kuang later served first as the Rotary’s governor in several regions, as a committee member, and finally as one of the directors of Rotary International. Kuang should be credited with numerous projects, such as the Christmas toy drives, China Institute for the Blind, Russian School for Boys, and Civilian Refugee Aid, all initiated by the Rotary Club of Shanghai during the 1920s-1930s.
In company with other ardent and like-minded Christians, Kuang also initiated and participated in two important national social welfare movements. In 1926, Kuang worked with others to organize the Chinese Mission to Lepers in Shanghai. Through the Mission’s efforts, leprosy clinics were built in a number of cities and over the following decade brought international attention to this new effort in China. In 1928, Kuang with others started the National Child Welfare Association to protect and insure the rights of the children of China, and to promote in every possible way their well-being through child protection, child relief, child health and family education.
Kuang retired from Commercial Press at the age of 60 in 1929. In retirement, he was appointed a board member of the International Rotary and traveled around the world on behalf of the International YMCA and Rotary International. After the Japanese invasion in 1937, he raised funds inside and outside of China to help his compatriots.
After overworking for many years, he suffered many health problems, including an inflammation of the bladder. He died at age 69 on October 3, 1938, and was buried in Hongqiao Road Cemetery. Kuang was survived by his wife, four daughters (Laura, Lucile, Mary and Mae) and a son (Baldwin). They later resided in Taiwan, Hong Kong and the United States after 1949.
Kuang enthusiastically participated in Christian enterprises, especially Chinese Christian institutions, so as to promote the indigenization of Christianity in China. Kuang was one of the most important civic leaders in early twentieth century China. The public welfare organizations launched by Kuang and his partners were organized voluntarily by intellectuals or professionals in China. These civic enterprises helped promote the development of voluntary associations in the Republican era.
Kuang’s Christian character had great spiritual impact on his co-workers and also served as a role model for many others. He was not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus. One evening in September 1931, he spoke to around 500 students at the University of Shanghai on “Why I am a Christian” in the wake of an anti-Christian movement.
- “Army” in this article refers to the Salvation Army
- Chi Wai Cheung, “Kuang Fuzhou: From Coolie to Educator and Humanitarian” in Salt and Light: More Lives of Faith that Shaped Modern China, ed. by Carol Lee Hamrin with Stacey Bieler (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Press, 2010), 61-77.