The life of Dr. Yan Fuqing, a prominent doctor and educator, is important to understanding the history of Christianity in China. Not only was Yan born into a Christian family, but he dedicated a significant portion of his life to working with missionaries and mission organizations. Within these organizations (and in the creation of others), Yan, through his Western education, managed to attain relatively equal status with foreigners. Furthermore, Yan was one of several Chinese citizens who advocated for more local control of mission projects. Finally, the final years of Yan’s life explore how he, both as a Christian and a Western-connected doctor, experienced life in the People’s Republic of China.
Born in July of 1882, Yan Fuqing was the second of Yan Rusong’s five children. Educated at Kenyon College, Yan Rusong served as a reverend in Shanghai’s Jiangwan Town for the first six years of Yan Fuqing’s life. However, following the untimely passing of his father, Yan Fuqing and his siblings came under the care of their uncle, Yan Yongjing.
Living under the auspices of the renowned Yan Yongjing, Yan Fuqing grew up in an environment heavily influenced by Protestant Christianity and Western thought. As founder and principal of St. John’s College in Shanghai, Yan Yongjing’s (and later his brother’s) children spent their formative years in and around the Anglican school and attending church services. At home, the children lived a more Western-style lifestyle than many of their compatriots, including trips to the St. Luke’s Hospital instead of seeking out Chinese medicine. Such early experiences undoubtedly had a significant impact on Yan Fuqing, who grew up following the tenets of American Episcopalian Christianity and practicing Western medicine.
Having received an adequate education in his early years, Yan Fuqing enrolled in St, John’s College around the turn of the century. In 1903, he graduated with his degree and, after a brief stint at St. Luke’s Hospital, traveled to South Africa to treat overseas Chinese. Although the Chinese miners appreciated Yan’s services, Yan discovered that his skills were not sufficient for a proper career in medicine. By 1906, Yan had relocated to the United States and enrolled in Yale University’s medical school.
Yan’s years in New Haven proved invaluable to his future as a medical professional and public intellectual in China. Although he struggled during his first semester, A.C. Williams, a Yale-China Association trustee, encouraged Yan by suggesting that he could join the Yale-in-China mission in Changsha upon completion of his medical degree. This support reinvigorated Yan, who later completed his studies in 1909. But Yan did not limit his time in Yale to his coursework. Yan also actively participated in the Yale Chinese Students’ Club, which put him in contact with the organization’s president, H.H. Kung, who remained Yan’s close contact through the 1940s. Following his time at Yale, Yan briefly attended the University of Liverpool.
After graduating from Yale, Yan joined the Yale-China Association on a two-year contract. Speaking before the Yale Foreign Mission Society, Yan affirmed his belief that both medical education and Christianity were integral for improving the lives of the Chinese people. Although he was essentially preaching to the choir, Yan soon realized that he had been hired to serve in a subordinate position. It was not until 1911 that Yan solidified his status as an equal member in the organization, the first time for a Chinese citizen in the Yale-China Association. This, however, was not Yan’s first experience gaining equal status in a missionary organization.
In early 1910, shortly after returning to China, Yan attended the biennial China Medical Missions Conference in Hankou at the behest of his new colleague Edward Hicks Hume. Although they had been in correspondence prior to the conference, the occasion in Hankou first brought Yan and Hume together in what would be an enduring friendship. Up until that conference, no Chinese citizen had held membership in the China Missionary Association. With Hume’s support, however, Yan was granted an exception due to his background in Western medicine and his affiliation with the Yale-China Association.
Yan’s presence in Changsha aided the Yale-in-China mission in innumerable ways. Following Yan’s arrival in Changsha on February 27, 1910, word spread quickly of the Western-trained Chinese doctor on the medical staff. From his early roles tackling the spread of plague through a public hygiene campaign and his work healing women with bound feet following the 1911 Revolution to his treatment of Governor Tan Yankai’s pneumonia, Yan’s (as well as Yale-in-China’s) profile soared. He enjoyed the confidence of both the local peasantry and the landed gentry. Along with Hume (and funding supplied by Edward Harkness), Yan spearheaded the Hunan-Yale Agreement which agreed to establish a medical college and hospital with a strong degree of local control. Already having set up a local branch of the Red Cross in 1911, Yan oversaw the signing of the Hunan-Yale Agreement in 1914 after he (along with Hume) secured the personal blessings of the national government.
Yan’s years in Changsha were not limited to bolstering the status of Yale-in-China; he also began to push for national reformation of China’s medical practices. In 1915, along with twenty other Chinese doctors, Yan founded the National Medical Association of China. The organization elected Yan as its first president. Soon thereafter, the association began regular publication of the influential National Medical Journal of China.
On December 15, 1926, at the age of forty-five, Yan left the Yale-in-China mission in Changsha. While Yan had already been planning several new projects for the future, rising nationalist and anti-foreign sentiments building in Changsha following the Northern Expedition led Yan to believe that he needed to leave the city.
Despite having left the city, Yan retained a strong relationship with both Changsha and the Yale-China Association. In 1929, Yan returned to Changsha to help oversee the reopening of the medical college. That same year, the Yale-China Association elected Yan its vice president for five years.
After leaving Changsha, Yan continued his commitment to education, health, and religion. In mid-1927, the board of trustees of the Peking Union Medical Board appointed Yan as the college’s vice president for one year. His duties included directing the school’s religious and social affairs. During his time at PUMC, however, Yan’s energies focused more on serving the Red Cross, advocating for a national Ministry of Health, and planning a new medical college in Shanghai. Much of Yan’s life through the Second World War revolved around these three activities.
As early as 1924, Yan proposed a national medical college in Shanghai; in 1928, the idea became a reality with the establishment of the National Shanghai Medical College (the college’s name as of 1932). In order to ensure quality education at the new college, Yan sought aid from a variety of his former contacts, including H.H. Kung, Edward Hume, St. John’s University, and the Rockefeller Foundation. Yan also wrote to the Yale-China Association, but was unable to secure their support.
Following the Japanese invasion of the Chinese mainland in 1937, Yan again became active outside of his hospital and medical college. In the lead up to the Japanese attack on Shanghai, several organizations, including the Chinese Red Cross Society and the China Medical Association, banded together to form the Shanghai Rescuing Committee with Yan as its chairman. Shortly thereafter, Yan headed the Nationalist Government’s Public Health Administration, but resigned in May of 1940 due to poor health and allegations of corruption on the part of one of his subordinates. After receiving cancer treatment in the United States, Yan returned to Shanghai and resumed his career with his medical college and hospital.
Instead of fleeing the Chinese mainland in 1949, Yan remained in Shanghai to serve as a consultant for the PLA in the city, thus beginning his complicated relationship with the Chinese Communist Party for the last twenty years of his life. Yan generally maintained good relations with the new regime and praised its public health policies. He continued to work at the medical college, which saw a significant increase in enrollment, and oversaw its expansion. Furthermore, as a doctor in Changsha, Yan had treated Mao Zedong’s wife, Yang Kaihui, free of charge, according to Mao’s recollection in 1957 (Yan had forgotten the incident).
However, life in the People’s Republic was not perfect for Yan. As a Christian, he was barred from admission into the Chinese Communist Party. Instead, he chose to join the Jiusan Society (he was the oldest member of the Shanghai branch). During the Cultural Revolution, most of Yan’s personal effects were destroyed and his house searched. Yan himself was publicly condemned and sentenced to house arrest in 1968.
Yan passed away on November 29, 1970. On the eighth anniversary of his death, his ashes were interred at Shanghai’s Longhua Martyrs’ Cemetery (some of his ashes were later taken to a separate grave in New York).
In 2007, Fudan University Press published Yan Fuqing Zhuan, the first comprehensive biography of Yan’s life. The biography was co-authored by his grandson, Yan Zhiyuan, and has since been translated into English.
- The fullest account of Yan’s life can be found in Qian, Yimin and Yan Zhiyuan. Yan Fuqing Zhuan. Shanghai Shi: Fudan Daxue Chuban She, 2007.
- The English translation of the biography is Qian, Yimin and Yan Zhiyuan. Fuching Yen: A Pioneer of Chinese Modern Medicine. Translated by Zhang Qiang. Shanghai: Fudan University Press, 2011).
- For details of Yan’s early life, see his cousin’s autobiography, Yen, W.W. East-West Kaleidoscope, 1877-1946: An Autobiography. New York: St. John’s University Press, 1974.
- Edward Hume also recounts many of his interactions with Yan from 1910 to 1926 in Hume, Edward H. Doctors East Doctors West: American Physician’s Life in China. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1946.
- Additional information on the Yale-China Association and Yan’s activities in it can be found in Holden, Reuben A. Yale in China: The Mainland, 1901-1951. New Haven: The Yale in China Association, Inc. 1964.
- A selection on documents written to, by, and for Yan are archived in Boxes 107 and 108 of the Yale-China Association Records at the Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University.