1838  — 1898

Yan Yongjing

Chinese translator, professor, social reformer, and pastor who was instrumental in the founding of Central China University and St. John's College.

Yan Yongjing was born in 1838 in Shanghai. He had one brother and one sister. In 1854, Yan completed his study at the boarding school of the American Episcopal Church Mission in Shanghai, and traveled to the United States with one of his teachers. There he attended the preparatory school for Columbia University.

During his undergraduate education at Kenyon College, he enjoyed baseball, skating and swimming, and was a member of a debate club. Yan graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1861, and later earned an MA degree from Kenyon.

When Yan returned to China in 1861, he became a translator for the British Consulate, then worked at a Christian literature publishing company, and then the Shanghai municipal government.

Yan was active in the local church where he taught Sunday school, ran church charities and prepared for the ministry. Upon ordination, he worked with the new bishop from 1870-79 to set up a mission and a boys’ boarding school in Wuchang, Hubei province, which would eventually grow into Central China University.

Yan’s wife was the daughter of a farmer in the rural Pudong area of Shanghai. She had attended the mission’s school for girls, and after their betrothal, Yan sponsored her for a year of study in Hong Kong so she could learn English. Her great interest in Western music led her to teach piano to the three youngest children.

Yan was a devoted family man, who played checkers and flew kites with his children. He appreciated Chinese art and encouraged the children to perform traditional puppet plays and read the famous Chinese historical romances. Family life was strict, modest and frugal. Mrs. Yan taught the children beginning English as well as Chinese. The importance of education was evident in that each child was given an American middle name to honor those who had helped Mr. Yan obtain his own schooling.

Both Mrs. Yan and her daughter, Julia, blazed trails for Chinese women in public roles. The first time women missionaries were allowed to participate in the periodic nation-wide mission conferences, presenting papers on women’s work in 1890, Mrs. Yan was the only Chinese woman present, attending sessions with her husband. After returning from study in America, Julia was among the early officers of the national committee of the YWCA.

In January 1879, Yan Yongjing became one of the founders and the first principal (headmaster) in charge of St. John’s College. His administrative experience and network of ties in the local business and consular communities made him the natural choice to head up the planning, purchasing of land, and construction of the new campus. Given the bishop’s frequent absences, Yan was often the acting president as well as de facto dean, with the sixty-two resident boys under his supervision. One of six professors, Yen taught mathematics, physics, chemistry and astronomy.

During his decade at St. John’s, Yan also translated a number of important Western books to aid his teaching, including some on medicine for instructing medical students at St. Luke’s Hospital. These volumes included the first book in Chinese on psychology (then called “mental philosophy”), Herbert Spencer’s Treatise on Education, and Thomas Huxley’s Physiology (a major revision of an existing translation).

Yan seemed to seek out ways to champion victims of injustice and oppression. He debated public affairs both in the local English press and as the only Chinese member of the Literary and Debating Society of Shanghai. During the early 1890s, anti-Christian riots broke out in cities along the Yangtze River. When an anonymous attack on missionaries was published in the North China Daily News, Yan wrote to defend them as well as their converts. Yet he also wrote a letter and an article deploring racism in America, so evident in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which were published in New York City media.

In his last few years, despite declining health, Yan lobbied for inclusion of Chinese in the Municipal Council that governed the International Settlement, where most residents were Chinese. He also protested against the exclusion of Chinese taxpayers from the International Settlement’s public garden and the riverside Bund. Even after a separate Chinese Public Garden was created, Yan still refused out of principle to attend public events on the Bund, when Chinese had to stand across the street and peer from afar.

Yan’s protests against the opium trade were part of an effort by mission and Chinese church leaders after their national conference of 1890 in Shanghai. He received an invitation from the British Society for the Suppression of the Opium Trade to testify in London before the newly established Royal Opium Commission. Yan conducted a speaking tour of 52 principal cities of England and Scotland to arouse public opinion against the trade.

During the following seven months, he addressed the annual China Inland Mission convention (the CIM was at the forefront of the anti-opium trade campaign) and over 100 other public meetings despite a side trip to Paris and a ten-day hiatus when his health faltered. At a farewell gathering, dozens of prominent civic leaders praised Yan’s passionate and articulate testimony as a needed boost to the anti-opium campaign in Britain.

Upon returning to China, Yan joined the Executive Committee of the newly-formed Anti-opium League. At the time of his death, he was helping to publish and distribute the results of major medical surveys that helped turn the tide of public opinion in both countries. Thus he helped rekindle the flames of public opinion that led eventually to the 1906 Chinese edict against opium use and trade.

Even while teaching on St. John’s beautiful and peaceful campus, Yan would travel to the crowded old Hongkou section of the International Settlement each week to preach in the Sunday morning services at the Church of the Saviour, the mother church of the American Episcopal Church Mission. In 1886, mission leaders reassigned him from the college to the church as rector. For the next decade, Pastor and Mrs. Yan were busy leading the programs within the church as well as its outreach to nonmembers, including Mrs. Yan’s oversight of Christian instruction and care for patients in the local women’s hospital. Early in their ministry, Mrs. Yen became a confidante of American women missionaries, as well as of Chinese church members and household servants.

On completing his tour of England, from September 1894 until March 1895, Pastor Yan then visited America to appeal for funds and personnel on behalf of the American Church Mission in China. Returning to the United States for the first time in thirty years, he was able to visit Kenyon College and renew friendships. While visiting the Virginia Theological Seminary, he likely made arrangements for his third son, Huiqing, to attend the nearby Episcopal High School.

Toward the end of his life, Yan was the acknowledged leader of Shanghai’s American-educated returnees as well as the senior member of the Chinese clergy, an adviser and counselor to civic leaders, foreign missionaries and household servants alike.

Yan’s extended family, for the most part, brought him additional honor. His eldest son was a valued adviser of Viceroy Li Hongzhang, while the youngest three children were doing well in studies abroad. Other accomplished family members had benefited from Yan’s concern and care and were part of his living legacy. One son, Yan Fuqing (F. C. Yen), later received an MD from Yale and on return to China helped establish the Yale-in-China Medical School in Changsha, where he served as its Dean. Later, in Shanghai he was director of the Red Cross Hospital and President of the Central Medical School.

Yan’s younger sister married Cao Zishi, the pastor of a church in Suzhou who practiced self-taught medicine in the Southern Methodist Mission hospital. One of their sons, Cao Yunxiang, was a St. John’s graduate who earned an MBA from Harvard, served as Consul General in London, and then during his term as president of Tsinghua (1922-28) expanded it into a comprehensive university.

During the last decade of the 19th century, Yan suffered from high blood pressure and periodic bouts of depression. His health was failing due to a heavy workload at the church and the rigors of his overseas speaking tour. One main cause of his stress was his second son’s serious addiction (details were a family secret) and consequent loss of work and mounting debts. Despite his prestigious law school degree, he could barely manage to retain work as a translator. Within just a few months after learning that he had a terminal disease, Yan Yongjing passed away. His widow died one year later.

Eulogies came from those near and far. A tribute from one of the missionary couples who first taught with Yan at St. John’s said, “Mr. Yen’s intellectual abilities, combined with his sincere and stainless Christian character, made him one of the greatest leaders of the native Christian community.” An editorial in The Chinese Recorder remarked,

“Other Chinese have been educated in the United States, and returned to their native land to live and labor among their own people, but there was only one Mr. Yen… . [H]is words were listened to with profound respect, and his opinion was given the greatest weight… . Indefatigable in his labors, wise in his counsels, modest and unpretentious, yet always courteous in his busy life, his death has deprived China of one of her most valuable workers, and the missionary body of a much-loved and respected brother.”

Yan’s moral leadership changed missionary attitudes, British public opinion, and Chinese public culture.


  • Carol Lee Hamrin, “Yan Yongjing and Yan Huiqing: Father and Son Bridging East and West,” in Salt and Light: More Lives of Faith That Shaped Modern China (Volume Two of the series), edited by Carol Lee Hamrin with Stacey Bieler. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, an imprint of Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2010, pages 15-40.

About the Author

Stacey Bieler

Research Associate, Global China Center, Michigan, USA