Yuan Ludeng, formerly known as Xian An, was a native of Zhejiang Province. When he was a youngster, the family was impoverished; his mother was employed as a domestic servant to the British missionary Hai Hede of the Ningbo Christian Church (predecessor of the Methodist Association). Mrs. Hai sent Xian An tuition-free to the Methodist School of Kaiming Street run by that church. Two years later, he was enrolled in Methodist Middle School on the north bank of the river. He was baptized and became a Christian there. Yuan studied diligently, earning excellent marks.
The Sunday School of Railton Street Church, London, provided a scholarship for an outstanding student to enter St. John’s University in Shanghai. The missionary Frederick Galpin selected Yuan Xian An for admission. At that time, however, poor children graduating from high school declined further studies in order to earn money to support their families. Galpin, believing this to be a rare opportunity, diligently tried to convince Yuan’s parents by promising them a church subsidy of 6 yuan per month for the duration of his university studies; reluctantly, they agreed. In fact, St. John’s University was the highest educational institution in China established by the Christian missionaries. Both the admission standards and tuition were very high, beyond the reach of ordinary people; Yuan’s opportunity was indeed unique. In honor of his scholarship, Yuan changed his name to Lü Deng, basing it on the Chinese transliteration of Railton, “Li Dun.” Whenever speaking of the past, Yuan would always remark, “I was trained by the church.”
Yuan Ludeng applied himself assiduously to his studies, rarely ever venturing to the chic Shanghai Beach. Even during holidays, he did not leave campus. He graduated with honors in 1904. British missionary Hai Hede made a special trip from Ningbo to congratulate him at the graduation ceremony. Yuan’s worth to the Christian movement subsequently multiplied a hundredfold. After returning to Ningbo, he became the vice principal and English teacher at his alma mater, Methodist Middle School.
Yuan and the British principal Lei Hanbo and the representative of the mission Mu Zuolin formed a powerful academic team, called by people “three carriages.” Though he was not ordained, he served concurrently as a preacher at Kaiming Hall; in addition he was hired to teach English in the Provincial 4th Middle School of Ningbo.
At that time, as one of the five treaty ports, Ningbo had an international concession and a patrol house handling foreign affairs. Because Yuan was fluent in English, the Ningbo government engaged him as a diplomatic consultant. As a result of Yuan’s negotiations, police authority on the north bank was recovered by the Chinese. After the outbreak of the Revolution of 1911, Ningbo autonomy was restored and Yuan dedicated himself to the revolution. He became the vice minister of foreign relations and vice minister of communications in the Ningbo branch of military affairs.
In 1913, he was appointed to the board of the Railway Authority Office of Wuhan, Guangdong and Sichuan. At the time, the British Asiatic Petroleum Company rented a large tract of land in Xiabaisha, where they built oil tanks. The farmers, fearing that kerosene would pollute the agricultural fields, responded with an uproar. Yuan came forward repeatedly to explain things, calming the situation.
In 1913, Yuan Ludeng went to Shanghai to serve as the manager of the Commercial Press. In 1915, he was involved in assisting operations at the Podong Coal Mine and cooperating with Shunchang Shipping Company, Yuchang Coal, and other companies. In 1917, he twice organized a delegation to Japan to study their industry and commerce. In the same year, he founded the Shanghai Merchants’ Club and served as the first chairman. He once served as the local agent for the German company Ke Fa Pharmaceuticals, and for the American Maochang Foreign Bank. In 1920, Yuan was appointed as the general manager of Shanghai Ningshao Shipping Company and also to the boards of Shanghai National Bank, Hengan Shipping Company and Shanghai Far East Stadium.
In the same year, Yuan Ludeng became a national board member of the YMCA. He was also secretary and vice president of the Shanghai YMCA, and a member of the council of the Ningbo Tourism Association, among other roles. The same year, Yuan Ludeng was elected to the board of the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce, but due to too many other responsibilities and business commitments, he immediately resigned. In 1922, he was re-elected to the board of the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce. In 1925, Yuan was appointed chairman of the Shanghai Federation of Businesses. In 1926, he was elected as the vice chairman of the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce.
After the May 30th Movement, Yuan Ludeng served as the deputy chairman of the Shanghai International Settlement Chinese Taxation Association and the Chinese Director of the Shanghai International Settlement Bureau. In 1930, he was elected standing committee member of the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce. In 1936, he was elected to the supervisory committee of the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce.
Yuan Ludeng became the leading figure in the “Ningbo Gang” (Ningbo industrial and commercial giants in Shanghai). Serving the public welfare diligently and willingly helping others, yet austere toward himself and strict with his family, he gained a stellar reputation. He is regarded as one of the “three most respected seniors in Shanghai” (the other two were Wen Lanting and Lin Kanghou). Though his worth and status were high, yet he always lived in an old Shikumen house in Beile Road, Wen’an Lane, in the former French Concession.
After the Japanese invaded China and gained control of Shanghai, Yuan Ludeng lived in a friend’s house. Soon after being detected by the Japanese, he was snatched away by the Hongkou spy agency, where he employed every manner of tactic, resulting in his becoming a key official of the government. Thus, during the Anti-Japanese War, he served as Secretary General of the Shanghai Refugee Relief Association as well as General Manager of United Overseas Bank. In 1942, he was re-elected as the chairman of the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce of the Shanghai Municipal Government for two consecutive terms. In 1943, he served as the chairman of the Preparatory Committee of the puppet government’s Grain Control Committee; and served as a member of the puppet government’s New National Movement Promotion Committee and a member of its National Material Control Review Committee. In 1944, he served as a council member of the National Economic Control Association of the puppet government.
After the defeat of the Japanese, he was sentenced to life imprisonment as a “national traitor.” On appeal, based on his rescuing many in Chongqing and a thousand signatures of support, his sentence was reduced to 7 years. Due to illness, he was later released under probation. In February 1948, he was released in a general pardon, and left Shanghai for Hong Kong. He returned to Shanghai in 1951; in 1953, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison by the Shanghai People’s Court, but his sentence was commuted. He died of illness in Shanghai, December, 1954.
In the book “A Hundred Years of the Shanghai Bund (bai nian shanghai tan)” published in January 2005, the author commented:
Two little-known aspects of Yuan deserve mention: first, his life was unique in that he followed the Christian Bible from his youth; he displayed strict self-discipline according to the teaching that lusting after women equaled committing adultery. Second, he held to the principle of ‘the body is not spared the rod’. Those under him who misbehaved were quickly dealt with as soon as Yuan found out; ‘no matter how old or young, he caned their buttocks to make sure they would not reoffend’ (pp.348-349).
The story was rewritten by Yading Li, according to Fan Aishi’s “The Life of Yuan Ludeng” and some other materials from the Internet.