“Y.K.” Yen was born in Shanghai, the third child of a man from Amoy who was a manager of one of the “hongs,” or companies, run by Chinese in Shanghai. Through the deaths of his two older siblings, he assumed the status of oldest son.
When he was nine, he was enrolled in one of the day schools run by the American Episcopal Mission that had been founded by Bishop Boone. Despite his youth, he soon gained the reputation as the best student in both English and Chinese. With an “exuberant” nature, he was fond of thinking up different kinds of humorous stunts to amuse himself and his classmates.
At the age of thirteen, he went to the United States for further education. The Rev. Clemons, of Delaware, took Yen and a companion, who was surnamed Yang, into his home, where he lived for two years. Yen then enrolled in Anthon’s Classical School in New York for a college preparatory course. While he was there, and later in college, his expenses were supplied by the Sunday school of the Church of the Ascension, whose rector was the Rev. Dr. G. Thurston Bedell. When Bedell was consecrated as Bishop of Ohio, Yen followed him to that state, where he matriculated at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.
Yen thoroughly enjoyed his time in college. He was a member of Alpha Delta Phi fraternity, and participated in extra-curricular activities such as swimming, baseball, and debate, in which he excelled. He graduated as a Bachelor of Arts, but the degree of Master of Arts was conferred upon him by the college a few years later.
Yen was twenty-three when he returned to China. He wanted to work with and for the Episcopal Mission, but the Civil War had seriously eroded financial support for overseas missions in America, and Yen also wanted to help pay off some family financial obligations. After promising Bishop Boone that he would return to mission work in a few years, he entered the employ of the firm of Hanbury & Co., and then became interpreter for the Shanghai Municipal Council. While holding these positions, he comported himself with such strict integrity that “his single example is sufficient to quash that vicious, unreasonable affirmation of some foreigners, that all Chinese are mendacious and dishonest.” The Council showed their appreciation for his performance by asking him to sign a multi-year contract. When he accepted this arrangement, he reaffirmed his commitment to Bishop Boone to become a candidate for the ordained ministry when his contract expired.
He later became an Episcopal minister.
Ministry in China
At some point, he spent a dozen years helping to found churches in Wuchang and Hankou. An American Episcopalian minister said, “It was hard, uphill work, and seemingly one that produced no great results. Many must have been the hours of discouragement, but through it all he showed the indomitable perseverance for which his countrymen are noted.” Toward the end of his life he was able to see some fruit from his earlier labors, leading him to be optimistic about the future of the Episcopal denomination in China as more and more Chinese were ordained.
He was earning enough money to engage in charitable and missionary work at his own expense. He was a patron of a local day school and participated in the pastoral duties of the Church of Our Savior in Shanghai. Because he also invested some of his money wisely, he was never totally dependent upon his salary from the Council. He once made a large loan to the Episcopal Mission and then, when he discovered that they could not repay the debt, he cancelled the obligation.
When St. John’s College was founded, he was asked to join the faculty. For eight years, he had a part in training many men for church service. “The introduction of English into the curriculum was owing to his advice, and all through the history of the College, he was always a warm supporter and a wise counselor. He was admirably fitted to be a teacher. In fact, his education rendered this line of work more congenial to him than that of an evangelist.”
After St. John’s College, Yen was called to be the pastor of the Church of Our Savior in Shanghai, where he spent his last twelve years. During this time, he also participated in the Anti-Opium society, the Christian Endeavor, and the Chinese Tract Society, being highly respected by “Christians of all denominations as one of their great leaders.”
He also contributed a great deal of valuable literary work. He helped to translate the Book of Common Prayer into Chinese literary style and translated several theological works into Chinese, as well as books on education and “mental philosophy.” To help people learn Chinese, he put out a series on Chinese characters for beginners and “A Ladder of Learning” for advanced students. His other works included a history of China, various tracts, and An Outline of Christian Doctrine in three volumes.
Journey to England and the United States
During the heightened activity of the Anti-Opium Society in 1894, he was invited to go to England and “expose the direful consequences of the baneful habit which he had himself witnessed in China, thus appealing directly to the English people from the accursed victims.” The campaign taxed his mental and physical strength, but he was welcome everywhere and was happy to expend the effort.
After his tour of England, he crossed the Atlantic and lectured throughout the East and South of the United States on the church in China.
The long trip exhausted his resources, and his health began to fail upon his return. He died quietly at the age of sixty in 1898.
Yen had a strong sense of justice. When the police treated wheelbarrow coolies or other harmless but vulnerable people roughly, he often intervened. He worked hard to secure the right for Chinese to sit on the Municipal Council of Shanghai and to have access to the public park. Eventually, a special garden was open for Chinese.
He was disciplined and dignified in his private life.
With regard to the pace of evangelism in China, he was hopeful that the increasing numbers of Chinese church workers would make an impact, but knew that progress would be slow. “The present is the time for turning up the sod; the sowing and harvesting will surely come in time as they have in the West.”
After his death, one who knew him well said:
He was a faithful servant of his great Master. He was true to his friends, loving to his family and kind to all. He was a patriotic Chinaman. He was fond of reading, and was well abreast of the great questions of the day. He enjoyed conversation on theology or science. He was acquainted with the ideas and arguments that are stirring in the ranks of the orthodox, but he was firm in his faith and consistent in his teaching.
He life was in every sense a heroic one. The great qualities that seemed to stand out pre-eminently were self-sacrifice, bravery, sincerity and faith. He gave up much for the cause of Christ; he boldly spoke the truth in regard for his country and the moral needs of his countrymen. His faith in God was simple, strong, and childlike. We can not see now all the results of the life he led and the work he did, but we know the world is richer from his having lived, and that his life has done more than we can measure for the advancement of the kingdom of God in China.
G. Wright Doyle
W. W. Yen, “Rev. Y.K. Yen, M.A..” In Illustrious Chinese Christians: Biographical Sketches, edited by William Preston Bentley. Cincinnati, Ohio: The Standard Publishing Company, 1906, 47-58. Reprinted by ULAN Press, Coppell, Texas, 2021.