Zeng Laishun was born in Singapore around 1826 to a father from eastern Guangdong province and a Malay mother. After both parents died when he was young, he came to the attention of Joseph Travelli (a missionary with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions), who enrolled him in a Chinese day school that had been established in 1835. He was in the first class of an American Board boarding school that stressed English language education. The school closed in 1842 when the missionaries moved to China after the Opium War. Zeng was one of only two out of the forty students who converted to Christianity and were baptized.
John Hunter Morrison, a Presbyterian missionary on his way to India, found some funding for Zeng to enroll in Bloomfield Academy, a boy’s boarding school in Bloomfield, NJ, outside of Newark. After attending there three years, Zeng entered Hamilton College, a Presbyterian-affiliated school in Clinton, NY. His sole funding came from women in the First Presbyterian Church in Utica, NY who refused to extend their assistance past the initial agreement of two years. So Zeng left NY in May 1848 and sailed to Hong Kong.
He was invited to join the ABCFM mission in Canton as a “permanent native assistant,” though he first needed to spend two years studying Cantonese. While he was learning that language, he began to help in conducting Sunday services and distributing religious tracts. By the fourth year, he was preaching at the daily midday service. In 1853, he asked for a higher salary, but being turned down, he left the mission, whereupon Zeng became a manager for two Western firms in Shanghai.
In August 1850 he married Ruth Ati, who was born in 1825 and grew up in Java, Batavia (Dutch Indonesia). She had been educated in a school run by an English missionary, Mary Ann Aldersey, and was baptized in Batavia. They had three daughters and three sons. The children were brought up to be bilingual. Both he and his wife joined the Union Church in Shanghai and were among its earliest members. Zeng’s wife operated a day school for girls in E.C. Bridgman’s Shanghai mission.
Zeng Laishun and Yung Wing met in Shanghai in the mid-1850s. At the end of 1860 Zeng and Yung, together with a couple of Western missionaries, took a two-month trip up the Yangtze River to Nanjing, the capital of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom.
Like Yung, Zeng joined the imperial government service. He worked with Viceroy Zuo Zongtang, one of the leading self-strengtheners of the era. Zeng was hired to teach at the Fuzhou Navy Yard School that was being set up by Zuo Zongtang. He assisted in the school’s English division and interpreted for James Caroll, the head of the division.
After spending more than five years at the Fuzhou Navy Yard School, Zeng was reassigned to the new Chinese Educational Mission (CEM) to the U.S. Zeng and his older two sons were appointed the English teachers for the preparatory school in Shanghai. Zeng then accompanied the first detachment of the CEM from Shanghai to Springfield, MA. He brought his wife and six children along with him.
Zeng stayed in Springfield in the role of translator, the third ranking member of the CEM. He welcomed the succeeding groups of CEM students to Springfield and arranged for their distribution among host families. After the arrival of the third detachment of CEM students, he hosted a reception in honor of their escort, which seventy-five local notables attended.
On November 3, 1872, Zeng and Ruth Ati formally enrolled in South Congregational Church in Springfield “by letter” from the Union Church in Shanghai. The following year three of their four grown children joined the church ‘by confession.” Spencer, a CEM student, did not.
In late 1873 or early 1874, accompanied by another CEM staff member, Zeng visited Havana for ten days to meet with British and American consuls as preparatory work for a seven week tour of Cuba by the director of CEM, Chen Lanbin, which ultimately stopped coolie trade to that area.
During his time in the U.S., Zeng lectured on many topics to various groups. He spoke at the Hampden County Fair, the Armory Hill Temperance Society, the YMCA, the Sunday schools of three different Congregational churches, and the graduation ceremonies of the Hartford Public High School. His topics included: “education in China,” “manners and customs of Chinese,” and Chinese “tea culture.”
In December 1874, he was called back to China. On his way, he inspected various educational institutions in Europe. His former employers at The Fuzhou Navy Yard School were considering sending their recent graduates there.
He never came back to the U.S. His wife and four children returned to China. Two of the sons remained, to continue their studies at Yale.
Zeng worked for the rest of his life as personal secretary to Li Hongzhang, who was in charge of almost all of China’s foreign relations during the late nineteenth century.
Zeng died in Tianjin on June 2, 1895 at the age of sixty-nine.
- Edward J. M. Rhoads, “In the Shadow of Yung Wing: Zeng Laishun and the Chinese Educational Mission to the United States.” Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 74, No. 1, 19-58.