1876  — 1951

Zhang Boling


One of the most influential private educators in China; Prominent Protestant laymen.

Zhang Boling was one of the most influential private educators in China during the first half of the twentieth century, and after his conversion to Christianity in his early thirties, also became one of China’s most prominent Protestant laymen. Zhang was born in the city of Tianjin on 5 April 1876. His father, Zhang Jiu’an, was a member of the educated class who worked as a teacher for a small salary. Since the family lacked the financial resources to train Zhang for the traditional civil service examinations, they sent him to the tuition-free Beiyang Naval Academy in Tianjin, one of the few secular schools in China at the time that offered a modern Western education. Zhang was only thirteen when he entered, but he graduated first in his class in 1894 with a promising naval career ahead of him.

However, a number of factors ended up changing the direction of Zhang’s life. First, he graduated the same year that the Sino-Japanese War broke out, and China’s loss of its entire northern fleet in the war meant that Zhang had to wait a year for a training vessel to become available. Then during three years of training, Zhang was dismayed by the moral degradation of his comrades once they left school environs. Most decisively, Zhang was directly involved in the handover from Japan to Britain of China’s main northern naval port of Weihaiwei. Seeing that China was powerless to defend itself militarily against foreign control, Zhang decided to enter the field of education to develop new citizens as a way to strengthen China.

Zhang was fortunate at that time to meet a Confucian scholar in Tianjin named Yan Xiu, a reformer who had been stripped of his high posts by anti-reform Qing court officials. Returning to Tianjin to start a modern school, Yan learned that Zhang Boling had training in Western knowledge and wanted to be an educator, so he asked him to join the venture. Thus started an immensely fruitful partnership lasting over three decades.

Zhang opened a primary school in 1898 with only a few students, but proved to be a remarkably talented teacher and highly adept administrator. By 1904 he had established a high school, and three years later he built a new campus for his 150 (male) students on a donated piece of land in a part of Tianjin called Nankai, the name thereafter associated with Zhang’s educational work.

Just as Zhang was gaining renown as a promising practitioner of modern education, the unexpected happened—he converted to Christianity, through contact with the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). The ‘Y’ in 1895 had chosen Tianjin to start its city branches, since Tianjin had so many students being trained in modern education. Zhang sought the help of YMCA missionaries to teach some of his classes and his students joined the large athletic meets that the YMCA organized. He developed especially strong friendships with Robert Gailey and Clarence Robertson. Zhang made a dramatic turn to Christianity in the summer of 1908 during a seaside retreat with the YMCA families. His decision was particularly courageous given that the Qing government was strongly opposed to Christianity and very few elite Chinese were willing to convert. When Zhang informed his many high-ranking friends of his conversion, they were incredulous, and he felt compelled to offer his resignation as the head of the Nankai school, since he had resolved to no longer participate in its ceremonies honoring Confucius as required by the government. In the end, however, he was allowed to remain as the head of Nankai since there was no else able to run the school nearly as effectively.

Soon after baptism in July 1909, Zhang was instrumental in starting a Chinese church in Tianjin, even though the government did not allow Chinese to own or build churches. The Congregational mission church had offered Zhang the use of a church building and he devised a plan whereby any Chinese Christian could join the church and still keep their original denominational affiliation (which pleased the missionaries) while new converts would be affiliated with the new church directly. The simply named China Christian Church soon became very successful, drawing in many elite Chinese converted through the YMCA. By 1920, it had grown to four separate congregations spread around the city with a total of over six hundred members. It became a model of indigenous Christianity copied in many other cities, with some 42 different churches established nationwide by 1936.

Zhang Boling also became a key lay leader in the Chinese YMCA. He served as head of the Tianjin YMCA Board of Trustees from 1909 until the Japanese invasion in 1937, at which point the city association had more than three thousand members. He also served on the national board of directors for several years starting in 1913 and was chairman of the group’s national conventions in 1912, 1920, and 1926. Zhang encouraged the development of a YMCA student group at Nankai, which became one of the largest and most active of all the clubs on campus. He viewed the YMCA as uniquely able to develop civil society in China, which he credited to the teachings of Jesus. Zhang had a significant shaping influence on the YMCA’s development of “practical” Christianity through social reform activities, cooperation with non-Christians, and avoidance of partisan politics.

Zhang was an ardent advocate of athletics and physical fitness in China, whereas Chinese elites had long looked with disdain on such activity. He considered it a vital part of strengthening China as a nation. Working with the Peking YMCA and Tsinghua University, he founded the North China Athletic Association in 1912, which by the mid-1920s was under complete Chinese control. Zhang was also the driving force behind sending Chinese teams to the Olympics in 1932 for the first time, and again in 1936.

Zhang’s work at Nankai continued to expand after he spent eighteen months at Columbia University in 1917 studying how to build institutions of higher education. In 1919, he established Nankai University, which the next year also accepted women. He then founded a women’s high school in 1923, and started a branch of Nankai in inland Chongqing, Sichuan as part of a plan to build a national network and also as a precaution against the threat of Japanese attack, since Tianjin was very close to Manchuria, annexed by the Japanese in 1931. By 1937, Zhang’s Nankai system had more than 3000 students and he had become the most influential private educator in China.

In the area of family life, Zhang entered into an arranged marriage at the age of nineteen, but tragically his wife passed away only a few weeks after the wedding. His parents found another bride for him two years later, the daughter of a Confucian scholar who had not received any formal education herself. Wang Shuzhen and Zhang developed a strong marriage and family with four sons and a daughter. Zhang, however, spent most of his time working and did not appear to invest a great deal of time in family life.

When the Japanese invaded China in July 1937, Tianjin was one of their first objectives and Nankai University a prime target, since Zhang had made his school a major platform for fostering patriotism and resisting Japanese aggression. The Japanese air force heavily bombed the school and Japanese troops later burned what remained. Zhang was in Nanjing at the time and was devastated by the news that his beloved campus was in ruins. Shortly afterward he suffered the loss of his youngest son, a bomber pilot whose plane was shot down by Japanese fighters. Zhang fled to Chongqing, where he developed the local branch of Nankai. He also was selected as a member of the presidium of the People’s Political Council (PPC), a quasi-democratic institution founded by the Nationalist Party to win broad public support for the war effort.

After the war, Zhang sought to return to Tianjin as the head of Nankai University, though he had to accept government control of the school in order to get funds to rebuild it. From the same motive, in 1948 he reluctantly accepted Chiang Kai-shek’s offer to head the Examination Yuan for six months. Unexpectedly, the Department of Education used this as a pretext to permanently remove Zhang as president of Nankai, deeply wounding him. As a result, he chose not to flee to Taiwan with the Nationalists in 1949, but to remain in China, encouraged by the fact that one of his former students, Zhou Enlai, was premier of the new regime. Sadly, he discovered that he had become a political liability to Nankai. Not only did the faculty and students make little effort to welcome him back, but he was not even allowed to participate in the school’s anniversary celebration. Zhang suffered a stroke and died on 14 February 1951 at the age of 74.

Zhang Boling died a disappointed man, yet his labors left a lasting mark on China, through providing a modern education for thousands and promoting athletics and democratic principles. Christianity was a major part of his motivation in pursuing these secular goals. Zhang also did much to advance the cause of Christianity directly, from establishing an indigenous church model to aiding the development of the YMCA. At times, it seemed that Zhang viewed Christianity as a means to the end of strengthening China, and yet as his lifetime of committed church involvement shows, it was always more than that. He stands as one of the great Christian laymen of the Republican period.


  • John Barwick, “Zhang Boling: The Making of a New Chinese Citizen,” in Carol Lee Hamrin with Stacey Bieler, eds. Salt and Light 2: More Lives of Faith that Shaped Modern China (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2010), 163 – 182.

About the Author

John Barwick

Ph.D., Research Associate with Global China Center and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.