Oberlin in Asia: A digital collection documenting the sharing of the ideals of learning and labor
by Ken Grossi, College Archivist, and Carl Jacobson, Director (1981-2012), Oberlin Shansi Memorial Association
In 2008 the Oberlin Shansi Memorial Association celebrated its 100th anniversary. Although the Association began in 1908, the history of Oberlin in Asia dates to the 1880s with the creation of the “Oberlin Band,” a group of Oberlin students who answered the call to serve as missionaries to China. Although this digital collection documents the period beginning in the 1880s, the inspiration for the call to service dates back to the beginning of the colony and the college.
The principles that lead to the founding of the Oberlin Collegiate Institute in 1833 (the name of the college until 1850) helped to inspire the work of the Oberlinians who served as teachers, ministers, missionaries, and social reformers in the 19th century. John J. Shipherd and Philo Stewart founded the colony and the college patterned after the life and values of John Frederick Oberlin (1740-1826), a Lutheran minister in Alsace-Lorraine, France. Oberlin served his people in many capacities as minister, educator, agricultural expert, political and social reformer, and mentor.
Shipherd and Stewart established their community removed from the corrupting influences of large cities. Hard work, faith in God, and service to people were keys to the new community they called Oberlin. The early mission of the school included the training of teachers to help educate those less fortunate.
The Oberlin Collegiate Institute was the first college in the United States to admit women thus marking the beginning of coeducation at the college level. By 1835, two years after its founding, the Trustees of the Oberlin Collegiate Institute agreed to admit African Americans. The College also increased its enrollment and financial resources with the arrival of a group of anti-slavery students from the Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, and the financial backing of Lewis and Arthur Tappan. The Tappan brothers also supported the appointment of Charles Grandison Finney to the faculty of the Oberlin Theology Department. Finney, a well-known revivalist and preacher, eventually became Oberlin’s second president.
Oberlin’s anti-slavery fervor is well documented in the collections of the Oberlin College Archives and Library. Philo Stewart commented, “Every teacher that went out from the institution was an abolition lecturer” (E. C. Stewart: A Worker, and Worker's Friend, 1873). In the years leading up to the Civil War Oberlinians travelled and preached about the evils of slavery and Oberlin became known as the most notable stop on the Underground Railroad. The 1858 Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, in which Oberlinians rescued a runaway slave from slave catchers, sparked a controversy over the Fugitive Slave Law that inspired writer Nat Brandt to dub Oberlin as “The Town that Started the Civil War.” Oberlinians answered the call of President Lincoln to serve in the Union Army; the soldier’s monument in Oberlin is a memorial to those who served.
Oberlinians served as teachers and missionaries, both in the United States and beyond. As early as 1842, Oberlinians travelled to Minnesota to work among the Ojibwe Indians. Oberlinians such as Frederick Ayer and Sela G. Wright spent several years learning the culture of the Native Americans. From 1853 to 1876, Lucy Angela Woodcock, Oberlin Class of 1852, served as a teaching missionary in Jamaica. Sarah Blachly Bradley, Class of 1845, served as a missionary in Thailand from 1848 to 1893.
From the end of the Civil War through the 1870s Oberlin continued to pursue rights for African Americans by working with the American Missionary Association in the South. Oberlinians participated in lectures and meetings to support women’s suffrage and prohibition. It was in this period of social reform, both at the local level and throughout the United States, that Oberlinians petitioned to form a group to serve as missionaries in China.
The Shansi Archive comprises letters, diaries, photographs, films and related materials dating from 1881, the inauguration of mission efforts in China’s Shanxi Province by a group of Oberlin Theology School (OTS) graduates. The collection documents the activities of the members of that group and their deaths in the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. It contains a wealth of Shanxi missionary materials thereafter. The collection also documents the founding of the Ming Hsien school in Taigu, Shanxi in 1907 by H. H. Kung and the development of the school until 1951.
Prior to the nineteenth century the Chinese Empire dominated Asia and allowed contact with the outside through the tribute system that ritualized the ultimate supremacy of the Chinese emperor. From the Opium War of 1839 onwards, China experienced economic and political disintegration, coming under intense pressure from imperialist powers for economic and territorial expansion. China was subjected to the repeated humiliation of the Unequal Treaties that included punitive indemnities. With each treaty the imperialist powers carved off spheres of influence. The right of foreigners to travel in the interior of China was established by the 1858 Treaty of Tientsin, so allowing missionaries, businesses and others into Shanxi Province. In 1878 students at the Oberlin Theological Seminary were inspired by the lectures of Judson Smith, professor of Church History, to “go forth” to foreign missions.
In early 1881, OTS graduate Martin Luther Stimson wrote to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (AFCFM) and volunteered a group of Oberlin Theological Seminary students for mission work, preferably in China, as the “Oberlin Band.” In the fall of that year Stimson and wife Emily Brooks Hall Stimson, sister of Oberlin inventor Charles Martin Hall OC 1885, embarked for China. The assent of the ABCFM to the project came only after their departure, demonstrating their self-confidence. The following year they were joined by several others. In July 1883, after making surveys of the province to determine the optimal locations, the Band rented premises in Taigu and two years later in Fenzhou. They set about street corner and itinerant evangelism, establishing chapels, small schools, orphanages, medical clinics and opium refuges.
The collection also documents the lives of the missionaries’ Chinese associates. Notably, among the students of the mission school was H. H. Kung of Taigu, who entered in 1890. He studied with the missionaries for 8 years before being recommended by them to North China College near Beijing.
China’s defeat in the Sino-Japanese War, with the loss of Korea and Taiwan, further threatened to “cut China up like a melon” amongst imperialist powers, increasing anxiety among all segments of the Chinese population. In 1899 the Boxer Uprising (yihe qiyi) emerged in Shandong Province in north China. The Boxers were villagers who practiced rituals and martial arts that they believed would allow them to drive foreigners and foreign influence from their land. They first rose against Chinese Christian converts who were their neighbors. Then the uprising moved on Beijing. After it received wavering approval from the (non-Chinese) Manchu Imperial Government, they attacked foreigners in and around Beijing and in Shanxi Province.
In the summer of 1900, Boxers killed all the members of the “Oberlin Band” in Shanxi along with their families, and hundreds of Chinese Christians. In 1903 the ABCFM and Oberlin College dedicated the Memorial Arch on the Oberlin camups at the inauguration of President Henry Churchill King.
In 1907, after completing his Oberlin B.A. and an M.A. in Finance at Yale, H.H. Kung returned to Taigu with the support of President King and Kung’s 1906 OC classmates to become the founding principal of the Ming Hsien School, named in honor of the Chinese Christians and missionaries who were killed.
In 1908 the Oberlin Shansi Memorial Association (OSMA) was founded to support the educational efforts at the Ming Hsien School. Oberlin College President Henry Churchill King was chair and Lydia Lord Davis and Alice Moon Williams, widows of Oberlin Band missionaries, provided enthusiastic support. The first meeting, held January 30 1908, was taken up with passing a Constitution that stated, "It shall be the purpose of this organization to perpetuate the memory of those who suffered martyrdom in 1900 in the Shansi field, by promoting in every feasible way, and increasing to every possible extent, the educational work in connection with the Shansi Mission in the Province of Shansi, China."
At the inaugural Executive Committee meeting, held later the same day in President King’s office, a resolution was passed stating, "The aim of the men and women who are to represent this association in China is to build up an educational system by starting with primary, and secondary schools and finally developing one of the academies into college rank. It is the purpose of this association to procure the salaries as well as the men to carry on this work." Oberlin graduates Albert Staub, H.H. Kung and Ch'i Hao Fei were appointed representatives and their salaries arranged. Annual drives were begun to raise money for the Shanxi schools. Mrs. Davis became a very persuasive fund-raiser in regional churches. Shansi Day became a fixture of the Oberlin College calendar. The Shansi Student Committee was created to inform the campus of developments in Shanxi and raise funds for the Representatives.
In 1911 Sun Yat-sen’s Nationalists overthrew the Qing Dynasty and declared the Republic of China. Kung served as leader of the local Taigu militia. Within two years the Republic had failed, China was ruled by a dictator, and political activists were forced to flee abroad or into foreign concessions within China. In 1913 Kung took leave from Ming Hsien and went to Tokyo as the Secretary of the Chinese YMCA. There he met Sun Yat-sen and, marrying Ai-ling Soong, Sun’s English language secretary, he began his close association with the Soong family and Chinese national politics. The three influential leader - H.H. Kung, Sun Yat-sen, and Chiang Kai-shek married Soong sisters.
During the 1910s, China was swept by the New Culture Movement. Stung with disillusionment at the failure of the Chinese Republic, intellectuals revolted against Confucian culture and called for the creation of a new China based on democracy and science. The movement was brought to a head when, with the Treaty of Versailles and the Austrian and German surrender in WWI, Japan was allowed to occupy a part of Manchuria and succeed to the German territory in Shandong. The May 4th Movement was a student movement that had within it the seeds of leftist consciousness. 1921 marked the formation of the Chinese Communist Party. The New Culture Movement was also the inspiration for Kung’s development of Ming Hsien, especially the values of democracy and science.
At this moment, the number of Oberlin graduates engaged in missionary activity throughout the world was at a high point. In 1915 the Tank Home for Children of Foreign Missionaries was built in Oberlin to allow missionary children of all ages to attend school in the local community and acculturate to life in the U.S. Missionary families on furlough from the field lived in nearby homes and attended to their needs.
Lydia Lord Davis served as the OSMA secretary and, when the need arose for more English teachers and someone to promote sports and other non-curricular activities for the students at Ming Hsien, she arranged for two of her sons in succession, John and Lewis Davis, both students at Oberlin, to go to Taigu. This began what became the Shansi Rep (for representative) tradition.
During the 1920s Ming Hsien prospered into one of the most notable educational institutions in the region. Under Kung’s general direction (he was now more involved in national politics and the day-to-day management was left to others) the school emphasized the values of science and democracy. With assistance from OSMA, science laboratories were built and supplied. The female students at sister school Bei Lu, located in the Taigu south suburb, walked to the eastern side to make use of these facilities. The school’s financial base was secured through a bequest to OSMA of $750,000 from the estate of Charles Martin Hall.
In 1926, Raymond T. Moyer, a former Shansi Rep, founded the Agriculture Department. He was convinced that Ming Hsien, in addition to providing a sound basic arts and science curriculum for young people, needed to respond to the backward economic situation of the area. With assistance from OSMA Moyer obtained agricultural training and returned to Taigu with his wife and family.
In 1927, OSMA sent Liu Lanhua OC ’25, granddaughter of one of the prominent Taigu Christians killed in the Boxer Rising, as its first female Rep. Liu, who had received her MAT from Columbia University, became the principal of Beilu Girls School. During that year Beilu and Ming Hsien joined together to become the first co-educational school in Shanxi Province. In the fall of 1927 Qiao Qinliang OC ‘25, known as Gene Chiao in Oberlin, became Dean. At the same time Ming Hsien teacher Jia Linbin (L. P. Chia) came to Oberlin. He returned to Taigu a year later to become Ming Hsien Principal after Kung resigned. Jia was the first of many OSMA Visiting Scholars. In 1928 two more female Oberlin Reps were sent to Taigu, Adelaide Hemingway and Esther Church.
That year also marked the re-unification of China as the Republic of China under Chiang Kai Shek. H. H. Kung was named Minister of Industry and Commerce in the Nanjing Government and Minister of Finance in 1933.
In 1930 Wu Shouming (Mark Wu) established the Department of Rural Service in nearby Guanjiabu village. His work there is considered in relation to that of John Frederick Oberlin in an M.A thesis by Shansi Rep Charlotte Tinker. The following year Ming Hsien, under the direction of engineer Li Tingkui, launched an agricultural industrial department to introduce simple technologies, such as more effective plows, to rural Shanxi.
Soon thereafter, Japanese militarist pressure on China began to take hold. In 1932 the last Emperor of China, Aisin-Gioro Puyi, was set up as the puppet leader of Manchukuo by the Japanese Empire. In 1934 the Chinese Communist “Long March” began and ended up in Yan’an in the Shaanxi, Gansu, Ningxia border region, an area just to the west of Shanxi.
In 1937 the full-scale Japanese invasion of China began, the most remarkable incident of which was the Nanjing Massacre. That year Ming Hsien students and faculty fled Taigu as Japanese troops advanced southward. The school first escaped westward to Xi’an, then, in several stages, to Jintang and Chengdu in Sichuan Province, in an epic story referred to as “The Trek.”
In 1940 the Japanese installed a puppet regime in Nanjing and the Republic of China government re-located to Chongqing in Sichuan Province. Ming Hsien High School enjoyed its golden years in a family castle (zhaizi) near Jintang. The flood of refugees from the coast of China included a number of prominent educators, as well as capable students, who considerably raised the intellectual level of many of the relocated schools in the southwest, including Ming Hsien.
In 1945 with the defeat of Japan, Ming Hsien was caught in the civil war between Nationalists and Communists. Its efforts to return to Shanxi were thwarted. H.H. Kung concluded that in order to best survive in the chaotic environment, Ming Hsien needed to considerably elevate its status. He first established a junior college and then, with support of OSMA, a college, Ming Hsien Oberlin-in-China, in Chengdu. A new campus was built and prospered.
In 1949 the People’s Republic of China was founded and the Chinese Nationalist forces and government retreated to Taiwan. The newly built campus of Ming Hsien Oberlin-in-China was relinquished to Communist educational authorities and, in the winter of 1949-50 the school returned to Shanxi Province. There it took up restoring the buildings that had been severely damaged by the Japanese occupation and re-establishing the school in cooperation with the new local Shanxi educational authorities.
In June 1950, with the outbreak of the Korean War, anti-American feeling began to build. In the spring of 1951 the Ming Hsien campus experienced strong anti-American and anti-rightist campaigns. Because of their association with America and western culture, many faculty members and students experienced great difficulty during this time (and in subsequent political campaigns, especially the Cultural Revolution.) In the summer of 1951 the Shanxi Provincial Education Commission took over the Taigu campus. In line with re-structuring the educational system of the province, they disbanded the school and created a new institution, Shanxi Agricultural Institute (later University.) Ming Hsien’s well-trained faculty in agriculture, its buildings, its experimental farms and equipment were the natural base for a provincial school of agriculture. The rest of Ming Hsien’s departments, faculty and students, were dispersed to Taiyuan, the Shanxi capital city, and Beijing where they were blended into other institutions. Ming Hsien, the Oberlin-in-China, vanished. Don Farley OC ‘48, the last Rep in China, was able to reach the coast and catch a freighter out of China.
It would not be until the spring of 1979 that word from Taigu reached Oberlin once again. A letter came from former administrator Mark Wu to former Reps Ellsworth and Bobbie Carlson asking whether the old connection between Oberlin and Shanxi Agricultural University might be renewed, now that diplomatic ties had been re-established. In the following months visits were exchanged and a memorandum of understanding signed that encompassed the exchange of Shansi Fellows and Visiting Scholars once again. That relationship lasts until today.