More than 100 Chinese boys were sent to Connecticut to help the country modernize. This exhibit tells their story

Tang Shao Yi, who became the first premier of the Republic of China in 1912, was a graduate of Hartford Public High School. He entered politics during a volatile time, but his years at HPHS prepared him.

“Tang was known for his muscular build and his ability to fight boys who harassed him for his queue (traditional Chinese hairstyle) and Chinese clothing,” according to the Connecticut Historical Society.

Tang was one of 120 boys who came to New England from 1872 to 1881 in an initiative, funded by the Chinese government, to educate Chinese boys at American schools. After graduation, they would go back home to work for the government in jobs that required knowledge of science and engineering, subjects which were taught in America but not in China.

Those boys are the subject of an exhibit at Connecticut Historical Society. “Journeys 旅途: Boys of the Chinese Educational Mission” tells the stories of children as young as 9 who traveled more than 12,000 miles away from their families, hoping to eventually find prosperous professions and bring scientific and technological advancement to China.

“The government wanted the boys to help modernize China. They wanted them to have Western education and knowledge, but they didn’t want Western values and culture,” said Karen Miller, curator of the exhibit. “They wanted them to make sure they understood that they would remain Chinese.”

This did not always go as planned. After living in the United States for years, it was inevitable that the students would absorb American culture and that some would reject Chinese Confucianism and traditional modes of grooming.

“Converting to Christianity was forbidden. Some of them did it anyway. Some of them chopped off their queues. That was forbidden, too,” Miller said. “One boy went to dance class with Mark Twain’s daughters and J.P. Morgan’s aunt. They played baseball, went skiing, went to school with girls.”

Letters home

The exhibit was conceived when a Chinese grad student, Henry Qu, stopped by the CHS years ago to read letters that the Chinese students sent home to their parents. Finding that the letters had never been translated, Qu volunteered to do it himself.

The show features many of those letters, as well as artifacts, clothing, toys and informational panels about the boys, their world and their futures after leaving school.

The mission was founded in 1871 by Yung Wing, the first Chinese graduate of an American university, Yale. “He had a vision of what could be possible when two nations collaborate,” Miller said. “He worked on it for years.”

His mission was helped along by the new Burlingame-Seward Treaty of 1868, which established more amicable relations between the United States and China.

The Chinese government agreed to send 30 boys a year for four years in a row, from 1872 to 1875. Those boys would each stay and learn for 15 years. In that time, the government would pay all the boys’ educational and living expenses, including sending Chinese adults to support and counsel the boys.

Now, to find boys. “What couples would send their child, as young as 9 years old, across the ocean for 15 years. Why would families do this?,” Miller said. “And you have to wonder why China would agree to do this.”

Still, they found some families eager for their sons to succeed in life. After a three-week ship journey and a one-week train journey, the boys arrived at the program’s headquarters on Collins Street in Hartford.

There they were assigned to families along the Connecticut River Valley as far south as Bridgeport and as far north as Greenfield, Massachusetts.

“Can you imagine, it’s the 1870s and you’re bring dropped off in Winsted or Granby and being the only Chinese child around for miles,” Miller said.

For about two years, the boys learned to speak and write English in the homes of their new “families.” Then they were ready to start school at various public and private junior high and high schools in their towns.

Some successes

The educational mission was a success. Most of the boys fulfilled the goals set out originally by the Chinese imperial government. One became a vice admiral in the Chinese Navy. One became the Chinese ambassador to the United States. One is considered the father of the Chinese railroad system. Others had respected careers in the mining, medical and telegraph industries.

Others struggled in the schools; Hartford Public High School records show some of them at the bottom of their class. Some of the students went rogue in ways that dismayed the originators of the mission. Yung Kwai was one of these.

“He converted to Christianity and refused to recant. He was told, we’re cutting you off and sending you home. He was supposed to take a train to Yale and then go home but the train stopped in Hartford and he got off and didn’t get back on,” Miller said. “He hid until he was of age.”

Some others found success despite the fact that they didn’t feel at home in either country.

“One was not happy going back so he came back and married a Connecticut socialite. He was Americanized but he was never accepted,” Miller said.

Others thrived in their decision to stay in the United States. One became the country’s first Chinese attorney. Another wrote the first book published by a Chinese author in the U.S. Many descendants of those men contributed family testimony to the exhibit.

In the end, changing cultural tides doomed the project. Years of anti-Asian sentiment peaked with the 1882 passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act. At the same time, China, during the waning days of the Qing dynasty, became more leery of foreign influence.

In 1881, the mission ended. Students were summoned home. They were confined and questioned before being let go.

“They were now considered foreigners. They were called ‘The Mixed-Up People’,” Miller said. “People saw they were different by the way they carried themselves, the way they walked, the way they looked people in the eye when they spoke to them.”

In the end, some stayed in China. Others went back to the United States.

Miller said while many students succeeded in ways that pleased the Chinese government, many others succeeded in ways unexpected by the founders.

“They became a bridge between cultures. They became translators. They encouraged more interactions between the countries,” Miller said.

“JOURNEYS 旅途: BOYS OF THE CHINESE EDUCATIONAL MISSION” is at Connecticut Historical Society, 1 Elizabeth St. in Hartford, until July 30. Hours are Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday noon to 5 p.m., Thursday noon to 8 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Susan Dunne can be reached at