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Ideas

The lost liberal arts university of China

Sixty years ago, the government shuttered an unusual outpost of Western education in Shanghai. Today, its powerful but elderly alumni are scattered all over the world—and they’d like nothing more than to bring back St. John’s.

Memorial Arch with Schereschewsky Hall in the background, in an undated photo.
Memorial Arch with Schereschewsky Hall in the background, in an undated photo.Yale University/-

BEIJING — On a balmy weekend last fall, more than 600 elderly Chinese people, some leaning on canes or walkers, gathered in a Beijing hotel for one of the world’s most extraordinary college reunions.

Their school, St. John’s University in Shanghai, hasn’t existed for 60 years. Its last students graduated in 1952, the year the missionary-founded school was shuttered by China’s Communist leadership. The members of that class — the youngest at the reunion — are now in their early 80s.

They have been held together over the years by a powerful bond, one that comes from the unusual experience of having attended an independent Western liberal arts college in their native China. But more than that, they are also part of an influential and little-known legacy, a global network of alumni that has helped shape China’s growth and development over the past century — and whose meaning remains controversial in a nation still uneasy over Western influence inside its borders.

St. John’s never had the international name recognition of Harvard or Oxford, and at its peak it graduated about 300 people a year. But for the 73 years it existed, St. John’s — and a small group of other now-defunct colleges in China founded by missionaries — produced a group of graduates with a nearly unique set of credentials. Taught by both Western and Chinese professors, these students were culturally steeped in both the West and the East, fluent in English and Chinese, educated in the humanities as well as the sciences.

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Its roster of alumni from across the world reads like a who’s-who of powerful links between China and the West. The retired statesman who led the peaceful transfer of Hong Kong to China, Lu Ping, was a member of St. John’s class of 1947. One of modern China’s first billionaires, as well as its vice president — often dubbed the “Red Capitalist” — was the late Rong Yi-ren, an alumnus. The former president of Taiwan, the late Yen Chia-kan, had a St. John’s diploma. Two of China’s top diplomats in the early 20th century, T.V. Soong and Wellington Koo, attended St. John’s. So did Raymond Chow, the Hong Kong movie producer who made martial arts star Bruce Lee a household name. World-renowned architect I.M. Pei went to the related St. John’s secondary school before coming to the United States.

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St. John’s alumnus T.V. Soong (far right), then Chinese foreign minister, meets with Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in 1942.
St. John’s alumnus T.V. Soong (far right), then Chinese foreign minister, meets with Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in 1942.ASSOCIATED PRESS/Associated Press

When China opened up to the West in the early 1980s, it turned to the know-how of many St. John’s graduates — particularly those abroad — who had become entrepreneurs, bankers, engineers, scientists, and academics. As much as any other institution, it was this long-vanished university that helped China navigate its way back into the world economy.

It might seem that China would embrace the legacy of a school so entwined with its own success. But St. John’s Western ways never sat easily with the society around it, and even today an unease hangs over the relationship. When some alumni sought to revive their alma mater in Shanghai in the late 1980s, for instance, top leaders agreed to consider the proposal only if the name “St. John’s” was dropped. Despite the influence and deep pockets of the school’s alumni, China has never allowed St. John’s to reopen. Its old campus in Shanghai is now occupied by a Chinese government-run college.

My father graduated in the class of 1949 and moved to the United States soon afterward, and like so many other alumni, never lost his sense of devotion to the college. As I walked through the reunion events with him last fall, what I saw was hundreds of high-spirited octogenarians unselfconsciously displaying their own natural blend of East and West. At the festivities, they chatted in Mandarin or English, wore Chinese jackets or Western blazers, sang Chinese opera or belted out “Auld Lang Syne.”

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Today, China is slowly opening up to the idea of Western liberal arts schools on its soil, weighing the value of the intellectual creativity nurtured by those schools against the risks of the political dissent they could also foster. The story of St. John’s University reflects the power — and the threat — that such an education still represents to a proud nation that nevertheless hungers for new ideas.

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THE BUCOLIC CAMPUS of St. John’s was a serene place, surrounded by open farmland and bordered by the Suzhou Creek. Several miles from the thriving commercial districts of Shanghai, it had a chapel, lecture halls, a social hall, dormitories, athletic fields. The architecture fused East and West; the landmark Schereschewsky Hall, named after the bishop who founded the school, displayed magnificent curved Chinese rooflines.

The US Anglican missionaries who set up St. John’s in the 1870s did so against the backdrop of growing antiforeign sentiment in China, as well as questions about the value of a Western-style four-year college. According to Harvard government professor Elizabeth Perry, whose parents once taught at St. John’s, China in the late 19th century didn’t have an established higher education system, but rather scattered private academies that helped train scholars to pass the imperial exam for, among other things, government posts. Into this vacuum stepped groups of Western missionaries, including the founders of the former Yenching University in Beijing, which would rival St. John’s as the most prestigious private college in China during this period.

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China’s leaders were worried that the missionaries from St. John’s wanted to change China from within, and to an extent they were right: The bishops hoped to create a new generation of clergymen to spread Christianity. But conversion rates among students were low; the missionaries realized their goal was unrealistic, and St. John’s evolved into a more secular institution. (St. John’s was originally all male, but began to accept women beginning in the 1930s.)

Chinese diplomat Wellington Koo attended St. John’s and later sat as a judge at the International Court of Justice at the Hague.
Chinese diplomat Wellington Koo attended St. John’s and later sat as a judge at the International Court of Justice at the Hague.ASSOCIATED PRESS

It didn’t take long for progressive-minded elite Chinese families to come to appreciate the value of a St. John’s education. It offered Western-oriented schooling — including virtually all classes being taught in English — that helped graduates secure top posts in international commerce and diplomacy. And beyond its practical benefits, a St. John’s degree meant a fresh, new cultural experience for students. Bulletin boards advertised classical music performances, school newspaper meetings, and softball practices. Students picked their majors from among the humanities, social sciences, and sciences — and could even attend its medical school, one of China’s first. The classes had an emphasis on critical thinking, in response to concerns of some Western faculty that too many Chinese students were more adept at memorization than analysis, according to an account of the school by the late Mary Lamberton. In many ways, Chinese students who went to St. John’s had a study-abroad experience without leaving their homeland.

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At the same time, as a prominent symbol of the West, St. John’s became a target. The school opened in the long shadow of the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing, the humiliating agreement that required China to give up Hong Kong to Britain and open up five ports to Western trading. As anti-Western sentiment waxed and waned, St. John’s gates were often covered with antiforeign and anti-Christian placards.

Its association with the West would ultimately spell its end. In May 1949, as Communist soldiers were on the brink of taking over Shanghai — an event celebrated by some St. John’s students secretly sympathetic to the cause — chaos reigned on campus. Graduating seniors, including my father, were told to quickly pick up their diplomas in the registrar’s office; there would be no commencement ceremony. Many students fled to Hong Kong, the United States, or the Nationalist Party’s refuge on the island of Taiwan.

Three years later, the Communist Party shut down St. John’s entirely. A government-run university was installed on the campus. The school chapel was later demolished to “uproot the imperialist religious influence,” according a historical summary by St. John’s alumnus George Shen. The landmark Schereschewsky Hall was renamed after a Chinese writer, Zou Tao Fen.

The missionaries’ dream was over. But it had left a legacy: a cohort of thousands of bilingual alumni, raised with an appreciation of both Chinese and Western culture, spread through China and the world.

Under Communist rule, the St. John’s graduates who had stayed found themselves in a difficult position: They had to downplay their Western education, even to the point of burning their diplomas to protect themselves. According to Shen, a graduate from the class of 1951 faced this response when telling a party cadre that he was a graduate of St. John’s: “You mean that black imperialist school?” In response, the alumnus said nothing: “I felt so ashamed that I couldn’t think of an answer. I just bowed my head and kept silent.”

Benny Pan, 84, taught English at a middle school in Jiangsu province for nearly two decades in the 1950s and 1960s. But when the Cultural Revolution began in the late 1960s, students who knew about his privileged past — including his St. John’s degree — locked him in a makeshift prison at the school.

“I didn’t teach for six years,” said Pan, who now lives in Queens, N.Y., and heads the Eastern US chapter of the St. John’s alumni association. “The Red Guards kept me in a jail in school.”

Meanwhile, the St. John’s alumni overseas had been building their careers, and when the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, many yearned to help their native land. The ethic of St. John’s had always emphasized service to China, and “lots of people were thinking of how to make China better and catch up with the outside world,” said Shen, former chief editor of one of Hong Kong’s business newspapers.

Those who had left also felt a kind of survivor’s guilt. My father, Robert Wen, at the time a Michigan State University civil engineering professor, said he felt a deepening love for America, where he’d lived by then for some 30 years, yet a tug to help China. In 1980s, he accepted an invitation by Chinese officials to give a course in his specialty. While in China, he recalled feeling “like the proverbial married woman who returns for the first time to her parents’ house.”

The alumni of St. John’s and China’s other missionary-founded colleges turned out to be instrumental to the nation’s success as it reentered the world stage, said Professor Ezra Vogel, a retired Harvard professor who specializes in East Asia. “It made it so much faster for China to link up with the West,” Vogel said. Hong Kong was particularly rich in alumni ready to help build business ties; graduates elsewhere were invited back not only for their expertise in science, technology, and business, but also for their insights about how to bridge the cultural divide between East and West.

The first worldwide St. John’s alumni reunion took place in Hong Kong in 1988, and an idea captured the imaginations of the alumni: What about reviving the college? Initially, top government officials privately entertained it, but demanded that the school’s name be changed to something that sounded like “St. John’s” but was more Chinese, like Shen Jiang University. Also, any reference to Christianity had to be dropped, said Shen, who was closely involved in the proposal.

The excitement to revive the school only increased in 1992 when another reunion was held, this time in Shanghai. Some 1,700 alumni attended, and when buses brought them to their old campus near the Suzhou Creek, many alumni got off, bent their knees, and kissed the ground. As the plans stalled, some alumni backed “successor” versions of St. John’s in Taiwan and Canada. Still, the dream was always to restore the original college in Shanghai. It wouldn’t happen. The student pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 set the Chinese government on edge about the disruptive potential of Western ideas at universities, coloring the negotiations that would ensue. In a story circulating among alumni, Jiang Zimen, while president of China a decade later, referred to the college as a “mai bang da xue” — nothing more than a training school for Chinese go-betweens for foreign businessmen.

Today, China is struggling to reshape its higher education system, in which a small number of elite national universities are outnumbered by regional colleges that suffer from overcrowded conditions and lackluster instruction. Nearly all Chinese students who can afford it seek to study abroad.

As the country opens further, it is starting to experiment with the very model that so long appeared threatening — the liberal arts college. Not far from the old St. John’s campus in Shanghai, a Western-style liberal arts campus was approved last year, which will be largely run by New York University. It has not escaped alumni notice that China turned to an American school, rather than revive one founded on its own soil.

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AT LAST OCTOBER’S St. John’s reunion, the retired diplomat Lu Ping delivered a keynote address that unsettled many in attendance. Tall, with a head of white hair, he is revered for playing a central role in one of China’s proudest recent moments, the peaceful transfer in 1997 of Hong Kong back to China after more than 150 years of British rule.

At the podium, Lu, chairman of the reunion committee, talked about the alumni’s advancing age, then shocked the gathering when he announced unilaterally: This will be the last reunion.

“We were stunned,” recalled Pan, who came to the reunion from New York.

Many alumni assumed Lu’s announcement was authorized by the top party leadership: Given his prominence, they could not imagine him quashing the gatherings without some support from on high. The question that remained, however, was why. Was it because St. John’s is still too controversial? Was it because the next reunion was tentatively scheduled to be in Taiwan, where alumni from the mainland cannot easily go? Or was it simply as Lu said — that the alumni are just getting too old to travel? (In fact, one alumnus from New York died on his way to the reunion.)

At the final assembly the next day, a Taiwan alumnus spontaneously took the microphone, saying the next reunion should be held in Taipei. Lu interrupted and virtually ordered him off the stage.

There remains no answer as to why Lu made the announcement. When I tried to reach him, he declined to be interviewed through a spokeswoman at the China Welfare Institute, where he is now affiliated.

Whatever his reasons, though, it’s not clear that his proclamation will stand. Even 60 years later, the spirit of St. John’s doesn’t yield easily to orders. Shen, who heads the alumni branch for the US West Coast, predicts another alumni gathering will occur — somehow.

“We are a bunch of stubborn old people,” he said.


Patricia Wen is a staff writer for the Globe. E-mail wen@globe.com.