Yung Wing (1828-1912) stands out in history as the pioneering overseas Chinese student, the first from China to graduate from an American university (Yale, class of 1854). He also went on to champion higher education for his fellow Chinese compatriots by establishing the Chinese Educational Mission, which helped send other Chinese students to US schools (including Yale) for a period of time. And countless students, scholars and lifelong learners have benefited from his generous donation of over 1,200 books to Yale, which formed the heart of its celebrated East Asian library.
But Yung Wing’s life also stands as a tragic example of how Chinese exclusion brought about needless suffering — and in his case, the death of his beloved wife, a European American woman.
Yung Wing, who had become a naturalized US citizen in 1852, married Mary Kellogg, from the town of Avon, Connecticut. In a 1875 photo from their wedding day, Mary looks graceful in a long, flowing white gown adorned with garlands of flowers, just like any beautiful bride. (In his memoir, Yung Wing states that, much like the Chinese Educational Mission, it was one of his daydreams while at college to marry an American woman.)
Yung Wing and Mary Kellogg went on to have two sons together: Morrison Brown Yung and Bartlett Golden Yung. Yung said of them in his memoir My Life in China and America:
They are most faithful, thoughtful and affectionate sons, and I am proud of their manly and earnest Christian characters. My gratitude to God for blessing me with two such sons will forever rise to heaven, an endless incense.
Unfortunately, their marriage took place amid growing the anti-Chinese sentiment gripping the US — as Yung Wing described it in his memoir, “The race prejudice against the Chinese was so rampant and rank….” The era culminated in one of the most discriminatory laws ever enacted in America: the Chinese Exclusion Act, which passed in 1882.
As Ben Ralton writes in a piece for HuffPost:
…the Chinese Exclusion Act [was] overtly designed to impact and even destroy the existing Chinese American community. Yung’s citizenship was stripped, and when he traveled back to China to continue his work as a diplomat, he was denied readmission into the United States under the law’s bigoted pretenses. In a painfully blunt letter relying this decision to diplomat Charles Denby, Secretary of State John Sherman admitted that the exclusion “would on its face seem unjust and without warrant. … Nevertheless, … the department does not feel that it can properly recognize him as a citizen of the United States.”
This denial of Yung’s citizenship, and indeed of the fundamental truths of his half-century of inspiring and influential American life and work, profoundly affected his family and final decades of life. Deeply traumatized by their extended separation and by fears for Yung’s life, Mary passed away, leaving Morrison and Bartlett to be fostered out to family friends in New England.
Mary’s death came in 1886, which meant their entire marriage lasted only a scant 11 years. She would never live to see other indignities visited upon her husband, as TK Chu noted in the work 150 Years of Chinese Students in America:
[Yung Wing’s] life at old age was lonely (his children were working in China) and at times humiliating. He was asked to leave a boarding house when fellow boarders refused to share a dining table with him. After that he found his last residence at 284 Sergeant Street, Hartford; he entered his second floor quarters through a side entrance.
To learn more about Yung Wing and his extraordinary life, you can read his memoir My Life in China and America.