Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Blogging from Shanghai, part 10

As Kevin Johnson regularly reminds us on this blog, immigrants to the U.S. from all over the world have contributed mightily to the U.S. and in other arenas as well. One such individual from China was James Yen.

Y.C. James Yen (Chinese 晏阳初 Yan Yangchu). Born in Sichuan in 1890, Yen was sent to a school run by the China Inland Mission, studied at Hong Kong University, and graduated in 1918 from Yale University, where he was a member of Beta Theta Pi Fraternity. After graduation he went to France to join the work of the International YMCA with the Chinese Labor Corps in France. These workers had been sent to support the Allies at the end of World War I. Working with them to read and write letters, Yen recalled, he found "for the first time in my ignorant intellectual life" the value of the common people of his own country. What they lacked was education. Therefore Yen wrote a widely copied literacy primer which used 1,000 basic characters.

After earning a Masters Degree from Princeton University and serving as President of the Chinese Students Christian Association,Yen returned to China in 1921 to head national mass literacy campaigns under the Chinese National YMCA. In 1923, Yen and leading intellectuals such as Liang Qichao, Hu Shi, and Tao Xingzhi formed the National Association of Mass Education Movements (MEM). The MEM organized campaigns across the country which coordinated volunteer teachers, local leaders, and any available location in order to attract students who could not pay high tuitions. Among the volunteer teachers was Mao Zedong. These campaigns attracted more than five million students and served as a model for even more widespread schools.

He criticized most missionaries for not being in touch with the realities of China but enthusiastically welcomed the support of those Chinese and foreign Christian organizations which addressed the problems of the village.

In 1926, the MEM set up a village campaign in Ding Xian, a county some 200 miles south of Beijing. The Ting Hsien (Ding Xian) Experiment used People’s Schools to coordinate innovations ranging from hybrid pigs and economic cooperatives to village drama and Village Health Workers. Yen joined Liang Shuming and other independent reformers to form a National Rural Reconstruction Movement which included several hundred local and national organizations. The Rural Reconstruction Movement aimed to create a new countryside as the basis for a new Chinese nation. The work at Ding Xian attracted nationwide attention and developed many new techniques for rural development which did not depend on central government control, violent revolution, or large infusions of foreign money.

In 1937 the Japanese invasion drove MEM operations first to Hunan, then to Sichuan, but Yen spent much of the war in Washington, D.C. After 1949, Yen led the Philippines Rural Reconstruction Movement and founded the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction. with headquarters in the Philippines. In the 1980s, he was invited back to China and given a warm reception. He died in New York City in the fall of 1990.

Yen's charismatic speaking style and forceful personality made him attractive to many groups in China as well as many foreign friends. The China raised American author Pearl Buck published a short book of interviews with Yen, Tell The People; Talks With James Yen About the Mass Education Movement (New York: John Day 1945). In 1940, Yen received the Magsaysay Award for International Understanding, sometimes called the "Asian Nobel Prize." He was recognized as one of the world's ten outstanding "modern revolutionaries," together with Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, John Dewey, Orville Wright, and others. Yen was also named by the American media as one of the world's 100 most important people.


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