2008.041.012 Oral History Interview with Henry Yung Jr.
Henry Yung Jr. only very recently connected with the history of his distant ancestor, Yung Wing, the legendary writer, diplomat and first Chinese student to graduate from an American university. A fourth generation Chinese American, Henry attended Rutgers University and worked in the tech field. His late discovery is no less significant, as Yung Wing writing speaks to him with a sustained relevance even today. Henry had little interest in his Chinese American heritage or familial relation to Yung Wing as a child, but his interest grew as he got older and read Yung Wing’s autobiography. Henry recounts some of this biography and notes that he was able to relate to a lot of his ancestor’s struggles and decisions at the same age. Wing was educated by missionaries in China and was later brought by them to America to continue his secondary education. He became the first Chinese person ever to graduate from an American university when he graduated from Yale in 1854. After graduating, Wing returned to China and held various government positions. Through the Chinese Educational Mission that he founded, he sent 120 students to study in the United States, however, political changes brought this to an end. By the end of his life, Wing did not have much wealth or power and was in fact in political trouble. Reading his ancestor’s autobiography, Henry thought it interesting how Wing could speak directly to him about his trials and tribulations in the United States and China and realized that he and Wing faced a lot of the same problems and difficulties. Henry addresses the stereotype that Chinese Americans are good at math and science and are good students and acknowledges that this might have helped him in life. He thinks that the one thing you could take away from Yung Wing’s story is that he made the most of the opportunities he was given. He concludes that young people will find a lot of value in learning about their ancestors and the problems they faced, as he did, as it helps give them perspective on their own problems.


When I was younger, if people told me about Yung Wing, my attitude was, "Well, he's a famous guy that I'm related to." I think I knew about my legacy from the time I was a child. To be honest, I have to admit that when I was a child and a young man I really wasn't that interested in my Chinese American heritage. As I've gotten older I've had more time and become more interested in it.

First of all, I read Yung Wing's autobiography. He spoke about his early childhood to the point where he was a retired and successful politician in China. As a very young boy he was educated by missionaries in China. Then, later on, he was brought to the United States, by an American missionary to be educated in American preparatory schools and universities. He graduated from Yale in 1854 as the first Chinese person to ever graduate from an American university.

After graduating from Yale, Yung Wing returned to China where he was active in a number of different pursuits. He was involved in the government and held a various number of government positions. He always had the idea of sending more students to the United States, and in fact, he was able to send 120 students, that I believe, was called the Chinese education mission, which was really one of his life's goals.

He had to wait for a long, long time before creating the Chinese education mission in the United States and then, even after it started, basically, political changes put an end to it. He also talked about how difficult it was to implement other types of changes in China. He has some moderate success in that area as well but my impression was that at the end of his life he didn't have that much power or wealth and was actually in political trouble.

It was interesting that, you know, basically, an ancestor of mine from 150 years ago, who was actually a very good writer could speak directly to me about his struggles and trials and tribulations in the United States and China. He was a young person who came here, not that different from me. As a college student he wasn't really sure what he wanted to do, as a young professional he struggled to find his path, and he faced a lot of the same problems and difficulties and decisions that I did.

Well, you know there's a stereotype about Chinese Americans that they're good at math and science and they're good students and they're high achievers, and I don't really know how I feel about that. I think that in some ways, people might throw me into that stereotype, and in some ways, it actually might have helped me in my life. The one thing you can take from Yung Wing's story is that he made the most of the opportunities he was given. He had very little to begin with and he was given some educational opportunities and he really took advantage of them.

You know I think that, and I'm saying this because I actually didn't do it myself, but I think it's good for young people to really think about their ancestors and the type of problems they faced. And I think it gives you perspective on our own life.

My name is Henry Yung Jr. I am a distant descendant of Yung Wing.

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