The Colgate Scene
May 2003

A big meeting in a small town
A 1909 conference at Colgate may have impacted Chinese politics

The 135 attendees of the 1909 conference of the Chinese Students of the Eastern States held at Colgate accounted for more than 60 percent of the Chinese students in the United States at that time.

In August 1909, Colgate University was the scene of an election involving less than 200 people that may have influenced the fate of the world's most populous nation and given momentum to the revolution that overthrew dynastic rule two years later.

The election took place at the fifth annual conference of the Chinese Students of the Eastern States held at Colgate that summer. The Chinese Students Alliance, which organized the conference, was in the midst of electing new leaders. Election to a leadership role in the alliance was tantamount to nomination for leadership in the Chinese republic that was declared in 1911. Gu Weijun (Wellington Kuo), who chronicled the conference, recalled that three days before the election, when nominations were opened, students scurried around Hamilton looking to anoint or be anointed for office. Kou, who later served as China's ambassador to France, Great Britain and the United States, recalled that "as the elections drew nigh, the campus of Colgate was dotted with groups of two or three, some with their soft hats tipped over on one side and lighted cigarettes between their fingers, engrossed in talking in a low voice, occasionally with a furtive look around to see if there was anyone overhearing their conversation."

Election morning was filled with excitement. This was not just a college election. China was in the midst of revolutionary change that led to the end of the Qing Dynasty and the establishment of a Chinese republic two years later. Weili Ye, author of Seeking Modernity in China's Name: Chinese Students in the United States, 1900-1927 has compared the Colgate election with similar plebiscites held in China two months later and concludes that the student assembly was part of this epochal constitutional reform.

The conference drew more than 135 students from universities, colleges and high schools in the Northeast, which accounted for more than 60 percent of all Chinese students in the United States at that time. (Cornell, Columbia and Harvard sent the largest contingents.) According to Weili, conference attendees included male and female students from China who were often sponsored by western nations through the Boxer Rebellion Indemnity Fund. They were a serious group of young intellectuals with strong nationalist convictions.

Colgate was represented by Ngan-Chan Yang, a native of Hangzhou, China. According to Colgate archivist Carl Peterson, Yang prepped at Ithaca High School and was a member of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity while at Colgate. At the time of the conference, he was transferring to the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a degree in economics. He then returned to China to work as the secretary to the viceroy of Wuchang in Hubei Province and later taught in the education department of Peking University.

Yang may have convinced his fellow members in the student alliance to choose Colgate for the conference, but they needed little encouragement after visiting the school. The Chinese Students' Monthly, the official journal of the alliance, reported in its November 1909 issue that Colgate was selected because it was a "place where nature and man seem to be working in harmony." Advance scouts arrived in Hamilton months before the conference and found the town of 1,500 souls to be "full of kind, sympathetic, generous people, and abounding in the beauties of natural scenery." They liked the "courteous, large-hearted townsmen" sufficiently that more than 100 students arrived several days early.

The conference enjoyed full university backing. Meetings were held in the college chapel and in the academy chapel (which later burned to the ground). The conference opened on August 25. After Wang Zhengting (C.T. Wang) of Yale University welcomed the conferees, William Crawshaw, Colgate's acting president, delivered the first address on the "Interrelation of the Races," which was received with great enthusiasm. Crawshaw forecast that the 20th century would be an era of mutual respect and understanding among races.


The evolution of Chinese feminism
Another aspect of the revolutionary change engendered at the conference was the evolution of modern feminism in China. The Chinese Students' Monthly noted with patriarchal approval the presence of Chinese women at the conference who, it claimed, enhanced gallantry and chivalry. Its chronicler remembered how knots of males clustered around "some one of China's better half," on the willow path along Taylor Lake or in the streets of the town. Winning the attention of a "queen's favor," or even paying "little tributes of courtesy and attention" were the goals of the male students. In part, the female students supported these traditional roles. They held a bazaar at which they sold Chinese delicacies to patrons who bought "with an extravagance characteristic of spendthrifts."

Still, there were rumblings of modernity among the Chinese women. As Ye points out in her book, Chinese female college students at this time held that the domestic sphere was the proper domain for women. Marguerite Wang, in her prize-winning speech at Colgate, contended that the home was the best place for the Chinese women to show her patriotism and exert her power and influence. There, the educated mother could make her home a true school for children. Her modernity showed in her criticism of traditional Chinese women whom she saw as ignorant of the emotional and physical needs of her children. While Wang saw her role more as mother than as wife, her assertiveness in her speech challenged any visions of female intellectual inferiority. As Chinese society moved toward modern conceptions of women's roles in society, Wang's convention address and the respect with which it was received were considered small steps toward equality for Chinese women.

The conference ended with a bonfire on the athletic field. As it rose into full blaze, hundreds of students and townspeople walked around the "monster fire," the younger ones singing and dancing. Suddenly a summer shower poured down on the celebrants, sending them back into the buildings "as if they had fallen into Taylor Lake."

About 50 of the conferees stayed at Colgate for another five days for a meeting of the Chinese Students' Christian Alliance, which convened in Hamilton in early September. According to the Colgate Madisonensis, the students heard Baptist speakers and professors from Yale expound on the need for more missions in China. By the week's end, the alliance voted to merge with the YMCA of China. Among those who stayed on was the retiring president of the students' alliance, C.T. Wang. Wang was a Christian who became highly visible in the Chinese YMCA movement. After graduation from Yale in 1911, Wang returned to China and served as the vice leader of the Republican Parliament. He ran afoul of counterrevolutionaries who attempted to restore the empire in 1916, forcing Wang into hiding. Later, according to Gao Yunxiang, a leading expert on Chinese athletic history, Wang helped elevate China into qualification for the Olympic Games and served as head of the Chinese delegation to the infamous 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.

At the close of the conference, a Dr. Partridge, a former missionary to China, made a special address to the townspeople and the university community about the inappropriate use of the term "Chinaman." Partridge separated the use of such terms as Englishman, Frenchman and Irishman from "Chinaman," which he argued "indicated a man's lack of taste and want of reverence for a people in the East." He contended that during the conference some professors had used the term. The students were unfailingly polite and respectful, but upon hearing the term, showed annoyance and irritation. The conversation became weary and the warmth generated at the conference was "greatly diminished." Such vulgarities seem to have been the only significant problem at the conference and the Chinese Students' Alliance made repeated acknowledgments to Colgate and the Hamilton community.

In the years that followed, the Colgate conference remained important to the Chinese Students' Alliance as an example of a successful and meaningful meeting. Nearly a century later, perhaps it is time for contemporary Colgate students to consider hosting such an event.

Graham Gao Russell Hodges is a professor of history at Colgate. St. Martin's Press will publish his biography of Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong in January 2004.
Top of page
Table of contents
<< Previous: Local hero Next: Diamond dreams... >>