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The Thomas La Fargue Collection

The items in this collection are housed in Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections in the Terrell Library.

View the guide to Cage 255: Thomas La Fargue Papers, 1873-1946.

Yung Wing, founder of the Chinese Educational Mission (CEM), was born to a peasant family in 1828 and was raised in the Southern Chinese village of Nam Ping. He learned to read and write English at a school established by the Morrison Educational Society in Canton, Ohio, but when ill health forced the school's principal to leave in 1847, Yung Wing also left. He stayed with Professor David E. Bartlett and his wife, Fannie Bartlett, in their house in Hartford, Connecticut, during which time they hosted many future students of the Chinese Educational Mission and were intimately connected with the movement to educate Chinese students in America. Yung Wing then attended the Monson Academy in Massachusetts until 1849. By 1852 he had become a naturalized American citizen, and soon afterwards he was accepted to Yale University, graduating in 1854. While attending Yale, Yung Wing came to feel that China's best hope was to embrace the more practical, progressive, and technologically advanced ways of the Occident. He believed that the first step in making this shift was to convince the Chinese government to send some of China 's brightest students to be educated in America, and he began communicating with officials to that end.

In 1872, after many years of disappointments, the Chinese Educational Mission was finally realized, and by 1874 there were 120 students living and studying in several small town schools scattered throughout the Connecticut Valley. They had intended to stay in the U.S. for fifteen years, embark on a two year travel period to gain practical experience, and then return to China to build ships, construct railroads and telegraph lines, and open mines in the service of the Chinese government. However, in 1881 they were recalled to China early when their sponsors fell from political favor and power came into the hands of a group of conservatives who bitterly opposed sending Chinese youths to study with “western barbarians.” Of the mission's students, then in their late teens and early twenties, only a few had completed their engineering training at the time that they were forced to return.


Despite their incomplete education, many former CEM students played major roles in introducing Western technology to China, for they easily found positions as telegraph operators, railroad or mine engineers, and naval officers. Eventually, some of these men rose to more powerful positions, becoming cabinet members, prime ministers, admirals, and diplomats. All were influential in introducing China to shipbuilding and to railroad and mining development.


In his book, China's First Hundred, Thomas La Fargue provides accounts of the experiences of some of the students and discusses the political setting before, during, and immediately after the termination of the mission. He based his stories on old letters, notes from conversations, short autobiographies compiled by the few surviving members, and biographies written by the children of deceased members. After traveling to Shanghai in the summer of 1940 to visit several of the remaining CEM students, La Fargue made note of the strangeness of hearing the old Chinese gentlemen addressing each other by nicknames more familiar to a schoolyard. In his research, La Fargue has credited the Chinese Educational Mission students with accelerating China's technological transformation.


Archived correspondence and a large collection of photographs of and by the mission's students were later provided to La Fargue by Arthur G. Robinson, administrator of the Walker Missionary Home at Auburndale, Massachusetts. It is these materials that are held by Washington State University's Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections Division, and entries in this digital collection have been selected from among them.


Resource: China's First Hundred by Thomas La Fargue. State College of Washington. Pullman. 1942.

Creating the Database:

In 2002, Grace Gu, Jodi Robin, and Kate Wehr, graduate students at the University of Washington's School of Information, described and uploaded images to the CONTENTdm database at the Washington State University Libraries as part of a course on Digital Libraries taught by Trevor Bond and Al Cornish. Al Cornish provided technical support for CONTENTdm. In 2006, Pinyin equivalents of names were provided by Edward Rhoades. The collection summary above was revised by Ben DeCrease in 2007, and collection graphics were modified by Jeff Kuure.

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