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A Purposeful Vision: Margaret Bailey Speer and Yenching University

Yenching in the Tumult of China: The Roots of Yenching

View of the Western Hills

Yenching University was formed in 1916 through the amalgamation of four smaller Christian colleges in Peking, China. The school was conceived and managed by several denominational mission boards based in the US, and served as the central arm of the missionary educational effort in China. At the time, the Chinese were experiencing significant political and religious tumult—much of which is vividly recounted in MBS’s letters home—as they began to take their place in a globalizing world. Missionary educational institutions played a role in the tense dynamic that was evolving between East and West:1 an intrinsic aspect of their objective was to foster a parental relationship between the two cultures, in which the West offered guidance (in the for of Western culture and customs) as a solution to Chinese problems. This stance has been documented across many sources: a chief example pertaining to Yenching is President John Leighton Stuart, quoted in a letter to friends in 1919, writing that “the Christian movement will save not only individual Chinese but China…And as go the students, China will follow with all its vast population.”2 As the collection shows, such a problematic relationship became a chief issue of concern for MBS, who often reflected on the difficulty of bridging the (sometimes icy) cultural gap and of being perceived as an exploitative foreign presence. Despite the lopsided foundation upon which the institution was constituted, the University aimed to create an environment in which Chinese and Western faculty members could live and work together holding equal status. MBS recalls the faculty as being about three-quarters Chinese during her time there.3

1. This tension erupted into violence on a mass scale for the first time in the failed Boxer Rebellion of 1900, which was a reaction against the influence of Western culture and religion that was being furthered in order to establish political control over the Chinese.
2. West, Philip. Yenching University and Sino-Western Relations, 1916-1952. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976. p. 54.
3. Speer, Margaret B. Introduction. Like Good Steel: The China Letters of Margaret Bailey Speer. Ed. Caroline S. Rittenhouse. Berwyn, PA: Round Table, 1994. p. 9.