The facsimile from the Hong Kong law firm of Tsang, Chan & Woo, received by the development office on April 1, just months before Hong Kong would revert from British to Chinese sovereignty, was not an April Fools' hoax. Someone wished to donate, anonymously, $6 million U.S. dollars--the largest single outright gift to Oberlin College in its history--"in memorial of Dr. H. H. Kung." The funds were deposited in Oberlin's bank account in May.
"What is most interesting to us about this is the power of the connections that Oberlin has forged over the years," President Nancy Dye said in a July interview with the Associated Press. "Some of those are still playing themselves out today." In addition to AP, among the media outlets that picked up the story were The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Wall Street Journal, The Plain Dealer, The South China Morning Post, and United Press International radio.
Who was Hsiang Hsi Kung? And what about his connection to Oberlin was so profound as to warrant such a generous--albeit mysterious--memorial?
Kung's lineage seemed to suggest that great events would pattern his fate. Said to be the 75th lineal descendant of Confucius, Kung, the son of a wealthy Shanxi banking family, was a sophomore at Oberlin College in fall 1903. Geography separated him from Taigu, Shanxi province, by roughly 7,000 miles. But only three years separated him from the horrific scene at Taigu's mission school, with its smoldering ruins and the heads of his teachers hung there and throughout nearby villages--a macabre parting gesture from the insurrectionary Boxers recorded in Nat Brandt's 1994 book, Massacre in Shansi.
Kung's journey from Taigu to Oberlin College is instructive for what it reveals about the ideal of service--fired in the crucible that was Oberlin in the 19th century--and its power to transcend distance, time, and culture.
Many Protestant missionaries--some of them Oberlin graduates or connected to the College through kinship--were assigned to posts throughout North China. Some brought wives and young children. As Brandt wrote, they "burned with a passion to bring the Gospel to the peoples of the world that were not Christian." Although not every missionary in China was an Oberlinian, this sort of evangelical zeal was certainly in line with Oberlin's history. One of the College's founding fathers--the Reverend John J. Shipherd--was a revivalist preacher.
Kung was one of thousands of Christian converts. His father, whose wife had died giving birth to Kung's younger sister, had formed a friendship with the missionaries that extended to his two children, who were enrolled in the mission classes.
Of the "Oberlin Band" at the Taigu school, Kung's favorite was Susan Rowena Bird, who graduated from Oberlin in 1890. In a 1937 article for The Epworth Herald, Margaret Frakes wrote that Kung, in the summer of 1900, was eager to start ... work with his Mission friends, particularly with Miss Rowena Bird, who for the past ten years has been the guide and inspiration of his life, the one whom he has told of his trials, his joys, his life purposes.
Meanwhile, the Boxer Rebellion was sweeping the area with deadly intensity--a nationalistic rage directed at all foreigners, particularly Christian evangelists and their Chinese converts. Kung wanted to protect the Taigu missionaries, but his family had their own priorities--his safety. In Frakes's account, Kung's father begged him to leave:
"Go home with me," he cried; "what good will it do your friends for you to die with them?" His uncle, never a devotee of the mission or its teaching, reminded him of his lineage: "Are you not of the noble clan of Confucius, the only son of your father, his hope and pride? Where is your filial pride?" Kung's uncle posted men about the city to arrest his nephew for "unfilial conduct"--reasoning that perhaps imprisonment would save his nephew from death at the hands of the Boxers.
Kung managed to spirit his younger sister away--her unbound feet would target her as a Christian convert--and he did return to his family home in Tongzhou, but only temporarily. He continually risked trips back to Taigu.
In Taiyuan, in Baoding, and near Fenyang, scores were massacred, including men, women and children from the Oberlin-in-China contingent. Among those slain in Taigu, on Tuesday, July 31, 1900, was Bird. It was her 35th birthday.
Kung was able to carry the last letters of Bird and a few of the other missionaries--written to their families in the twilight of the rebellion--out of the country.
Brandt recorded that "nearly two thousand Chinese associated with Protestant missions throughout North China were killed." This is in addition to an estimated 30,000 Chinese who were connected with Roman Catholic missions. Indeed, as Associate Professor of History and East Asian Studies David Kelley noted, "Many more Chinese Christians died in the Boxer uprising than did missionaries."
Oberlinians channeled their grief into lasting tributes: the Memorial Arch and the Oberlin Shansi Memorial Association (OSMA), founded in 1908 with the help of Lydia Lord Davis and Alice Williams, widows of slain Taigu missionaries. The intent, wrote Emeritus Professor of History Ellsworth C. Carlson in his 1982 book, Oberlin in Asia: The First Hundred Years, 1882-1982, was "to provide special support for the continuation and development of the educational aspects of [the missionaries'] work."
Even before this, wrote Carlson, "people in Oberlin concluded there was another important asset which might be put to use in the development of schools in Shansi"--namely, Kung. With the help of Oberlin graduate Luella Miner, Kung and fellow Taigu student Qihao Fei came to the U.S.
The first glimpse the two had of America, said Carl Jacobson, executive director of OSMA, was an immigration-department lock-up on the end of a West Coast dock. Racist, anti-Asian sentiment had superseded modifications in the Geary Act of 1892, and Kung and Fei were quarantined for a month or so before it was decided to try Canada as an alternate point of U.S. entry. They waited in Toronto for nearly a year while a group of Oberlinians worked with a local Congressional representative and the immigration department, lobbying to gain permission for the two to enter the country and, finally, come to Oberlin.
Kung graduated from Oberlin in 1906. After a year at Yale for an M.A. in economics, he returned to China to continue the missionaries' educational work; Oberlin College president Henry Churchill King had asked Kung to become principal of the Ming Hsien ["Remember the Worthy"] school, established through the support of OSMA.
He eventually became one of pre-Communist China's wealthiest, most influential men. Marriage to one of the legendary Soong sisters, Ai-ling, endowed him with a powerful brother-in-law: Sun Yat-sen. Later, another Soong sister, Mei-ling, wed Chiang Kai-shek. Kung arranged the union himself.
Kung served as finance minister from 1933 until 1947, during Generalissimo Chiang's regime--the Guomindang-led Republic of China. Some cite Kung's governmental role as the source of his immense wealth.
Japanese invasion, World War II, and the rise of Mao Zedong marked the Chiang epoch with enough turbulence that by 1947, Chiang and his wife were in exile on the island of Taiwan (then called Formosa). Kung and his family emigrated to the U.S., where he oversaw the Bank of China on Wall Street. He died in New York 20 years later.
The erosion wrought by time and history, the magnitude of political activities, and the dramas of revolution and exile would overshadow Kung's work with the Ming Hsien school. But little could overshadow the influence of his teachers at the mission school in Taigu, or the tragic events that marked his fate. Oberlin would be a touchstone for Kung for the rest of his days. And someone wants that fact remembered.
--by Marci Janas '91
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