The Lost Liberal Arts University of China
On a balmy weekend last fall, more than 600 elderly Chinese people, some leaning on canes or walkers, gathered in a Beijing hotel for one of the world’s most extraordinary college reunions.
Their school, St. John’s University in Shanghai, hasn’t existed for 60 years. Its last students graduated in 1952, the year the missionary-founded school was shuttered by China’s Communist leadership. The members of that class — the youngest at the reunion — are now in their early 80s.
They have been held together over the years by a powerful bond, one that comes from the unusual experience of having attended an independent Western liberal arts college in their native China. But more than that, they are also part of an influential and little-known legacy, a global network of alumni that has helped shape China’s growth and development over the past century — and whose meaning remains controversial in a nation still uneasy over Western influence inside its borders.
St. John’s never had the international name recognition of Harvard or Oxford, and at its peak it graduated about 300 people a year. But for the 73 years it existed, St. John’s — and a small group of other now-defunct colleges in China founded by missionaries — produced a group of graduates with a nearly unique set of credentials. Taught by both Western and Chinese professors, these students were culturally steeped in both the West and the East, fluent in English and Chinese, educated in the humanities as well as the sciences.
Its roster of alumni from across the world reads like a who’s-who of powerful links between China and the West. The retired statesman who led the peaceful transfer of Hong Kong to China, Lu Ping, was a member of St. John’s class of 1947. One of modern China’s first billionaires, as well as its vice president — often dubbed the “Red Capitalist” — was the late Rong Yi-ren, an alumnus. The former president of Taiwan, the late Yen Chia-kan, had a St. John’s diploma. Two of China’s top diplomats in the early 20th century, T.V. Soong and Wellington Koo, attended St. John’s. So did Raymond Chow, the Hong Kong movie producer who made martial arts star Bruce Lee a household name. World-renowned architect I.M. Pei went to the related St. John’s secondary school before coming to the United States.