Charles Tenney’s Remnants of a Foreign Life in China

Author Crossley, Pamela Kyle

Persistent Identifier
Among general readers Charles Daniel Tenney has been relatively obscure among the Americans of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For one thing Tenney is overshadowed by two approximate contemporaries with the same name —Charles Henry Tenney (1842-1919), also from New Hampshire, who became a giant of banking and finance, and Charles Dewey Tenney (1902-1983), a philosopher with a long career as an administrator and instructor, and the author of The Discovery of Discovery (first printed in 1968). Charles Dewey Tenney was himself the son of a Charles Tenney (first president of Gooding College in Idaho). Clearly it was hard for Charles Tenneys to get themselves in edgewise in early twentieth century America. Not surprisingly, our Charles Tenney not only did not occupy the forefront of Charles Tenneys in his own time, but even today researchers sometimes confuse him with one or another Charles Tenney, producing amalgamated and fictitious biographical details. Thus Marcia Graham Synnott in her stimulating critical history of American universities imagined our Charles Tenney to be “a Harvard graduate”[1]. Perhaps she found a Charles Tenney who was a Harvard graduate in a way—Charles Dewey Tenney did some graduate work with Alfred North Whitehead at Harvard— but that was not our Charles Tenney, who was a proud graduate of Dartmouth (and, as we explore below, Oberlin). And that brings us to the story told in the Tenney Papers, which today reside overwhelmingly at Dartmouth.
Professor Niu’s essay in this volume provides a full account of Tenney’s life, education, work and views of China. In retrospect we see a seminal figure in Sino - American relations, in China ’ s modernization and in understanding the hopes and fears of political leaders of the early twentieth century. It may be, as Professor Niu notes, that he was one of the hundred most influential men, worldwide, of his generation. He was certainly in close proximity to men such as Li Hongzhang and Theodore Roosevelt who were at the very top of the list of influential men of the time, and he was on the frontlines of struggles for educational modernization and diplomatic flexibility —two great themes both of China’ s transition from empire to Republic, and of the global transition from toward full recognition of the modern identities of East Asian nations. For these reasons if for no others, we would be fully justified in recovering and sharing these surviving fragments of Tenney’s writings.
When Tenney graduated from Dartmouth in 1878, “going to China as a missionary” was a common post-graduation project. The rising social and political engagement of some Protestant sects in North America and Britain in the later nineteenth century helped fuel financial support for missionary activities in many parts of the world. In China, the conditions created by the Unequal Treaty System made missionary activity legal and in most areas safeꎻ and where it was unsafe the culture of the time called upon young male college graduates to prove their courage and their religious faith by walking proudly into danger. As Professor Niu points out, Tenney was a reluctant recruit to preaching abroad. He seems to have disliked convention, and group activity, and it is perhaps relevant that he was not very religious. He postponed a decision on his life work by extending his study at Dartmouth into literature and mathematics, but in 1878 his intention to marry seems to have forced him to consider development of a full-time career. Mission work still presented a viable way to make a living, and so he entered a formal program for theological study at Oberlin, completed it in 1882, and left with his wife for Shanxi province.
Those of us seeing Tenney as a Dartmouth man sometimes gloss over his study at Oberlin, but this is a mistake.[2] It was while Tenney was a student at Oberlin that this distinguished Ohio college joined the wave of Protestant missions in North China. Oberlin’s leading role in training missionaries was no doubt due to its graduate theological seminary —an unusual feature in a liberal arts college. Oberlin did not assign its own graduates to their foreign work, but merely supported their applications to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.[3] The ABCFM had been created in 1810 for graduates of Williams College who were swept up in the religious passions of the “Second Great Awakening” in American Protestantism. Their first frontiers lay in the American West, in the Pacific Islands, India, Turkey and Africa. East Asia and China were added after 1830, when English and Dutch Protestants had already created a small infrastructure for missionary work and residence. By the middle nineteenth century —when Oberlin College and its Theological Seminary were founded— the ABCFM was known for its progressive activity in its mission lands. In addition to preaching Protestant beliefs, the missionaries (who included a good number of women) also worked for the protection of the legal rights of Native American communities, for the education of women everywhere, for the eradication of illiteracy and opium addiction in China, and for the rights of the native majority in South Africa and for abolition of slavery in the United States.[4] In many ways, the development of Oberlin —now one of the world’s leading liberal arts colleges— was shaped by the involvement of its graduates in these social and political reform programs, all of which were made possible under the general rubric of “missionary”.
In 1881 Oberlin gained recognition by ABCFM of a special program to send young missionaries to Shanxi province, and twelve graduates sailed for China under the leadership of their chairman, Martin Luther Stimson. They are today remembered as the “Oberlin Band”[5].The young people set up two village missions south of Taiyuan, but their efforts were hampered by deep inexperience. They did not speak Chinese and were dependent upon hired help for the most basic necessities. In the two decades of the Band’s residence in Shanxi, a third of the members —and half the children born to them— died of disease. In the same period of time, they reported converting only 76 Chinese, even though within a few years they were running flourishing separate schools for boys and girls and a popular medical clinic. It was this group whom Tenney and his wife joined in 1882. Immediately Tenney and Stimson began a dispute about the best way to proceed. Stimson, in what was now an Oberlin tradition, insisted that preaching should be directed at the greatest mass of people —man and women, rich and poor, educated and illiterate. Tenney argued that the only way to make progress was to follow the model of the earliest missionaries in China —convert the elites, and there rest will follow. Neither man won the argument, and by 1884 both had left Shanxi.
We have a glimpse here of the professional Tenney would become. He left Shanxi determined to stay in China, and to live as closely as he could to the way the Chinese lived —not to be an outside freak preaching bizarre beliefs at everyone in sight. But he was convinced, as most of the Oberlin Band had been, that education was the real core of the contribution that foreigners could make in China, but unlike the Band he believed that the place to start was a place where education was already valued and an integral part of local life. A few earlier Protestants had already established schools in China, and the successful ones had stayed close, socially and in some of their methods, to the traditional Confucian academies of China.[6] Tenney wanted to try something on his own, and cannily chose Tianjin as his destination, and started his own school, with his steady focus on the elites.
Tianjin was the administrative and industrial center of the Northern, or Beiyang, Intendancy. It was Li Hongzhang’s center of operations, and the seat of the actual government of China. The Qing empire had achieved suppression of the Taiping Kingdom of Heavenly Peace by allowing power and finance to devolve to several local centers, and from the time of Zeng Guofan the Beiyang Intendancy had emerged as decisively the most influential. From it radiated new policies for industrial and military transformation, communications infrastructure, and professional military education.[7] The Qing court, in the name of the Guangxu emperor, legitimated the initiatives of Zeng and later of Li Hongzhang. Particularly after the naval defeats of Qing by France in 1884, the court itself began to function mainly as the legitimating agent of the Beiyang Intendancy. Tenney knew that the road to influence did not run to Beijing, but to Tianjin.
Tenney’s success in this enterprise brought him to the attention of Li Hongzhang, and an extremely productive partnership was begun. Tenney was influential in convincing Li that the same attention given professional military education should be applied to all other areas of education, including the sciences generally, history, and literature. Tenney was trained in mathematics himself and was an effective teacher, but as an administrator, even of a rapidly growing educational system endorsed by Li, he was equally adept. He is remarkable in this period for his functions as an official of the Beiyang Intendancy, and he was as thorough in that role as Robert Hart or Anson Burlingame had been in their roles as Qing officials. But with Tenney there was a difference. He was in no doubt that Li Hongzhang was his superior. Unlike Hart or Burlingame, both of whom saw themselves as independent agents in service to the Qing empire, Tenney worked in a recognizably professionalized system in Tianjin, and saw himself as the subordinate of a talented, educated, thoroughly impressive man who, to Tenney, represented not the Qing empire but the Chinese nation that would emerge from it. His character sketches of Li and his comments on his life with Li are invaluable notes of what history was like as it happened.
One of the reasons that Tenney may be regarded as one of the most significant figures of his generation is that his expectations at the very end of the nineteenth century, on the eve of the Boxer Rebellion, were so strikingly international and globalized. He fully expected to live out his working life as an official of the Beiyang Intendancy —or the modern Chinese government he hoped would emerge from it— and to live out his natural life in China.[8] In 1895 he accepted Sheng Xuanhuai’s invitation to become the first president of Beiyang University —the first comprehensive, American-style university in China, and direct ancestor of today’ s Tianjin University— and saw it as an pillar of the modern professions in China. He hoped his children would live their lives in China, as Chinese (one daughter did). He saw his trajectory as the fulfillment of a modern life —transforming from advocacy on behalf of a community to becoming a member of it. Like many Americans who had come to China, or grown up in China, during the Guangxu era, Tenney was shocked and disgusted by the Boxer Uprising. But perhaps more personal to him, he was heartbroken. By the end of August, 1900, the Oberlin Band who were living in Shanxi with their children had all been killed. Local residents buried their bodies after the Boxer mobs departed; a memorial arch to the missionaries stands today on the Oberlin campus. For Tenney, it was a turning point. Before the murders Tenney had advised foreign governments to show forbearance toward the Qing government and the Chinese public. But after the murders he argued for immediate, forceful intervention and a strict, more demanding posture toward the Qing.
But Tenney did not leave China, as many foreigners did after 1900. He served as head of the provisional occupation government in Tianjin from 1900 to 1902 (a period during which his mentor Li Hongzhang died), kept Beiyang University open and vigorously protected its campus against proposed incursions by the German military. The severe requirements of the American and British governments that the Qing government pursue constitutionalism and widespread reforms after 1902 show the stamp of Tenney’s input. But we also see that after 1902 he applied himself even more energetically to China’s educational programs. In 1906 he resigned his university presidency to personally facilitate the attendance of Chinese students at Harvard summer school, a program he intended as a model for extending the rapidity and reach of new university education in China. Only in 1908 did he leave the employ of the Beiyang Intendancy, and that was to move to Beijing as representative of the American government. In 1912 he moved to Beijing in the same capacity, though he later moved his offices back to Beijing. Though Tenney continued his work in China as he had before the Boxer Uprising, he knew that he did so as a foreigner, with a foreign destiny. When he retired from his positions in 1920, he returned to the United States and died there in 1930.
Today it is common among students to look skeptically —or perhaps even contemptuously— at Li Hongzhang, and at foreigners in China hoping to bring the country into the twentieth century with reform modeled on their own societies, instead of revolution. Tenney is an example of foreigner working in such a capacity but with a subtle sense that merely imposing foreign methods and institutions would never work. He always intended to learn from his Chinese environment which reforms were wanted or needed, and how they could be implemented. He never saw the Chinese as the objects of his work, he saw himself as increasingly Chinese, and thus he himself was a product of his work in China. Through his eyes, we see the challenges and the limited possibilities facing Li Hongzhang. What is outstanding to the historian is not that these men failed, but the surprising degree to which they succeeded, and how close they came to providing us a different history —in Tenney’s case, not only for China, but for himself.
1. The Half - Opened Door: Discrimination and Admissions at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, 1900 - 1970. Transaction Publishers, 2010. p.55. 2. There are surviving Tenney letters at Oberlin and no Tenney research is complete without consulting them. See the archival site at “Oberlin Shansi Memorial Association”, 3. The archives are largely at Houghton Library, Harvard. see “American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions archives, 1810 - 1961: Guide”, 4. On the general history of reformist missionaries see Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christian Missions in China, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (The Macmillan Company,1929); G. H. Choa, “Heal the Sick” Was Their Motto: The Protestant Medical Missionaries in China (Chinese University Press, 1990); Kathleen L. Lodwick, Crusaders against Opium: Protestant Missionaries in China, 1874-1917 (University Press of Kentucky, 1995). 5. The summarized history and archives are available at 6. Sources for the study of educators associated with the programs are found at “The American Context of China’s Christian Colleges and Schools”, 7. For further discussion, see “The Beiyang Ascendancy”, in Pamela Kyle Crossley. The Wobbling Pivot: China since 1800. Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. pp.133-154. 8. The expectation was common among the population of missionary children born in China, who unlike Tenney’s acquired Chinese nativism merely expected to stay where they had been. See also Lian Xi. The Conversion of Missionaries: Liberalism in American Protestant Missions in China, 1907-1932. Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.