Zeng Laishun - The first Chinese to enroll at an American College

From the Hong 曾 Family's American Diaspora Files:

ZENG Laishun 曾來順 was the first Chinese to attend an American college. Laishun attended Bloomfield Academy, a boy's boarding school in New Jersey for three years. He then enrolled at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York in 1846. The women from the First Presbyterian Church in Utica, NY, were Laishun's sole source of support and refused to extend his funding beyond their initial two-year agreement. In May 1848, Laishun left New York and set sail for Hong Kong.

According to historian Edward J.M. Rhoads, “he was a pioneer in Western studies, an early and lifelong convert to Christianity, one of the first Chinese in the United States, a leading second-echelon figure in China’s self-strengthening movement, and, during his CEM [Chinese Educational Mission] days in the United States, a diplomatic representative of the Qing government as well as an explicator of things Chinese to the American public.”

The pioneering achievements of Zeng Laishun, America's first Chinese college student, have often been overshadowed by Yung Wing 容閎 (November 17, 1928 - April 21, 1912), who followed Laishun's footsteps by four years and is forever remembered as the first Chinese student to graduate from an American university, Yale College in 1854.

Zeng Laisun late in his career. From the Smithsonian Institution, United States National Museum,
Department of Anthropology, Division of Ethnology.

The Smithsonian misidentifies this photo as “Portrait of Li Hung Chang, Viceroy of Chilhli in Costume with Fur Cost n.d.” Researchers have asserted that the photo is of Zeng Laisun and not the Viceroy. Moreover, the photo is signed “Tseng Laisun” (which is the way Zeng spelled his name in his later years). The Smithsonian has declined to correct its catalog.

According to Edward J. M. Rhoads, in his book, Stepping Forth into the World: The Chinese Educational Mission the the United States, 1872-81, "I discovered that his Chinese name was Zeng Laishun, that he had come to the United States and enrolled in an American college four years earlier than Yung Wing (though he did not graduate), that he was the Chinese Educational Mission’s translator (not its commissioner), and that two of his sons were among the one hundred and twenty students of the [Chinese Educational] mission.”


The Laishun Family Story

According to Stacy Bieler, "Zeng Laishun was born in Singapore around 1826 to a Chaozhou Chinese father from eastern Guangdong province and a Malay mother. After both parents died when he was young, he came to the attention of Joseph Travelli (a missionary with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions or  ABCFM), who enrolled him in a Chinese day school that had been established in 1835. He was in the first class of an American Board boarding school that stressed English language education."

In the 1840's, Zeng Laishun joined four other Chinese boys who were taken to study in America by the missionaries for the ABCFM. At Hamilton, Zeng studied Greek with Professor Edward North, was an active member of the Glee Club, and taught Sunday school at a local presbyterian church. When he left Hamilton College in 1848, Laishun was invited to join the ABCFM mission in Canton as a “permanent native assistant.” However, he first had learn Cantonese, which he studied over then next two years.

In August 1850, Laishun married Ruth Ati Laishun (1825-1917). Ruth had attended an English missionary school in the Dutch East Indies and later taught at another missionary school in Ningbo. They had six children, three daughters (Annie, Amy, and Lena) and three sons (Elijah, Spencer, and Willie), who they all taught to speak English. In fact, Laishun was more comfortable speaking English, which he called "our family tongue."

In 1853, he left the mission and became a manager for two Western firms in Shanghai, while Ruth operated a day school for girls in E.C. Bridgman’s Shanghai mission. Zeng was later hired to teach at the Fuzhou Navy Yard School where he joined the English Division and interpreted for its head, James Caroll.

After spending more than five years at the Fuzhou Navy Yard School, Laishun, along with his two older sons—Elijah (Zeng Pu曾溥) and Spencer (Zeng Dugong 曾篤恭), was appointed to teach English at the CEM preparatory school in Shanghai.

The Chinese government had created the Chinese Educational Mission (CEM) in 1872 at the urging of Yung Wing. After gradutating from Yale, Yung Wing returned to imperial China to work with western missionaries as an interpreter. According to Doug Chan, "As a proponent of China’s modernization, he persuaded the Qing Dynasty government to send young Chinese to the United States to study science and engineering. And, in 1872, the Qing government sent 120 boys to live and study in New England for extended periods."

According to Rhoads, “[t]he two Zeng brothers, as a result, knew enough English to serve as their father’s teaching assistants at the CEM school. Zeng Dugong was subsequently chosen as a member of the first detachment, but Zeng Pu was not, perhaps because of his advanced age (Zeng Pu would have been nineteen [years] old). Nevertheless, Zeng Pu, along with the rest of the Zeng family, accompanied the first detachment to the United States in 1872, and a year later, despite his age, he too joined the CEM as a member of the second detachment.”

Laishun and Ruth brought their entire family to Springfield, MA, from which he helped to oversee the CEM program and the placement of students.

104. Spencer Laisun” [a.k.a. Zeng Dugong and seen at right] c. 1872.
Photograph by Thomas Houseworth & Co., (from the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, New York Public Library).

The photograph of Spencer Laisun and his older brother seen at left, Elijah Laisun, was probably taken after their arrival in San Francisco as members of one of the several delegations of students comprising the Chinese Educational Mission to the US from 1872 -1881. Each of the students posed for portraits at photography studios in San Francisco before traveling on via the new transcontinental railroad to schools in New England.

Rhoads wrote, “Zeng Laishun’s official position in the CEM was a translator; however, he was the third-ranking member and often took upon the role of a Chinese ambassador. In March of 1873, Zeng and his family were invited to attend President Ulysses S. Grant’s inaugural and the reception at the White House. Zeng also assisted in the successful end of over 60,000 to 70,000 Chinese involuntary contract workers trafficked in Spain in the 1870s.”

Doug Chan concludes the family's saga in America writing:

"Unfortunately, the CEM was short-lived. The Qing government grew concerned about the Americanization of the boys, and the US government refused in 1878 (contrary to the Burlingame Treaty) to allow CEM students to attend the Military Academy at West Point and the Naval Academy at Annapolis. Hence, one of the key objectives for the students – the acquisition of western military expertise – could not be achieved. In 1881, the Chinese government ended the CEM. 
"With the end of the CEM, the Zeng family re-migrated back to China. Zeng Laishun would spend the rest of his life in Tianjin as the personal secretary to Viceroy Li Hung Chang. The North-China Herald reported that Zeng “assisted at nearly every important transaction with foreign powers with which the Viceroy Li has been concerned.
"His older son, Elijah, graduated Yale with an engineering degree and is remembered as China’s first scientific engineer. Spencer dropped out of Yale and became a journalist. He was said to be “one of the first to forecast the gravity of the Boxer rebellion.” Zeng’s two daughters, Annie and Lena, both married Westerners. Annie founded the Chinese Red Cross and was a crusader against foot-binding practice in China. She married a Danish ship captain. Lena married a “land agent and broker” based in Shanghai."

Zeng Laishun passed away at age sixty-nine in 1895.

Sources and Further Reading:

Special thanks to Douglas Chan who brought Spencer Laishun and his family to my attention in his excellent post on "The Chinese Educational Mission Boys cited below."

Bieler, Stacy. Zeng Laishun: Chinese evangelist, translator, businessman, and educator. Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity. Accessed January 15, 2022. http://bdcconline.net/en/stories/zeng-laishun.

Chan, Douglas. “The Chinese Educational Mission Boys” Through a Chinese American Lens: 19 January 2022. https://demospectator.tumblr.com/post/.../104-spencer-laisun-aka-zeng-dugong.

Chinese American Heroes. “First Chinese American College Graduate Yung Wing 1828-1912.” Accessed January 15, 2022. http://chineseamericanheroes.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Yung-Wing-1.pdf.

Lin, Crystal. "Hamilton's First Foreign Student." Asians at Hamilton: 2021, Accessed January 15, 2022. https://hamiltoncs.org/asians-hamilton/history/crystals-page/.

Rhoads, Edward J. M.. “In the Shadow of Yung Wing: Zeng Laishun and the Chinese Educational Mission to the United States.” Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 74, No. 1, 19-58.

Rhoads, Edward J. M.. Stepping Forth Into the World: The Chinese Educational Mission to the United States, 1872-81. Hong Kong, Hong Kong University Press, 2011.

 NOTE: I do not have any known relationship to Tseng Laishun other than having the same Chinese surname 曾 and both having roots in Guangdong, China.

Tseng Laishun's father was Chaozhou Chinese, who have long shared parts of Eastern Guangdong with the Cantonese and Hakka and who have maintain their own language and culture.

My family are Hoisan Chinese who speak a dialect in the Yue Chinese family and have an identity which also distinguishes them from Cantonese people. If fact, most standard Cantonese speakers are only able to understand 30% of Hoisanese.

Also, see why we use the name "Hong" instead of Tsang, Tseng, or Zeng.


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