Y. C. James Yen and His Rural Construction Movement

By CCD contributor: Paul Wu , April 02, 2019 10:04 AM

Yan Yangchu

In the history of the Chinese church, the movement of Christians involved in rural construction which developed from the time of the Republic of China is worthy of attention. The movement has changed the outlook of Chinese rural regions by increasing the quality of life of the people there, and Y. C. James Yen or Yen Yangchu was one of the proactive leaders of this construction work.

In 1890, Yen was born into a traditional teachers' family in Bazhong County, Sichuan province. His father was an open-minded man, sending him to a school founded by Western missionaries to receive an education in the Western style.

At the age of 11, Yen was baptized and became a devout Christian and a spirit of equality and love began to take root in him. In 1913, he entered the University of Hong Kong, placing first among all the candidates taking the exam. In 1916, he went to Yale University for a bachelor's degree, studying politics and economics.

In 1918, Yen went to France to join in World War I as chief of battlefield services for The Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) of North America. While there, he witnessed hundreds of thousands of Chinese laborers leading not only a hard life but also being bullied by some Westerners. This was in addition to their foolishness, ignorance and many bad habits. His experiences on the European battlefield made him reflect on his people and even all the disadvantaged ethnic groups. It inspired him to think about ideas for civilian education and rural construction to improve and revitalize China and her people.

After the War, he did further studies Princeton University and in 1920 obtained his master's degree in the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. That same year Yen returned home and began a program of civilian education in the Department of Education of the Shanghai YMCA. From there his legendary life of dedication to civilian education and rural construction began.

The Chinese church at that time understood the vast needs of the rural regions in China and actively advocated for 'missionaries for agriculture'. The father of American agriculture Kenyon L. Butterfield in his book, 'Rural Church and Rural Issues' pointed out that the church is not only the manager of religious life but should also play an important role in rural construction. Rural pastors should not only know about healing souls but also be leaders of the local community and receive training in planting crops, farm management, and agriculture education.

Moreover, missionaries coming to China had developed their theories based on the situation in China. Being a 'missionary of agriculture' does not only improve the life of Chinese peasants but also results in a spiritual harvest.

During the time in which social evangelism was entering China, the country was going through much turmoil. Many scholars were seeking a way out of China. Social Evangelists gained respect from the church and society because of their strong emphasis on social care. For a while, the idea of Christianity saving China became popular. Yen Yangchu, Wu Yaozong, and Wu Leichuan were fully supportive of this idea and became famous figures in the church at the time. They urged believers to practice love in Chinese society, spread the spirit of Christ throughout the nation, build a Christian society, change the impoverished national situation, and ultimately revive China. It was highly appreciated by Dr. Sun Yat-sen, who pointed out 'If Chinese Christians from every place in China could build up a strong Christian society, it then would be the greatest contribution of Christianity to China.'

Under the influence of missionary for agriculture and social evangelism, Yen determined to start his ministry of rural construction. He proactively urged  'Ph.D.-trained men to go to the countryside and was the first such example by moving his family there. Many of his colleagues were overseas Ph.D. and masters degree holders. They gave up their positions as university principals, their professorships or promotion in the Government by moving to the country to explore ways for rural construction and national wealth to begin..

Yen claimed that the three "C's" had influenced his life: Christ, Confucius, and coolies. He said, 'I am a combination of Chinese culture, Western democracy, and science. I have a destiny in my mission and a vision of saving the world. I am a preacher and what I preach is an education for the ordinary person with the starting point being kindness and love. I am a revolutionary who wants to eliminate bad vices and old ways. However, I am not for using violence, murder, and arson. I believe 'Everyone can be a holy king.' To quote St Augustine 'Deep in everyone's soul is a holy matter.' The universal existence of human conscience is also what I am firmly convinced of.' 

To change a society is to change people first and that must be done via education. In 1923, Yen founded the well-known Association of Promoting Mass Education (APME). In 1926, he chose Ding County in Hebei province as an APME experiment and started a vigorous construction campaign. In the process of spreading mass education, a systematic framework was developed. Yen categorized Chinese rural issues into four categories: foolishness, poverty, feebleness, and selfishness. He raised 'educating the four' respectively by applying arts, livelihood, health, and citizenship. The ideas and the related works that were carried out included:

Foolishness: He applied arts education and mass scientific knowledge for the development of people's intelligence. He composed over 600 types of mass reading and edited a folk arts anthology of over 600,000 words for drum ballad, songs, proverbs and jokes. He collected folk paintings and music scores. Various types of artistic activities were also staged such as singing contests and rural drama societies.

Poverty: He conducted agricultural research on experimental farms for improving swine and chicken breeds. To peasants, he gave 'livelihood training', such as promoting improved crop varieties, preventing pests, applying scientific swine and chicken raising techniques, and keeping bees. Peasants were organized to set up a self-sufficiency society, co-op society, and co-op society union by widely doing the economic activities in crediting, purchasing, producing and transporting.

Feebleness: For health education, he established a rural medical system where health workers were allocated to each village, a joint health care clinic was allocated to several villages, and a health center was established in a county. By 1934, the whole county had completed the entire system and the annual cost to each peasant for the service was less than ten cents on a dollar. Remarkable achievements were made in controlling smallpox, treating trachoma and skin diseases.

Selfishness: Yen thought the focus for mass education should be literacy centered on citizenship education to form a public life mentality as well as team spirit. A variety of materials for civilian education were published, research on rural self-sufficiency was conducted, citizen events were instructed and family education was carried out.

Although the rural construction movement was regarded as "reformism" by some radicals, it was criticized for its effects of not being able to save the fate of rural bankruptcy. Yet the fundamentalists within the Chinese church criticized it as worthless and vein. It would have been better if the Gospel had been directly preached.

Yen once confessed the hardship and difficulties: there was a lack of talent and money. Facing internal and external troubles plus disasters and accidents, educational reform could hardly be respected. Although he encountered various kinds of criticism, Yen continued his work. His work was not in vain. According to the records of Ding County in the 1980s, because of APME, there had been no illiteracy in the population and smallpox had totally vanished. The improved swine breed, high-quality white poplar, and apples are now still well-known as a Hebei specialty and they generate wealth for the local farmers.

The vigorous rural construction movement in 1920/30s was interrupted by the Anti-Japanese War, but Yen did not quit by proactively participating in the War. In 1940, Chongqing Rural Construction College was established with Yen being the principal. In 1942, he founded a factory for the families of Anti-Japanese military personnel.

In 1943, the US remembrance committee of the 400th anniversary of Copernicus' death elected 'Great Revolutionaries who Contributed to the Modern World' and YAN was the only Chinese of the ten elected along with Dewey, the pragmatist philosopher, and Einstein, the physicist.

In the early 1950s, Yen promoted his career internationally and continued his work of APME and rural construction in Thailand, India, Columbia, Guatemala, and Ghana and was given the title of the father of international mass education. In 1987, then US President Reagan awarded Yen with the "End Hunger Lifetime Achievement Award" and wished him a happy 97th birthday. In 1985, he returned to China to visit Sichuan. He died in New York in 1990 at the age of 100.

- Translated by Charlie Li

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