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Master of Arts (M.A.)

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Samuel Wells Williams, Thomas Francis Wade, Harvard, Yale, Yü yen tzŭ êrh chi, Chinese language education in America


The history of the introduction of the Chinese language and culture into the American higher education system is a relatively unexplored research topic to date. Yale and Harvard were the first two universities to offer the study of Chinese during a brief period between the late 1870s to early 1880s. Samuel Wells Williams (衛三畏, 1812-1884), a renowned American missionary and diplomat, and Sir Thomas Francis Wade (威妥瑪, 1818-1895), a British diplomat and sinologist, influenced the first American forays into Chinese studies at Yale and Harvard, respectively. Williams and Wade both traveled to China at a time when the study of Chinese by foreigners in China faced severe challenges. Despite this, the two sinologists diligently applied themselves to better understand Chinese and design learning materials to help others do the same.

In 1876, Yale established a Chinese Language and Culture Program with Williams as its first chair. Shortly thereafter in 1879, Harvard began its Chinese Language Elective Scheme that was intended to be based on Wade’s language curriculum, titled, Yü yen tzŭ êrh chi (语言自迩集) , also known as The Colloquial Series. At the time, foreigners in China regarded Wade’s textbook as the most comprehensive resource to learn Peking Mandarin. To teach Wade’s curriculum, Harvard hired the nation’s first native Chinese instructor, named Ko Kun Hua (戈鲲化, 1838-1882).

Various primary and secondary sources in both Chinese and English reveal greater detail on the work of Williams, Wade and Ko, as well as the programs offered at Yale and Harvard. By examining these sources, this thesis outlines the history of when and why Americans first began to learn Chinese in college. It evaluates the views of the first pioneers on how best to learn Chinese, and the details behind the establishment of the first American university-level programs. By examining how the views of Williams and Wade shaped the programs at Yale and Harvard, respectively, this thesis aims to evaluate the contributions of these pioneering efforts to the advancement of Chinese language education in America.


First Advisor

Zhongwei Shen

Second Advisor

Zhijun Wang