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H. H. Kung: Strengthening China through Education and the “Oberlin Spirit”

by Carl Jacobson, Director (1981-2012) , Oberlin Shansi Memorial Association


Hsiang-hsi Kung was born into a comfortable Taigu banking and trading family in 1881.  He was fond of saying that he was a 75th generation lineal descendant of Confucius (romanization of the Chinese “Kung Fu-tzu.”)  When he was young he became attracted to the Oberlin missionaries.  The Oberlin mission clinic helped him overcome a chronic medical problem. Despite family opposition his father and grandfather encouraged him to enter the mission school because they had experience with the world outside through their petroleum business.

After graduating in Taigu he went to the North China Union College in Tungchow, near Beijing. There he excelled in math, physics and chemistry.  In the summer of 1900 he returned to Taigu as news of the Boxer Uprising began arriving.  He attempted to intercede on behalf of the mission.  Fearing that he would be harmed, his family detained him in the house.  After the killing was over, Kung carried the missionaries’ last letters to Beijing sewn between layers of the soles of his cloth shoes.

Back in Taigu, Kung helped collect the remains of the dead, distribute famine relief funds, restore mission property and work out the local details of the Boxer indemnity.  He arranged to acquire an extensive piece of property belonging to a wealthy family that had supported the Uprising.  “The Flower Garden” served as a cemetery for the foreign and Chinese Christian dead.  It would become the site of the Ming Hsien schools as well.

In the summer of 1901, Luella Miner OC 1884, a missionary educator in Tungchow, arranged for Kung and a teacher from Fenchow, Ch’i-hao Fei, to travel to Oberlin for further study.  The first glimpse the two would have of America would be an immigration department lock-up on the end of a San Francisco dock.  Anti-Asian sentiment had superseded modifications in the Geary Act of 1892, and Kung and Fei were imprisoned for weeks. Released on bonds posted by the Chinese Consul-General they were to remain in San Francisco until their papers could be cleared. It would be a year before they obtained permission to come to Oberlin.  On their way east the railway line passed into Canada and, at the point where they re-entered the US, they were detained again.  It took earnest intervention by Congressmen from Ohio to allow them to re-enter the US and it was not before January 1903 that they reached Oberlin.

Kung and Fei graduated from Oberlin in 1906 and then went to Yale, completing MAs in economics in 1907. At the urging of Oberlin’s President Henry Churchill King, Kung returned to China and became Principal of what would be called Ming Hsien.  Kung had a vision of building an Oberlin College in China, one that could strengthen China’s economy and the character of her people.  In an early graduation address Kung spoke on “The Guiding Compass for a Young Man’s Success.”  He said, “This compass is composed of four elements:  careful observation, scientific thinking, prayerful decision, and forceful action.”  As for the new trends in thought in China of the day he warned, “There is much that is most welcome and constructive, but all the ideas propounded should be subjected to the most careful scrutiny.  Some brilliant minds are occasionally led astray because they either purposely or unintentionally neglect important data.  Hence the special need today for a broad, all around, training.”

He built the boys’ school in the Flower Garden and re-built the girls’ school in the south suburb with the missionary houses and the Taigu Hospital. Starting with three-dozen students, he hired new teachers and created facilities for a more serious educational enterprise.  He married Han Yu-mei, a North China Union College graduate, and began living on the campus, teaching and directing the development of the school. At the same time he was in contact with other progressive Chinese in the area who were eager to see major changes. With the abolition of the ancient imperial civil service examination system an interest in “western studies” had spread to Shanxi.  Because he was a natural leader, had elite status and a progressive point of view, Kung served as captain of the local militia in the 1911 Revolution that overthrew the imperial government.  His political influence on the local scene grew apace and, at the same time, he was establishing a national reputation through involvement with the YMCA. His young wife died of tuberculosis in August, 1913.

That fall he set out for Tokyo to be the YMCA General Secretary and serve the Chinese émigré and student population.  In Tokyo he met Soong Ai-ling, the English language secretary to Sun Yat-sen and married her. After their marriage, Ai-ling’s sister Ch’ing-ling followed her as the secretary to Sun.   Ch’ing-ling herself soon married Sun. In China of the time there could be no more powerful brother-in-law than Sun Yat-sen. Later, Kung arranged the marriage of the third Soong sister, Mei-ling, to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.

These strategic alliances brought Kung into the center of national politics. He eventually became one of pre-Communist China's wealthiest, most influential men.  As a result Kung was increasingly away from Taigu.  However, whether he was in Shanghai, Nanjing or later Chungking, he remained deeply concerned about Ming Hsien.  After resigning as Principal he remained the chair of the Ming Hsien Board of Management.  Every year he personally provided large sums to tide the school over.  Many referred to him as “Daddy Kung,” a beneficent great man.  In 1926 Kung was invited to Oberlin to receive an honorary doctorate.

Throughout Kung remained steadfast in his vision of an Oberlin in China and always acted positively toward that end.  As Ming Hsien encountered continuing difficulties, in part because of its relatively isolated location, there was a growing feeling among people associated with the Oberlin project that it would be impossible to continue alone.  Kung resisted a collaborative college effort with other missions in Taiyuan.

His first important position in the Government of the Republic of China was minister of industry and commerce (1928–31).  In 1931 he joined the central executive committee of the Kuomintang. He was Minister of Finance (1933–44) and Governor of the Bank of China (1933–45). He was concurrently the Vice President of the Executive Yuan. He served as Premier of the Republic of China from January 1938 to November 1939.  In these highest positions of government and finance he made a very strong and mixed impression on the development of China during the extremely trying times of the Japanese Invasion, World War II and the Civil War between the Nationalists and the Communists.

On the positive side, he sought to rationalize and modernize China’s monetary, financial and fiscal systems. He developed a comprehensive program designed to increase the National Government’s financial control of the modern sector of the economy.  At the same time he dealt with the problems created by the complexities of the local tax systems, ultimately abolishing them all.  He brought the banks of China under more central control and the Central Bank became a central reserve bank. He took Chinese money off the silver standard and tied the Chinese economy to the international monetary system allowing it to withstand the first years of the Japanese invasion.

On the negative side, many cite Kung's governmental role as the source of his immense wealth.  He is criticized as the patron of widespread corruption among government officials and his family.  He left the Ministry of Finance in 1944 and the Central Bank of China in 1945.

By 1947, Chiang K’ai-shek and his government were in exile on the island of Taiwan.  Kung and his family emigrated to the U.S., where he oversaw the Bank of China on Wall Street. He was a primary activist in the China Lobby until his death in 1967.

In 1908 the Oberlin Shansi Memorial Association (OSMA) was founded to support the educational efforts at the Ming Hsien School.  Oberlin College President Henry Churchill King was chair and Lydia Lord Davis and Alice Moon Williams, widows of Oberlin Band missionaries, provided enthusiastic support. 

Recently, an anonymous gift of $6 million was given to Oberlin College in his honor.  The gift was used in the design and construction of an outstanding science facility, an entirely appropriate memorial to H. H. Kung whose idealism was bound up with scientific rationalism and the “Oberlin Spirit.”

Kung was a man of rare talent and energy.  He was fluent in Chinese and English and could serve as an intermediary and a leader because he understood both cultures profoundly.  Most remarkable was that he had the trust of both Chinese and Americans.  He had a vision of building an Oberlin in China that could help withstand the intense foreign pressures on every side and develop China into a modern power.  The fact that Oberlin today retains such a close connection with China is in no small measure because of his energy and commitment.