Y.C. James Yen (Chinese: 晏阳初; Yan Yangchu; 1893 - 1990), known to his many English speaking friends as "Jimmy," was a Chinese educator and organizer who devoted his life to the education of the common people in China and later in the Philippines. Educated in Christian missionary schools and then at Yale, Yen began to concern himself with the plight of common Chinese villagers while working with Chinese Labor Corps in France at the end of World War I. Yen developed a program of Rural Reconstruction aimed at combating the four interrelated problems of village life: Poverty, disease, ignorance, and misgovernment. Yen developed techniques for rural development that did not depend on central government control, violent revolution, or large infusions of foreign money.
In 1926, the Mass Education Movement (MEM), founded by Yen and his colleagues, set up a village campaign in Ding Xian (Ting Hsien), using People’s Schools to coordinate innovations ranging from breeding hybrid pigs and economic cooperatives to village drama and Village Health Workers. In 1948, he persuaded the United States Congress to fund an independent Sino-American Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction. In the summer of 1952, Yen organized the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement, which grew into the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction (IIRR). Dr. Yen’s integrated and people-centered development strategy has now been widely adopted throughout the developing world.
Yan Yangchu was born in 1893, in Bazhong, a small town in northern Sichuan province. After Yan's father, a scholar, poet, and writer, accepted a job teaching Chinese to missionaries at the local China Inland Mission (C.I.M.) station, the missionaries urged him to send his son to a C.I.M. school. Yan met the head master, Rev. William B. Aldis, who inspired him for the rest of his life. He was baptized in 1904. Calling himself a "follower of Christ" (jidu tu), Yan found in Christianity the love and power to serve China. Rev. Aldis encouraged Yan to attend a middle school in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan. Another C.I.M. missionary encouraged him to attend Hong Kong University, where he became friends with Fletcher Brockman, the national secretary of the Y.M.C.A. in China from 1898-1915.
After studying from 1916 to 1918, Yan received his Bachelor’s Degree from Yale University, where he was a member of Beta Theta Pi Fraternity. After graduation, he went to France to join the work of the International YMCA with the Chinese Labor Corps in France. The Chinese labor corps consisted of 20,000 illiterate workers who had been sent to support the Allies at the end of World War I by digging trenches. While writing letters for them by day and translating news for them at night, he developed a basic Chinese vocabulary of about 1,300 characters. About this experience, Yen observed, “I began to realize that what these humble, common people of my country lacked was not brains, for God has given that to them, but opportunity…They had potential powers waiting for development, waiting for release.” For the first time in his “ignorant intellectual life,” Yen recognized the value of the common people of his own country. To compensate for their lack of education, Yen wrote a widely copied literacy primer which used 1,000 basic Chinese characters.
After the war, he returned to the United States and studied history and politics at Princeton University, serving as President of the Chinese Students Christian Association and graduating with a Masters in 1920. In 1921, Yen returned to China to head a national mass literacy campaign under the Chinese National YMCA. There, he successfully lobbied to become head of the Department of Popular Education, a new autonomous department in the Y.M.C.A. in Shanghai. He reduced the Chinese vocabulary of forty thousand characters to the 1,300 most commonly used characters, and published four readers, which sold for a total of twelve cents.
In 1923, Yen and leading intellectuals such as Liang Qichao, Hu Shi, and Tao Xingzhi formed the National Association of Mass Education Movements (MEM). The MEM organized campaigns across the country which coordinated volunteer teachers and local leaders to offer classes in any available location, in order to attract students who could not pay high tuition. Among the volunteer teachers was Mao Zedong. These campaigns attracted more than five million students and served as a model for even more widespread schools.
On September 3, 1921, Yan married Alice Huie, the second daughter of Pastor Huie Kin, who had graduated with a degree in physical education from Columbia's Teachers College. They had three sons and two daughters.
Yen later recalled that at this time he regarded himself not as a "Christian," which implied membership in a church, but as a "follower of Christ," implying a direct relation with Jesus. He criticized most missionaries for not being in touch with the realities of China, but enthusiastically welcomed the support of those Chinese and foreign Christian organizations which addressed the problems of the villages.
In 1926, the MEM set up a village campaign in Ding Xian (Ting Hsien), a county some 200 miles south of Beijing. The Ting Hsien (Ding Xian) Experiment was intended to address the four interrelated problems of village life, poverty, disease, ignorance, and misgovernment. The campaign used People’s Schools to coordinate innovations ranging from breeding hybrid pigs and economic cooperatives to village drama and Village Health Workers. Yan recruited American-trained Chinese graduates to live in Dingxian, offering only a small salary
Yen joined Liang Shuming and other independent reformers to form a National Rural Reconstruction Movement which included several hundred local and national organizations. The Rural Reconstruction Movement aimed to create a new countryside as the basis for a new Chinese nation. The work at Ding Xian attracted nationwide attention and developed many new techniques for rural development which did not depend on central government control, violent revolution, or large infusions of foreign money. When the war broke out with Japan in 1937, Dingxian was lost within a few months. The Japanese invasion drove MEM operations first to Hunan, then to Sichuan. When China's agricultural heartland in Hunan came under threat, the provincial government invited Yan to organize a resistance movement, but Yen spent much of the war in Washington, D.C..
After 1945, Yen found himself increasingly at odds with the Nationalist government’s military preoccupation. In 1947, he came to the United States to promote the establishment of a rural reconstruction commission. In 1948, he persuaded the United States Congress to fund an independent Sino-American Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction, of which he became one of the Commissioners. The "Jimmy Yen provision" was ten percent of the U.S. 1948 aid package to China. The Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction (JCRR) was a very effective rural program in China before 1949, though it lasted only a little over one year, spent only four million dollars of its total allotment (US$ 27.5 million), and supported only a small number of workers.
In December of 1949, Yan, his wife, and two daughters went to New York City. There, in the summer of 1952, Yan organized the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement, which grew into the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction (IIRR) in 1960. Yan spent the next thirty years in Silang, Cavite in the Phillipines encouraging rural reconstruction in the Philippines, Africa, Central America, and Southeast Asia.
In 1985, during a time of reform in China, Yan was invited to visit Beijing. During a three-day stay at Dingxian, he discovered that his house, where his life work had begun and where he and his wife had brought up their five children, had been converted into a museum with an exhibition of his work in China and around the world. On a second visit two years later, he was asked to serve as honorary president of the Western Returned Students' Association.
After stepping down from the chair of IIRR in 1988, he settled in New York City. Two years later, Yan died in Manhattan, at the age of ninety-seven. His ashes are interred in the Memorial Garden in the IIRR World Center in Silang, with those of his wife.
Yan received much recognition during his lifetime. In 1929, on the 50th anniversary of St. John's University in Shanghai, Yan was awarded an honorary degree. Syracuse University, University of Maine, Temple University, and University of Louisville also bestowed honorary degrees on him. At Carnegie Hall in New York City, in May 1943, Yan received a Copernican award with nine other "modern revolutionaries" including Albert Einstein, Orville Wright, Walt Disney, Henry Ford, and John Dewey.
In the 1990s, the Central Educational Science Institute in Beijing established the Association of James Yen and published more than ten volumes on Yan's thoughts and his approach to rural reconstruction and development. In 2001, the China Central TV station broadcast a nationwide program on Yan in its series of outstanding Chinese leaders of the twentieth century.
Yen's charismatic speaking style and forceful personality made him attractive to many groups in China as well as many foreign friends. Author Pearl Buck published a short book of interviews with Yen, Tell The People; Talks With James Yen About the Mass Education Movement (New York: John Day 1945). John Hersey's novel The Call (New York: Knopf, 1984) includes an only slightly fictionalized portrait of Yen under the name "Johnny Wu."
Dr. Yen and his colleagues evolved a sustainable, people-centered approach to development that came to be known as rural reconstruction. Yen explained that their basic philosophy was “not relief, but release. These self-respecting hard- working peasants do not want relief from anybody.” Yen pioneered an integrated program of action aimed at enabling people to end their own poverty, which included activities in education, health, livelihood and local self-government. For Yen, local self-governance was a natural extension of people taking responsibility for their own development.
What is most gratifying is this, that after people had learned to run their own people's schools, their modern farms, their cooperatives, their health clinics, they demanded that they should run their own government. Is there anything more natural and more inevitable?
After all, what is government for? Is it not an agency for the welfare of the people…To me self-government is the inevitable result of a people who are educated and capable of carrying on their own social and economic welfare (Y. C. James Yen).
The work that Yen began in China and the Philippines expanded to South Asia, when Yen's colleague Spencer Hatch began a corresponding program in India.
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