From Yale To China: Gifts With Meaning

Bequest Honors 1st Chinese Student


The ceremony had all the pomp and circumstance of a White House affair. The gifts from Yale to President Hu Jintao of China on his first visit to the school in late April were hand-picked for their exquisiteness and significance.

Yale chose to give the president of China a very old book and a poster.

The president of China gave Yale many Chinese books.

All the gifts were respectful bows to the very start of the relationship between the university and China, which began in the mid-1800s, when Yale admitted its first Chinese student, Yung Wing.

Yung, who graduated in 1854, later donated thousands of books to Yale. One of them, a book on Confucianism, was the book Yale President Richard Levin presented to President Hu (in a custom-made box, in keeping with Chinese tradition) along with what appeared to be a framed portrait of Yung.

The original portrait of Yung, commissioned by members of his family in 1999 and painted from a lithograph of Yung in his class book, remains in Dean Peter Salovey's office.

``You can't give originals away; people have given those things to Yale, and they don't expect them to give them to someone else,'' said Beatrice Bartlett, a professor emeritus of history and an expert on Yung Wing. ``I personally gave money for [the original] portrait, and I expected it to hang at Yale.''

Dorie Baker, of Yale's Office of Public Affairs, said, ``The copy of the painted copy of the [1854 yearbook] engraving of Yung Wing that was given to President Hu already has far more value than the original copy that hangs at Yale, for the simple reason that it marks an important historic occasion.''

The occasion was Yung's graduation from Yale College as the first Chinese student to earn a bachelor's degree at any North American college.

As it turns out, when it comes to diplomatic gift-giving, there are no specific rules, except at the State Department, where the Office of Protocol remains highly secretive. (Representatives said they could not disclose their specific standards). Exchanges of presents between dignitaries largely depend on the stature of the visitor and the purpose of the visit, according to both State Department officials and administrators at several universities.

Gift giving has changed over recent decades, especially at the government level.

Charles Hill, a former foreign service officer and lecturer at Yale, said that, more than 50 years ago, the heads of countries and institutions gave large, elaborate nationalistic gifts. The King of Saudi Arabia would give an American president an Arab stallion; Lyndon Johnson gave a Cadillac to Soviet Premier Aleksei Kosygin.

However, in the mid-'70s, public disapproval of the largesse led to more understated gift giving. President Nixon gave Chairman Mao tse-Tung Boehm birds (ceramic replicas of Audubon bird paintings), while President Reagan gave pieces of Steuben glass to visiting dignitaries.

``When Gorbachev visited Stanford [University] in 1990, Stanford gave him a reproduction of a Soviet-era poster about education,'' Hill said. ``That was more questionable [than Yale's gift of the Yung Wing portrait] because Stanford remained in possession of an artifact of Russian history.

``But, on the other hand, if they had given him the original, he probably just would have thrown it in his attic and forgotten about it as the weevils devoured it,'' Hill said.

When Yale officials set about planning for their gift to President Hu last summer (his visit was supposed to take place in September), they decided to focus on a gift related to higher learning, as did many U.S. universities.

The administration gradually came up with the idea of giving back one of the 1,280 volumes that Yung donated to Yale in 1878, the year after the university appointed its first professor of Chinese Language and Literature. Yung had stayed in the United States after his graduation, married an American and became a principal sponsor of the Chinese Educational Mission, which brought 120 young men to New England for study at prominent schools from 1872 to 1881. Yung, who died in 1912, and his wife, Marie Louise Kellogg, are buried in Hartford's Cedar Hill cemetery. A bronze statue of him donated by his native Chinese village of Nan Ping to Betts House remains in Yale's Department of International Relations.

The decision to give away a book donated by Yung was made only after ``serious consideration,'' said Linda Lorimer, Yale vice president. ``It is quite unusual to make a gift [from] under a university collection, and we would do so as only part of a larger partnership,'' Lorimer said.

Apparently, the reproduction of Yung Wing's portrait was intended as an extra for the Chinese government.

``The replica just gave a face to [the exchange],'' Lorimer said. ``New technology made a beautiful reproduction available to the Chinese. It's the equivalent of the portrait.''

Deputy Chinese Consul General Kuang Weilin said the portrait will hang in China's Ministry of Education, which was the hope of Yale's president.

``I assure you, it was taken back to China, and the people in China are handling it with all the standard procedures as any other gifts to the president,'' Weilin said. ``We knew it was a replica; we're always very happy to have received anything from the host, and we're very pleased to get a replica. The gift has opened up a new chapter in the history of exchanges between China and Yale.''