EVERY now and then, elderly Chinese people in their 70s or even 80s are seen at English-speaking activities expressing their opinions fluently in the foreign language. Often they learned it a long time ago in schools founded by foreign missionaries, among whom many were Americans.
Early American missionaries brought not only the Bible to Shanghai, but also the Western education system, new to most Chinese who were still learning only ancient Chinese texts like “The Analects” and considered everything else unnecessary.
The establishment of modern Western schools, which contained classic Chinese texts, English, science, physical education and etiquette, among other courses, gradually shifted the traditional idea.
Starting in the mid-19th century, many schools at first could only take in homeless children on the streets as no Chinese parents wanted to send their kids.
Gradually, more prestigious schools were founded for both Chinese and foreigners, and many girls’ schools were also built to accommodate the new trend to send women to schools, against the old tradition saying women do not need schooling.
Shanghai American School
When the Shanghai American School (SAS) first opened its doors on September 17, 1912, with Rev John Morton Espey as its first principal, it served only 38 students. Today, over 3,200 young minds receive their education in the halls and classrooms of the institution.
SAS was initially founded as a Christian school for the children of missionaries, but was later open to any European residents. In the early half of the 20th century, students were mainly from expatriate diplomatic, missionary and business backgrounds.
The goal of SAS founders was to create a college preparatory school with an American curriculum to serve the ever-growing American population in China.
In the decades following its founding, the school managed to thrive amid conflicts, expanding student organizations and sports, and developing much-loved traditions.
During times of crisis, SAS opened its dormitories for American refugee families and held frequent evacuation drills. Even in those times, the school managed to stay functioning, though the student body and staff were much reduced and it had to rent out campus space to make ends meet financially. When the Kuling American School closed in 1937, the SAS accommodated many students from its sister institution.
The years of 1938 and 1939 passed relatively normally for the school, protected as it was by extraterritoriality. The students, faculty and refugees staying on campus even raised money to sustain a doctor as well as a nurse at the war front in western China after being moved by images of the Chinese wounded.
However, by 1941, most of the students and faculty had evacuated Shanghai. SAS persisted under various names and forms until 1943.
Postwar SAS lasted from 1946 to 1949, on a much smaller scale. Finally, in 1950, changes in the Chinese government brought about the end of the Shanghai American School in its first incarnation. SAS was reborn in 1980 on the grounds of the US Consulate, after China had opened up sufficiently to allow for a substantial American community in need of a school.
Today, the school operates on two campuses — one in Puxi and the other in Pudong. It has become the largest international school in China, offering American-style education from Pre-K to 12.
St John’s University
Founded by American missionaries in 1879, St John’s University was the first and oldest university that introduced Western-style education into China, with English as its main teaching language.
Teachers also paid attention to religion, physical education, and extracurricular activities, including a soccer team. Based on American universities’ education, major courses included mathematics, natural science, philosophy and theology.
It was officially registered in Washington, DC, and American graduates from St John’s could continue their study in graduate schools in the US.
These advantages appealed to a lot of students from affluent families in Shanghai. Its prestigious education produced many famous students. Architect I.M. Pei, writer Lin Yutang and the famous Soong sisters’ brother T.V. Soong all received diplomas from this university.
In 1952, the school was closed, and the old campus is now the East China University of Political Science and Law. Many buildings, designed to include Chinese and Western elements, still exist at Wanhangdu Rd near Suzhou Creek.
The bell tower at Schereschewsky Hall (S.W. Hall) was designed with a Chinese roof and considered the landmark of the school. Gezhi Building, the fitness center, was renovated from a Chinese mansion that first served as the founder’s office and living space.
McTyeire High School
A dozen girls’ schools were already in operation in Shanghai in the late 19th century, shortly after the city opened to foreign trade. Among them, McTyeire High School is one of the most famous, where the famous Soong sisters and writer Eileen Chang graduated.
It was founded in 1892 by Young John Allen, an American missionary who hoped to establish a school that could cultivate excellent students with a brighter future and to achieve great influence.
Laura Haygood, the school’s first headmaster, was a graduate of Williams College and was invited by Allen to design the founding system of the school.
Young women at McTyeire studied English, mathematics, music, physical education and home administration from a young age, and some also went on to continue their education overseas.
In 1952, the school was merged into today’s Shanghai No. 3 Girls Middle School, one of the few girls’ schools that still exist in the city.
(Shirley Xu, Yang Miaomiao and Zhu Xueyi contributed to this article.)