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 in the local China Inland Mission (CIM) station, the missionaries urged him to send his son to a CIM school. Yan met the head master, Rev. William B. Aldis, whose life 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, Sichuan's capital. After another CIM missionary encouraged him to go to Hong Kong University, where he became friends with Fletcher Brockman, the national secretary of the YMCA in China from 1898-1915.
After studying from 1916 to 1918, Yan completed his bachelors degree at Yale. He was a member of the Jonathan and David Society, the Chinese Christian fraternity that later become the Cheng Zhi Hui or Association for "Realization of One's Ambitions." In 1918, Yan went to France to work with Chinese laborers who were working during World War I. After Yan became busy writing letters home for the illiterate men each night, he asked for volunteers who would be willing to be taught 1000 basic Chinese characters. After the first group's success, he asked the colonel in charge of the Chinese labor corps to send the hundred Chinese YMCA student volunteers to Boulogne for one week to observe his classes so they could also start classes. Yan vowed to devote the rest of his life offering not relief, but "release of the pent-up, God-given powers in the people." After he returned to the United States he studied history and politics at Princeton, graduating with a Masters in 1920. He was elected president of the Chinese Students' Christian Association.
When he returned to China, Yan successfully lobbied to become head of the Department of Popular Education, a new autonomous department in the YMCA in Shanghai. He reduced the Chinese vocabulary of forty thousand characters to the 1,300 most common characters and published four readers, which cost twelve cents total. The National Association of the Mass Education Movement (MEM) was formally organized in 1923.
He married Alice Huie, the second daughter of Pastor Huie Kin who graduated with a degree in physical education from Columbia's Teachers College, on September 3, 1921. They had three sons and two daughters.
After doing urban literacy work for several years, Yan launched a pilot project in Dingxian (Ting Hsien), in Hebei province. It addressed four interlocking problems of village life: poverty, disease, ignorance and misgovernment. Yan recruited American-trained Chinese graduates to live in Dingxian despite offering small salaries. When the war broke out with Japan in 1937, Dingxian was lost within a few months. When China's "rice bowl" in Hunan became threatened, the provincial government invited Yan to organize a resistance movement.
Yan received much acclaim during his life. In 1929, on the 50th anniversary of St. John's University in Shanghai, Yan was a recipient of 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.
Yan came to the United States in April 1947 to encourage the establishment of a rural reconstruction commission. 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 spent only U.S. $4 million U.S. dollars of its total allotment ($27.5 million), supported only a small number of workers, and lasted only a little over one year.
Yan, his wife, and two daughters went to New York City in December 1949. Then Yan organized the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement in the summer of 1952 which grew into the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction (IIRR) in 1960. Yan lived 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 or "warmer" winds in China, Yan, a wizened 92-year old, was invited to come to Beijing. During his three-day stay at Dingxian, he found 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. When he returned 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 his wife's who had died ten years earlier.
In the 1990s, the Institute of Central Educational Science Institute in Beijing established the Association of James Yen and published more than ten volumes on Yan's thoughts and approaches to rural reconstruction and development. In 2001 The China Central TV station broadcast a program nationwide on Yan in its series of outstanding Chinese leaders of the twentieth century.