Yu Rizhang was one of the most prominent Chinese Protestant leaders of the Republican period, as head of the YMCA for twenty years and also quite active in other Christian as well as secular affairs. Yu was born on 25 November 1882 to a Christian family in Wuhan. His father, Yu Wenqing, was an Episcopal pastor whose moves to different pastorates meant that Yu Rizhang spent his childhood in different parts of eastern China.
Yu was home schooled until 1895, at which point he entered Boone School in Wuhan, which had been founded by American Episcopal missionaries and where he became a top student. In 1900, in order to escape the threat of persecution from the Boxer Uprising, the faculty and students of Boone temporarily moved to Shanghai, where the students resumed studies at St. John’s school, also an Episcopal institution and one of the best Christian schools in China. As the students stayed on after the crisis had passed, Yu soon became a star member of the drama club and the debate team, as well as the editor of the school newspaper, St. John’s Echo. More importantly from the standpoint of his future life work, he became active in the school’s YMCA chapter.
After graduating in 1905, Yu returned to Wuhan to teach at his alma mater, the Boone School. One important reason was to enter into marriage with Liu Qiongyin, as arranged long before between the two Christian families. A graduate of St. Hilda’s School for Girls in Wuhan, Liu taught at a Christian elementary school. Once again, besides teaching, Yu demonstrated a great flair and passion for extracurricular activities, and in just over three years there had organized a school band, a student newspaper, an English club, and a Salvation Army chapter.
Outside of the school, he became an active member of the Daily Progress Society, which was a group organized by local Christians to promote the introduction of modern ideas in Wuhan. This group had some members who were opponents of the Qing dynasty with revolutionary aims; the arrest of one such teacher at the Boone Divinity School very nearly led to Yu’s detention. Fortunately, the Episcopal bishop stepped in to protect the school’s faculty and also arranged for Yu to study overseas at Harvard. During his two years at Harvard, he not only continued his record as an exceptional student, but played a major part in forming the Chinese Students’ Christian Association in 1909, which became a very influential group nation-wide.
In 1910, after receiving a master’s degree in education from Harvard, Yu returned to China and became the headmaster of Boone College. While Yu Rizhang believed in the importance of education, he was more oriented toward an activist engagement with society than to a quiet life of teaching and study. Moreover, he was driven by a patriotic passion to help China become a strong and modern nation. Therefore, when his friend Wang Zhengting became the associate general secretary of the YMCA and invited Yu to take charge of the group’s new Lecture Bureau with the goal of spreading modern knowledge all around China, he gladly accepted. Yu saw the use of lectures as a powerful tool for advancing popular education in a country where the vast majority of people were illiterate and the government lacked resources to address the problem. With energy and enthusiasm, he helped to design the series and traveled widely to present them, to a very positive reception. In his three years as head of the Lecture Bureau, he spoke to hundreds of thousands of officials, educators, students, and village heads.
In 1916, when Wang Zhengting left the YMCA to take a prominent political position, Yu was appointed general secretary of the organization, a post that he would hold for the next twenty years. Membership in the YMCA city associations doubled during this period, but at the same time the Christian vitality of the organization declined, reflecting in part Yu’s emphasis on social improvement over spiritual concerns.
Yu was eager to see the YMCA take a more active role in addressing China’s problems as a nation, whereas previously the organization had tended to avoid political issues. He believed this change was necessary so the YMCA could help China become a wealthy and powerful nation guided by proper moral principles. Thus, starting in 1920 he coined the phrase “saving the nation through character,” which became the guiding focus of the YMCA throughout the 1920s. He believed that the group’s four-fold program—which drew on Christian values and emphasized physical, mental, moral, and social development—was the most effective way to build this character.
Another way Yu tried to promote national development was by supporting Yan Yangchu and the remarkable program of literacy training that he developed while working for the YMCA with Chinese laborers in France during World War One. Yu realized that literacy was crucial to training an informed and enlightened citizenry, and therefore permitted Yan to form an autonomous mass education bureau under the Education Department of the YMCA. The literacy programs were a huge success, but Yan soon formed his own national organization apart from the YMCA to advance his agenda. Nevertheless, the YMCA continued its own work in literacy and by 1935 had trained about a quarter of a million Chinese.
Under Yu’s direction, the YMCA also began implementing a citizenship education program with the goal of encouraging civic responsibility and greater participation in civic affairs, which was greatly needed at a time when China lacked a viable central government and was ruled by various warlords. This program took as its slogan the Chinese saying that “every person is responsible for the fate of the country” and won broad support from both Christians and non-Christians. It also helped to defuse some of the criticism of Christianity from the anti-Christian movement that arose during the 1920s.
In 1922, Yu was chosen to be head of the National Christian Council (NCC), which missionaries and Chinese Protestants formed that year with the aim of promoting greater cooperation between different Christian groups in China and addressing issues of common concern such as evangelism, rural life, the family, indigenization of the church, and international harmony. In the six years that Yu headed the NCC, he had to face the twin challenges of the rise of modern Chinese nationalism and the anti-Christian movement, and he did so with considerable wisdom. How Yu handled the May Thirtieth Incident in 1925, when British-directed police killed eleven Chinese protesters in Shanghai, was one important example. As protests broke out through the nation, Yu called for an impartial investigation and worked hard behind the scenes to foster communication between British and Chinese authorities. At the same time, he urged the missionaries and churches to address such external causes of tension as the Unequal Treaties, while yet stating strongly his belief that Western missionaries should continue their work in China.
Yu Rizhang became involved periodically in diplomatic affairs and worked hard to promote more harmonious relations between nations. Another instance of this was in 1921 when he was chosen as one of two citizen representatives sent by groups in China to monitor the government’s delegation to the Washington Conference, which was held following the Paris Peace Conference to resolve issues in the Pacific arising from World War One.
In 1925, Yu supported the launching of the Institute of Pacific Relations (IPR) by the Hawaii YMCA, with the aim of increasing nongovernmental contact and goodwill among nations of the Pacific region. Yu led China delegations to IPR conferences in 1927 and 1929. In addition, he traveled to Japan on four occasions in an effort to promote peace between the two countries. And in 1932, following the Japanese annexation of Manchuria, Yu traveled to the United States to speak with various American leaders, including Secretary of State Henry Stimson, to convey China’s view of the crisis. Tragically, in the midst of this 1932 meeting with Stimson, Yu suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and his health never recovered. He handed over YMCA leadership to Liang Xiaochu in 1932 and passed away on 22 January 1936 at the age of 53. He was survived by his wife, four sons and three daughters.
Yu Rizhang was one of the most influential Chinese Christian leaders of the early twentieth century. As head of the YMCA and the NCC, Yu played a central role in determining how the Chinese church related to China’s larger social and political context. He advocated using the ideals and principles of Christianity to help build a strong and modern China, as well as to advance the cause of international harmony over narrow nationalism. His efforts in these areas had a significant and positive impact on China’s development during this period. In addition, by insisting that the Chinese church should be free of missionary control yet still welcome missionary participation, Yu helped to indigenize Protestantism in China. His focus on social and national development rather than on the spiritual message of Christianity resulted in a decline in the Christian vitality of the YMCA while he was at the helm. However, this fact needs to be counterbalanced by the numerous ways in which Yu advanced the Christian cause in China during a very difficult and turbulent period.