American Missionaries in Dengzhou Series: the Mateers and China's First Modern University

Calvin Wilson Mateer
Calvin Wilson Mateer
By Guo Dasong January 2nd, 2020

Calvin Wilson Mateer, the eldest son of an ordinary farmer, was born on January 9 1836, in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. In January 1864 he went to Dengzhou, and in 1904 moved with the Dengzhou Cultural Association to Wei County. In 1908, he lead the Bible Translation Committee in Yantai to verify the translated Mandarin Bible during which time he got diarrhea but initially treated it as a minor stomach upset. He was then scheduled to return to Wei County and went to Qingdao for medical treatment while on the way. However, it was not cured and as a result he died there in September and was buried in the Yantai Presbyterian Cemetery.

Mateer's mother supported the children in going out because her "biggest regret in life was to not have gone to school long enough." "All the goals set in" her life, apart from her own education, "had been well achieved. She demanded of herself to do things consistently and be strong in the face of hardship and have a spirit of self-sacrifice." In such a family environment, Mateer at an early age experienced many hardships. He grew up and continued studying by finding a job himself in order to fund his education. Mateer's parents were devout Christians. Influenced by his family, he decided to become a missionary after graduating from college.

Although he came to China as a missionary, he was recognized as an educator in Chinese and international academic circles. He founded Dengzhou College which was China's first modern university. A so-called modern Chinese university refers to all modern universities in their own right founded by foreign churches, the Chinese government or individuals.

In China, schools in their modern sense have been the results of the gradual acceptance of the western academic achievement. Dengzhou (later named as Yantai), as one of the trade ports after the Second Opium War, had been hosting missionaries since 1860. Because of the environment and conditions at the time, the first step of the Southern Baptist Pastor Hartwell and his wife was to run a school. It, however, had not been successful and eventually closed down after a series of closings and reopenings for various reasons. Mrs. Helen Sanford Nevius, wife of the American Northern Presbyterian Pastor John Livingstone Nevius, who arrived at Dengzhou in 1861, founded a modern girls' school in the winter of 1862. It too closed from time to time and finally became Wenhui Girls' School before it got on the right track. The Mateers, Northern Presbyterian missionaries from America who came to Dengzhou in 1864, founded the Dengzhou Mengyang School, the predecessor of the Dengzhou Cultural Association in the fall of that year. Although it was difficult in the early years, they persisted until it grew larger. In 1877, the first three students in the school's ten-year education program completed their studies with excellent results. The Mateers held a grand graduation ceremony for them and awarded them diplomas. At the time of the graduation ceremony, the school changed its name to a cultural association, implying "making friends through education" and intending to "gather all the world's learnings here." Of course, by this time, the Dengzhou Cultural Association was only a secondary school with some of its courses beyond secondary school level. So, it was not yet a university. In the following year, however, the Mateers planned to turn the Dengzhou Cultural Association into a university on the basis of the retention of primary and secondary schools, and stipulated by all the regulations.

In 1879, Mateer took his vacation and traveled back to America to lobby extensively and raise money to prepare for founding a university. In January 1881, Mateer returned to Dengzhou, where he renewed his application with the Presbyterian American Mission inorder to establish a university, including adding university courses on a large scale. In 1884 (also believed to have happened in 1882), the Presbyterian Mission of the United States officially authorized the Dengzhou Mengyang School to open a university. In early 1905, Dengzhou Cultural Association was relocated to Wei County to merge with the university classes at Tsingchow Boy's Boarding School, which was opened by the British Baptist Mission in Qingzhou. The emerging body was later renamed Guangwen School to eventually become the Shandong Christian Union University, of which the Arts and Sciences department later became Cheeloo University in Shandong Province.

As can be seen from above, even counting from 1884, Dengzhou Cultural Association was China's first modern university, having been founded eight years earlier than what is called China's first church university, Shanghai St. John's University which in 1902 began to offer university courses and was registered in the United States in 1906.  In fact, in the few years prior, university courses were offered. Dengzhou Cultural Association was founded at least 11 years earlier than what is called the first university run by the Chinese government, Beiyang University. And Dengzhou Cultural Association was founded nearly 20 years earlier than what is called the "first national university", Peking University, organized in 1898 and officially opened in 1902.

According to the conclusions of a three-year study in the United States by Professor Wang Zhongxin from Peking University, the Western science courses offered by Dengzhou Cultural Association after becoming a university were "leading the way among Chinese schools at the time" while "psychology, logics and political economy" in social sciences were "probably the first courses ever offered in China's education system." As mentioned above, the American scholar Irwin T. Hyatt Jr. also believes that the Dengzhou Cultural Association was "almost undoubtedly the best church university in China in the 19th century". Later, the Chinese government-run university and the employment of teachers in middle and high schools in various provinces, including St. John's University in Shanghai, proved that Dengzhou Wenhui Hall was both the earliest modern university in China and the best university before the Boxer Rebellion. 

In 1898, during the climax of the New Reformation, the Qing government founded the Beijing Masters University and authorized the then General Teaching Affairs Director, William Alexander Parsons, to employ teachers. Parsons selected eight graduates of Dengzhou Cultural Hall Association as teachers for math, physics, and chemistry and one as a Chinese teacher. In 1901, after the Boxer Rebellion and the eight-nation coalition of forces invaded China, the Qing government was determined to implement comprehensive reform. Opening new types of schools was one of its main goals. The then government ordered that in the whole country "all colleges in provincial cities be upgraded to universities, all districts and autonomous states build middle schools, each county build primary schools, and more Mengyang schools be built." The then Shandong Governor Yuan Shikai took the lead in response. Because he had been in Dengzhou with Song Qing, he was familiar with the situation of Dengzhou Cultural Association. He therefore invited, Watson McMillan Hayes, the then headmaster of Wenhui School (Mateer in 1890 was chairman of the Bible Translation Committee for the first time. Hayes succeeded him as the headmaster and supervisor.) to Jinan to be in charge of the establishment of Shandong University. By that time most missionaries had already advocated for the construction of more modern universities in China. After receiving the invitation, they instantly accepted foreign teachers and students, in full accordance with the model and regulations of the Dengzhou Cultural Association, and set up the University in only one month in response to the central government's instructions to have founded China's first provincial university. Consequently, Governor Yuan Shikai reported the project's progress and proposed construction plans and programmes. At once, the royal court ordered each province "to imitate the example without delay." For a time, the students of the Cultural Association were in serious short supply-"three hundred graduating certificate holders from the Cultural Hall Association served in the academic and educational community, traceable across sixteen provinces."

As a missionary, Mateer, after he confirming his service as an overseas missionary, firmly stated: "I am determined to dedicate my life to China, to live there, to die there, and to be buried there." He did indeed minister and live out this confirmation. He lived in China for more than forty years and was eventually buried in China. During the more than 40 years of ministry, he developed a deep feeling towards China. "China is a great nation with a glorious future," he said in a letter written in his old age, "I'm glad I had the opportunity to do what I could for her steps towards that glory."

Mateer also brought China into the realm of being a modern civilization that met the requirements of the times. As early as 1913, the author of "The History of Dengzhou's Cultural Association" praised Mateer as a "great writer", "great educator" and "great founder" based on the author's own personal experience of knowing him. In the 1970s, the American modern scholar Irwin T. Hyatt Jr. praised Mateer not only as "one of the first people to teach modern Western techniques in China", but also as one of the first among those who taught modern Western skills to Chinese "who made great achievements in Christianity, science and the Chinese language". "If he's not a genius, he's the best American multi-talented man, an all around Benjamin Franklin, like a superb Boy Scout who has won 21 medals," he said. "He spent his life busy with 'jobs that most people could not afford', and he had a great record of writing and teaching. He was a scientist, inventor and family industrialist."

Judging from the titles of founder, scientist, inventor and family industrialist, Mateer deserved it. Wang Yuande and Liu Yufeng, personally testified that most of the experimental instruments of physics, chemistry, and astronomy were mostly made by Mateer.

The success of the Dengzhou Cultural Association would not have been successful without Mateer's first wife, Mrs. Julia A. Mateer. Looking back at the decades of hard work, from creating a poor primary school with only a few children who did not know anything to gradually becoming China's first modern university, Mateer recalled, "In my early days, God's greatest blessing to me was Julia. She and I shared the daily burden and difficulty, and the majority of the success of the school work I owe to her. Her death was the greatest loss in my life."

Born in 1837, Mrs. Mateer's maiden name was Julia A. Brown. She lost her parents in her childhood. She lived in her uncle's home from the age of 14 and began to earn a living at the age of 18. When she was 25 she married Mr. Mateer and went to Dengzhou with him. She died in Dengzhou in 1898 at the age of 61. She devoted her life to missions, school education, and having not birthed any children, she committing her whole heart and soul to the students of Dengzhou Menyang School and the Cultural Association'sl Girls' School.

Research shows that she was probably the first person ever in modern history to introduce Western music education to China. This is according to the biography, "Calvin Wilson Mateer: forty-five years a missionary in Shantung, China: a Biography", written by one of Mr. Mateer's classmates at university and seminary, a lifelong friend, who later became the president of Hanover College, Daniel W. Fisher: Due to linguistic difficulties, when the Dengzhou Mengyang School was first opened, it initially hired local Chinese teachers. Soon, however, the Mateers personally began teaching classes. Mr. Mateer taught arithmetic and Mrs. Mateer "taught geography to introduce children to the world outside China in order to broaden their horizons. She had three extra particularly difficult lessons to teach a week which was teaching the children to sing." From the onset, the school in Dengzhou had music classes that were taught out of years of working experiences as a teacher in Julia's early days. Music lessons were very rare in the early church schools in China. Mrs. Mateer wrote "The Introduction to Music Principles" (1872, first edition), the earliest Western music teaching material in China.

It is particularly worth pointing out here that the music education of Mengyang School in Dengzhou had been extended to the days of the Cultural Association. Some of the school songs retained in the existing "History of Dengzhou Cultural Association" are the five-line compositions written by students of the Association as well as two or four choral songs. This shows that the music education program of Dengzhou Cultural Association was successful. It can be said that they were ahead of their time in relation to the then Chinese music community.

(The article was originally published in the Sina blog of Donghaisanxian.) 

- Translated by Charlie Li

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