Zhang Fuliang was born in Shanghai. His family owned a retail business on Wusong (i.e. Suchow Creek, which connects the Huangpu River with the Grand Canal) selling coal, iron, and steel. Fuliang was their fifth son and was blue baby; after a midwife and his grandmother revived him, his mother (a devout Buddhist and devotee of Guanyin, the goddess of mercy) went to the “Red Temple’ (i.e. the Anglican Church of the Holy Trinity) to light candles and incense in thanks for his survival.
In 1900, when the Boxer Rebellion broke out, the family travelled by junk along the canals to their ancestral home. As it turns out, the trip was unnecessary: Shanghai was outside of the area of the revolt. Nonetheless, years later, the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion would play an important role in Zhang’s career.
Growing up in Shanghai, Zhang had a decided inferiority complex: the foreigners owned all the best buildings, and to his eyes they seemed nine feet tall. Initially, he attended a middle school where the teachers were dedicated to starting a revolution in China. At the urging of his older brother, he was soon transferred to St. John’s Middle School (1903).
St. John’s was established by the American Episcopal bishop in Shanghai and was connected to the first missionary college in China to receive US accreditation. The bishop wanted to offer a literary degree, which he believed would open doors to all sorts of positions in China. As it turns out, he was right: St. John’s graduates included Chinese ambassadors to the US and England, the minister of finance for the Kuomintang, a president of Taiwan, and the minister of foreign affairs for the People’s Republic of China, along with many leaders in education.
Introduction to the West
Zhang had his first introduction to Americans and Western culture at the school. China was moving into a revolutionary period, where the Emperor would be deposed and a republic established. In the turmoil leading up to this, many students at St. John’s looked to Western documents such as the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence for inspiration. They even voted George Washington as their favorite historical figure in 1904.
St. John’s also provided Zhang with his first real exposure to Christianity. St. John’s required all students to attend morning prayers, chapel, and Sunday services under the theory that these activities would provide important moral and spiritual training even for the non-Christian students. The school also encouraged extracurricular activities as a way of building esprit de corps among the students.
In 1909, after his second year in college, Zhang and five others from St. John’s travelled to Beijing to take the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship exam. After the Boxer Rebellion, China was forced to pay an indemnity to the foreign powers whose people had been attacked. The United States used this money to set up a scholarship program to bring talented Chinese students to the United States to study. Zhang and his five classmates passed the examination and thus joined the first group of students to travel to the United States on the scholarship. They cut off each others’ queues, put on Western clothes, and returned to Shanghai to sail for America.
The party sailed to San Francisco and took a train from there to Washington, DC, via Chicago. Two things in particular impressed the group. First, they were amazed by the amount of paper (i.e. toilet paper, cups, towels, etc.) on the train. More seriously, they were also struck by the poverty they saw on the Indian reservations in the West. They realized that if China did not modernize, that would be the fate of their country.
Studying in America
Since the academic year had already started, the group travelled to Massachusetts, where Zhang enrolled in the Lawrence Academy, a prep school. This time was very beneficial for Zhang since it allowed him to become used to American culture. He was also very impressed with the humility and servant attitude of the headmaster at Lawrence.
The following year, he then entered the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale University. Zhang was inspired by Theodore Roosevelt’s commitment to preserving natural resources and to the national parks, and so in 1911 he began to pursue studies in forestry at Yale’s Forestry School. That summer at a Chinese Students’ Conference, he helped found the Chinese Foresters’ Club to help solve forestry problems in China.
The following summer, Zhang became a Christian at a YMCA camp. As he reflected on his conversion, he commented that the lessons at St. John’s and the headmaster at the Lawrence Academy planted seeds that only sprouted that summer.
While in America, Zhang married Louise Huie, a graduate of Hunter College and the daughter of a Chinese Presbyterian minister and a Dutch-American. They were married in her father’s church in New York in 1915.
Return to China
When Zhang returned to China, he began teaching science at Yale-in-China in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province. In 1921 he was also named headmaster of Yale-in-China’s middle school, with an enrollment of 200.
In 1926, Zhang returned to the US to pursue graduate studies in agronomy with minors in rural education and horticulture at the University of Georgia. He returned to China in 1928 and was named Rural Secretary of the National Christian Council of China. In this position, he wrote numerous articles on challenges facing the rural church, as well as travelling with well-known agricultural consultants and held training institutes in literacy and rural reconstruction.
In 1934, Zhang became the director of the Rural Welfare Service of the National Christian Council. With the support of the League of Nations, Zhang worked on reconstruction in the mountainous Jiangxi Province, which had been severely damaged during the civil war. Zhang set up 10 centers to provide education, health services, agricultural assistance, and cottage industries in the province, each of which served 40,000 people.
When the Japanese attacked China in 1937, Nanchang, the capital of Jiangxi, was bombed repeatedly and then occupied in 1938. Zhang moved his headquarters 200 miles south to Ganzhou, where he oversaw relief work for 1600 refugees. When the Japanese pushed south in 1945, Zhang was on one of the last American planes out of the city.
Missionary to America
After the war, Zhang was made the head of China Industrial Cooperatives, tasked to transform wartime relief work into peacetime cooperatives. Unfortunately, a depression followed the war, making the work impossible. In 1947, he travelled to Britain and the US to study cooperatives to better equip himself for his task when the time was right.
In 1949, Zhang was made director of the Central China regional office of the Chinese-American Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction, headquartered in Changsha, Hunan Province. Within six months, the Communists under Mao Tse Tung had taken Changsha, so Zhang moved first to Chengdu, the capital of Szechuan Province, and was later airlifted to Hong Kong.
In spring of 1950, Zhang set sail for America. He took a fellowship at Yale Divinity School to write about the role of the church in rural reconstruction while waiting for his next opportunity. That opportunity came the following year, when he was asked to teach sociology at Berea College in Kentucky. Among other courses, he taught a senior level class on “Rural Reconstruction in Underdeveloped Areas.” In a very real sense, in this role Zhang became a missionary to America. He also hosted foreign visitors who wanted to see rural development in action in the mountains of Kentucky.
Zhang retired from teaching in 1959 at the age of 70, though he stayed on as Assistant to the President of the college and continued to host foreign visitors. When he finally left Berea, he spent time with his children in New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island. He died in 1984 in New York at the age of 95.
In a talk for young people entitled “A Faith to Live By,” Zhang noted several times in his life when he had close brushes with death, and attributed his survival to the goodness and mercy of God. He explained this by saying, “He has a purpose for me to fulfill, and my work to do in His eternal plan for the world. My concern is to find His will for me and follow it. He will look after all the rest.”
Zhang found God’s purpose for him in so-called “secular fields,” using his skills in science, in forestry and agriculture, in education, in development work. He understood that since Jesus is Lord of all, all areas of work are under His dominion and thus are sacred.
Share this article with some friends. Meet to talk about the question: How does Zhang’s example encourage you to serve the Lord more consistently and boldly, right where you are?
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