Nirmal DASS

John Leighton Stuart, one of the United States’ most prolific diplomats in the pre-1949 period.

John Leighton Stuart was an American missionary born in China. He was the founder and first president of Yenching University in Beijing and also served as the U.S. ambassador to China just before the Communist takeover. He was famously derided by Mao Zedong as being the last representative of western imperialism.

John Leighton Stuart, born in Hangzhou, China, to American missionaries Mary Louisa and John Linton Stuart, was an important figure in twentieth century Chinese-American relations. He lived in China until the age of eleven, when he was sent to the United States to attend school in Mobile, Alabama; he later enrolled at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, where he received his BA as well as his LLB. As a young adult, he did not return to China because he felt that missionary work in the land of his birth was without merit. However, he changed his mind and, following in his father’s footsteps, became a minister, obtaining his theological degree from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. In 1904, he married Aline Hardy Rood, and the following year he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister and sent by the church as a missionary to China.

In his early years as a missionary, Stuart became an educator. From 1908 to 1919, he taught Greek at Nanking Theological Seminary (now Nanjing Union Theological Seminary) in Jiangsu Province, during which time he wrote an essential Greek-English-Chinese dictionary of the New Testament, as well as a handbook to New Testament Greek for Chinese speakers. He wrote several other books in Chinese, mostly exegetical works on the Scriptures.

In 1919, he began to work on establishing a new university in Beijing. He aggressively sought out benefactors and found a prominent one in Charles Martin Hall, the inventor of tinfoil. With secured funds, Stuart purchased a royal garden that he turned into a campus. Yenching University opened in 1926, specializing in law, medicine, theology, and arts and science. Stuart was its first president; his objective was to make the institution the very best in Southeast Asia. To that end, he helped to create the Harvard-Yenching Institute in 1928, a joint effort by Harvard and Yenching universities that concentrated on furthering arts and science education in the region. As a result, by 1930 Yenching University was one of the very best in all of China, where scholars, both Chinese and non-Chinese, taught, studied, and researched.

At the start of the Second Sino-Japanese war (known in China as the War of Resistance against Japan) in 1937, Stuart remained in Beijing. While the Japanese occupied the city, he played an important role in maintaining a balance between the Japanese occupiers and his university students, who often led anti-Japanese protests. After 1941, however, with Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, he was imprisoned because he was a citizen of the United States. He remained there until the defeat of the Japanese in World War II in 1945.

Following the Second World War, Stuart served as the U.S. ambassador to China from 1946 to 1949; his mandate was to assist General George C. Marshall in finding a détente between the Nationalists and the emerging Communists. The efforts proved unsuccessful, and the Communists took control of mainland China, with Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalists relegated to Taiwan. Stuart would be the last U.S. ambassador to China until 1979, when normal relations resumed between the United States and the People’s Republic of China.

Stuart returned to the United States and wrote extensively about his experiences; he did not visit China again. He died in Washington, D.C., in 1962. Stuart’s legacy in China rests upon his active involvement in furthering education in China, especially in the hope that it might serve to weaken age-old feudal traditions and usher in a new sensibility for Chinese youth whereby they might engage fruitfully and beneficially with the world at large.

Further Reading

Lutz, J. G. (1971). China and the Christian colleges, 1850–1950. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Rea, K. W. & Brewer, J. C. (Eds.). (1981). The forgotten ambassador: The reports of John Leighton Stuart, 1946–1949. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Shaw Yu-Ming. (1992). An American missionary in China: John Leighton Stuart and Chinese-American relations. Cambridge, MA: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University.

Stuart, J. L. (1954). Fifty years in China: The memoirs of John Leighton Stuart. New York: Random House.

West, P. (1976). Yenching University and Sino-Western relations, 1916–1952. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Source: Dass, Nirmal. (2009). STUART, John Leighton. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2106–2107. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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