LI DENGHUI came to my attention in an
obscure item as a prized pupil for Standard I in 1887,
albeit under the name “Lee Teng Hwee”.
Subsequent research into the recently
acquired ACS Journal for 1889 confirmed that he won prizes
for Dictation and Grammar in1889 when he was in Standard
IV. No bookworm, he joined the Cricket Club and was
elected Secretary and Treasurer, and contributed to the
Journal with a short reflection on the proverb, “Where
there’s a will there is a way.” What manner of student was
this, and what was the story?
Born in 1872 to the family of a poor
farmer with a small trading business in a small West Java
town near Batavia (Djakarta), he was the eldest in a
family with five brothers and two sisters. He studied at
an elementary school, going by horsecart, but staying at
home on rainy days to help his mother look after his
siblings. His mother’s death in 1885 when he was just 13
affected the business but Denghui showed little interest
in the business or domestic chores. After his father
remarried, he agreed to let the restless lad go to
Singapore to further his studies in 1886 when he was 14
He arrived fairly soon after ACS was
founded, and was entrusted to his father’s business
associate, one Mr Tan, who looked after him and arranged
for him to be enrolled in the school. With an emphasis on
English, science and mathematics, together with regular
Bible study, a number of students became Christians, and
Denghui’s Christian faith and his belief in the value of
loyalty, purity, generosity and love came from his three
years at ACS.
In his second and third year, he had
all his meals with the Rev William Oldham, while he would
wander off after church on Sundays to ponder over the
window of knowledge which he widened when he went overseas
to study Greek, Latin, French, the arts and literature of
the Renaissance, and English Literature – a background
from which he was later to teach at Fudan University.
At ACS, he was a good scholar, and must
have impressed Oldham who accompanied him to Batavia some
time in 1889 (before going on medical leave in America).
With Oldham’s encouragement and financial assistance from
the Methodist Mission, he sailed for America in 1891 where
he spent some time at Ohio Wesleyan University preparatory
to admission to Yale from where he graduated with a BA
degree in 1899.
His Christian background now encouraged
him to answer Bishop Thoburn’s call for volunteer
missionaries to teach in India and Malaysia, as did James
Hoover – who later became a key Methodist missionary in
Sarawak. Both men actually sailed together to Penang where
they joined the staff of ACS Penang, and were members of
the school committee along with Dr. B. F. West, G. F.
Pykett and J. W. W. Hogan in 1900.
An article by Zhuang Qin Yong in the Journal of Humanities
& Social Sciences, Vol III, 1982/83 shows Li Denghui as an
intensely patriotic Nanyang Chinese, bitterly disappointed
at the failure of the efforts by early Chinese patriots
like Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao to modernise China. He
thus resolved to devote his life to serve its people. He
founded a debating society in 1899, similar to that
established earlier in Singapore by Dr Lim Boon Keng whom
he met in Penang. He linked the causes of the problems
besetting China to a blindly conservative mentality, an
incompetent, corrupt and unjust ruling class, the
exclusion of women from education, and the observance of
ancestral worship. This led him towards the need for
reform in China.
Deciding that his future lay in social
action, Li Denghui left Penang, and spent three years in
Batavia unsuccessfully pursuing his ideal of providing a
new kind of education. In 1904, he revisited Penang,
meeting a number of other Nanyang Chinese with similar
ideals – Dr Wu Lian Teh, Dr Gu Li Ting and Hong Mu Huo –
firming up some ideas which were later applied in China,
where he spent the rest of his life.
He arrived in Shanghai in October 1904, organised the
World Chinese Student Federation in July 1905 and was its
first President, aiming to promote social justice in
China, unite Chinese students studying overseas, and help
members secure employment, medical care and legal advice.
Similar associations were set up in Penang, Qingdao,
Fuzhou, Hawaii and Singapore. Most of the original members
of the federation were Christians and patriots.
At almost the same time, he was
appointed supervisor of Fudan Public School by its
founder, Ma Xiangbo, a Christian, whose intention was to
select high school students by examination and train them
in higher level subjects in the English language thereby
enabling them to gain admission to European universities
for specialised subjects.
In 1913, when Ma Xiangbo had to leave
China, Li assumed the position of Principal, teaching
several subjects such as English, Logic and Philosophy. In
1917, when Fudan Public School became a university with a
modern curriculum in the humanities, natural sciences and
business as well as modern European languages, he became
its first President. Unique in being a private
institution, it was staffed mainly with teachers who had
been trained in the West.
As President of Fudan University, he
lent active support to the May 4 Movement that had started
in Beijing and spread to Shanghai in May 1919, providing
refuge for students who had been dismissed from Beijing
University for their involvement.
Despite the efforts of Li to defend the
actions of the students as patriotic, the authorities took
a hard line, arresting and punishing them. This resulted
in a general strike by students in Shanghai, supported by
public works personnel. In the ensuing confrontation, the
Republic of China Student Union convened a meeting to
elect representatives, attended by Li. When things had
quietened down, Li chaired a public talk attended by more
than 100 Chinese students who had studied in Europe and
America, and encouraged them to work hard and diligently
in order to reform the new China.
the Fudan Centenary – 1905 – 2005
An unexpected source of Li’s role in the social and
educational development of China in the period before the
war has come from a recent publication of his biography by
Fudan University celebrating its centenary this year.
In reviewing his more than 30 years of
educational leadership in a society that was in a sorry
state, he noted (in a radio broadcast in May 1940) that
the education provided by Fudan had progressed
significantly from a mere high school to a full-fledged
university, and from a basic academic curriculum to
specialised scientific studies and, with the development
of physical culture, students had become more robust.
Unfortunately, this was insufficient;
real social progress is the result of moral integrity by
which teachers have to lead by example. He himself
realised this when he recognised that his right to demand
strict moral standards of students could only be justified
and authenticated by his personal commitment to these same
Such was the influence of his personal
and Christian values he absorbed when he was a student of
the Rev Oldham and later influenced by the Moral
Re-Armament Movement that promoted the "four absolutes" –
absolute honesty, absolute unselfishness, absolute love
and absolute purity.