The Forgotten Revolutionary of Berkeley

T.Y. Chang revered democracy, fought corruption, protested injustice, and left his imprint on Chinese history. It all started at Cal.


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T.Y. Chang, above, frequently appeared in newspaper articles of the time.

An article from the Oakland Tribune

T.Y. Chang could be the prototypical Berkeley student. He reported corrupt cops to the Bay Area press, organized and led student protests against unfair immigration-law enforcement in front of San Francisco’s Federal Building, and wrote national editorials defending Chinese reactions to U.S. trade policies. In his spare time, he self-published books on revolution, freedom, and democracy. During his college days, his name appeared in at least 20 articles in Bay Area newspapers. Yet he was also a Cal fan who “yelled the ‘Oski Wow’ with the best of the rah-rah boys.”

But where most Cal radicals just talk about rebellion, Chang lived it. Five years after graduating from UC Berkeley, he took part in a revolution that overthrew a corrupt centuries-old regime and was appointed Vice Minister of Finance of China on the strength of his undergraduate commerce degree from the University of California.

T.Y. Chang was my grandfather, who graduated from Cal in May 1907. Growing up, I knew almost nothing about my mother’s father, because I never met him. My parents left China in 1949 when the Communists took power. Her family stayed behind. All I knew was that he had grown up during the last days of the Chinese empire and that the Emperor of China had given him a scholarship to study in California in 1900.

At the time, China was occupied by a foreign power, the Manchu Dynasty, which had conquered China through military invasion 300 years earlier. Even though the Manchus ruled China, they were not Chinese and kept the country technologically backward and ignorant of the West until the 20th century. In 1899, a mass Chinese movement known as the Boxer Rebellion, arose and attacked, among other places, the foreign embassies in Beijing. In retaliation, the foreign powers, including the United States, sent troops in 1900 that occupied Beijing and burned and looted the emperor’s summer palace and forced the empress to pay reparations. One of the consequences of this short war was that China changed its traditional educational systems and increased its efforts to send scholars to obtain Western knowledge. Among the beneficiaries of this were T.Y. Chang, who arrived in California in February 1900.

While I knew my grandfather had graduated from Berkeley seven years later, I didn’t know much about his life in California. I’d heard he was present for the great San Francisco earthquake and had watched the city burn from across the bay. But I didn’t know anything about what he thought, or believed. Then I discovered a treasure trove of articles about him on Newspapers.com. Through those articles, I learned that T.Y. (as he seemed to be called in the United States, since no one could ever manage to spell his first name the same way twice) was a student activist and organizer. I learned that he was deeply impressed by democracy and the rule of law in America.

In fact, one of the first things he did upon gaining familiarity with English was to translate into Chinese and then publish in China copies of the U.S. Constitution and a history of the Revolutionary War. Those books were widely disseminated in China. According to an Aug. 18, 1905, article from the Oakland Tribune, “Mr. Chang-tsung-yuen, ’07, ... has recently published four treatises in the Chinese language, which have to do with American subjects. ... These four works are translations from the best American authors and are notable for their clearness of style.”

When you search for T.Y. in Baidu (China’s Google), one of the first things that comes up is his publication of a history of the American War for Independence and the history of colonialism in America. Mao Zedong reportedly was a great admirer of George Washington and his tactics. It’s wild to think that T.Y’s books possibly inspired Mao and the Communist revolution in China.

As a student, he was often disturbed by corruption in the Bay Area. I think he must have been inspired by his study of U.S. democracy and the constitution. Two stories from his college days illustrate his feelings. In January of 1905, the San Francisco Callreported that “Sensational allegations regarding the prevalence of gambling in Berkeley, involving the office of Marshal Kerns [an allegedly corrupt police officer] are contained in a report … by T.Y. Chang.” He reportedly found games of fantan, a form of gambling long popular in China, “running full blast,” and that Town Marshal Charles T. Kerns was being “paid $20 a week” to leave the games alone. The response by Marshal Kerns was that this was, “the wildest, weirdest lie that ever came from the lips of a white or yellow man.” Instead of ordering a raid on the gambling den, the judge to whom the report was made consulted with the same Marshal Kerns and decided to station men outside the gambling dens “to stop the games.” The news article makes a bit of tongue-in-cheek fun of the Chinaman’s naiveté, indicative of the attitudes towards Chinese immigrants at that time.

On a more serious note, my grandfather was probably one of the few Chinese immigrants who was willing to talk to the press and protest the Chinese Exclusion Act. In 1882, Congress passed one of the first immigration statutes, which had only one purpose — to exclude Chinese immigrants from the United States. There were a few limited exceptions, including students with a paid scholarship such as his own. In 1906, a young Chinese orphan raised by missionaries received a scholarship to attend Oberlin College. When he arrived in San Francisco with a visa signed by the U.S. Consulate in Canton, immigration officials in San Francisco refused him entrance, despite having all of the required paperwork. My grandfather organized nearly all of the Chinese students at Berkeley to protest. In genteel fashion, they received permission from Cal’s president to miss class and present their complaints to U.S. officials in San Francisco — a story that echoes in many ways today’s protests about asylum seekers or the Muslim ban.

These articles provided a flavor of California’s racial divide and the extent to which society was segregated at the time. When T.Y. and the three other Chinese students in his class graduated, the San Francisco Call told its readers that “in their outward manner there is little left to suggest the bland and wily oriental.” The Oakland Tribune, meanwhile, reported that “Quite unlike Chinese seen ordinarily on the streets, these alert, observant students adopted modern ways and attire.” The article went on to call them “too studious to be what might be termed popular” but noted nonetheless that they “have won the friendship of the members of the faculty and of the students with whom they came in contact.” At least the well-meaning authors of those articles were trying to bridge the racial gulf. More typical of the articles from that era were the sensational tales in the Examiner about the dangers of Chinatown’s opium and gambling dens or Chinese immigrants buying white orphan girls to raise to become prostitutes there.

Upon graduation, T.Y. returned to China, where he took the last Chinese civil service exam — which was then limited to students who studied abroad. When the scores were revealed, The Daily Californian noted that “the first name is Chang-tsung-yuan, who may thus be considered the senior wrangler for the year.” As a result of taking first place in the exam and having a Berkeley degree in economics, T.Y. was appointed by the emperor as the President of the College of Finance and to the commission on the modernization and reform of Chinese law.

At the very end of the Manchu Dynasty, in an effort to remain in office, the emperor accepted a western-style constitution that subordinated his authority to that of the elected legislature. As reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer, the author of that constitution was a committee of the National Assembly that included as “one of its most active members,” “Dr. T.Y. Chang of California.” But that effort was not enough for the Chinese citizens who demanded that the emperor be deposed.

T.Y. then joined the revolutionaries and became the acting Vice Minister of Finance for the first Chinese republican government. A few months later, as perhaps the only Western-trained economist in China, he was sent by his government to London as special Financial Commissioner to deal with the Western Powers over existing loans to China and the possible new loans to the new Republic. In February 1912, the London Times reported, “Chang Toung Yuan has been appointed the financial representative of China in London. He will arrive on Sunday.” As reported in the Cortland Standard (of Cortland N.Y.), “Tsung Yuen Chang, financial commissioner for China, now in London, says his republic would gladly enter into closer financial relations with the United States.” Alas, it doesn’t appear that T.Y.’s mission to the West was any more successful than various newspapers’ attempts to correctly spell his name. No new loans were negotiated, and the Western world lost interest in China on the eve of the First World War.

After T.Y. went back to China, he returned to financial matters and headed a commission to reform the currency. He was involved in esoteric economic disputes with Western economists and was mentioned in a U.S. Federal Reserve publication on monetary policy in different countries. Then his brilliant career dissolved in scandal — not his own, but his brother’s.

T.Y.’s younger brother, T.H. Chang, was also very smart and even more successful. After studying in Japan and returning with a law degree, he was appointed by Yuan Shih-Kai, the first president of China, to the position of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and later Minister of Justice, while concurrently also Minister of Agriculture and Commerce. In 1916, he became Ambassador to Japan, which by then had joined World War I on the side of the Allies, and seized German possessions in China. Presented with a list of Japanese territorial and sovereign demands on China, known as the “21 Demands,” T.H. is said to have “gladly agreed.”

The accord was highly unpopular back at home. Once news of the Chinese acceptance of the Japanese treaty was made public, students throughout China rioted on May 4, 1919. They went to the home of the foreign minister and found T.H. Chang and beat him. The riots and the subsequent empowerment of Chinese students gave rise to a flowering of revolutionary thought and action known as the May 4th Movement, which had a tremendous impact on the evolution of the Chinese Communist Party and Mao Zedong.

Because of the scandal associated with his brother, T.Y., who was then the president of a university, resigned his position and retired when his own students protested his brother’s actions. He moved to Shanghai and never again held any senior office or position, aside from general secretary of the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce.

T.Y. was probably more of a reformer than a revolutionary, but when we consider the impact that he and his brother had on the development of revolutionary thought in China, it is hard to argue that he wasn’t a revolutionary who learned his trade in the East Bay.

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