Graduating Address of Yan Phou Lee at Yale College: The Other Side of The Chinese Question, (1887) New Haven, CT


Chinese immigration to the United States was a topic of national discussion during the late 1800s. Specifically, the Restriction Period (1882-1888) and Exclusion Period (1888-1943) were years defined by debates over laws that limited the number of Chinese immigrants allowed to enter the United States.1 During these periods, Chinese immigrants were targets of xenophobia and racism in part because they were viewed as a threat to the national economy and the country’s culture.2 Chinese immigrants were often demeaned for their physical markers, including their skin color, hair, eyes, and cultural markings such as their food and fashion.3

Yan Phou Lee, a Chinese immigrant who became an American citizen, was a prominent voice in these debates commonly referred to as “The Chinese Question.”4 This phrase was popularized through a comic illustrated by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly. Nast depicted Columbia—a female figure Nast used to personify the United States—standing protectively over a cowering man from China to her right with an angry mob of American workers to her left.5 “The Chinese Question” thus came to represent the tensions over Chinese immigrants: should people from China be embraced or exiled? Lee advocated for American acceptance of Chinese immigrants, while also encouraging Chinese immigrants to assimilate to American norms.

Lee was born in Hong Shan, China into what he called a “book family,” meaning that his ancestors had been literati and officers of the Empire for generations.6 When the Chinese government invested in education in the United States, Lee was one of 120 boys who traveled overseas. He finished one year of study at Yale before the Chinese government cut the program short and he was forced to return to China. Lee later found a sponsor who supported his second trip to the United States. Prior to embarking on this journey, he “cut off [his] queue7 and severed one of the links that bound [him] to [his] native land.” When Lee returned to the United States to finish his studies in September 1884,8 he converted to Christianity.9 During his time at Yale, Lee wrote for the press, lectured, did clerical work to pay for tuition, and earned the Larned Scholarship. He also won prizes for proficiency in English, History, Law, and Political Economy,10 ultimately winning as many scholastic honors as a foreigner was allowed to receive at Yale.11

While Lee renounced his Chinese citizenship and encouraged others to similarly assimilate, there were Chinese immigrants who condemned expressions of American homogenization. In 1886, The North American Review published a debate over this assimilationist controversy between Lee and Wong Chin Foo.12 In a piece titled, “Why Am I a Heathen?,” Wong exposed the flaws and deficiencies of Christianity and Western civilization while arguing for the superiority of Chinese civilization.13 Wong embraced being a “heathen” and refused to assimilate, even inviting American Christians to convert to Confucianism. The following month, Lee published a rebuttal entitled, “Why I Am Not a Heathen: A Rejoinder to Wong Chin Foo.”14 Lee referred to Confucianism as “heathenism” and described it as “a confused heap of nonsense.” He instead defended his Christian faith, arguing that it “teaches me to cultivate my mind, rectify my heart, and to make my conscience delicate and sensitive.”15 This debate captured the tensions among Chinese immigrants divided over what it meant to belong in the United States as Chinese immigrants.

When Lee was selected to give the graduation address at Yale, his speech was titled, “The Other Side of the Chinese Question.” Lee condemned those who remained silent about the hate crimes against Chinese people that were sweeping the nation. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch claimed that Lee’s speech “attracted wide and favorable comment,”16 and the Christian Union noted that Lee’s “denunciation of [the Chinese Exclusion Act] made quite a marked impression upon his audience.”17

After graduating, Lee continued to lecture and write. Twelve of Lee’s articles about his childhood were published in a book entitled, When I Was a Boy in China, reportedly making him the first Asian author in the United States to publish a book in English.18 In his book, he challenged American stereotypes of Chinese people to humanize those who had been demeaned in the debates over “The Chinese          Question.”19 Although Lee’s assimilationist stance was not fully accepted, there is no doubt that his voice was both powerful and influential in the fight to open doors to Chinese immigration.


  1. Beth Lew-Williams, The Chinese Must Go: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018), 8-9.
  2. Lew-Williams, The Chinese Must Go, 9, 40.
  3. Lew-Williams, The Chinese Must Go, 26.
  4. “Yan Phou Lee: The Brilliant Young Chinese Contributor to the Post-Dispatch,” St. Louis Post, April 18, 1894, 27.
  5. Thomas Nast, “The Chinese Question,” Harper’s Weekly, no.15 (February 18, 1871): 149.
  6. Literati were scholar-officials, or civil servants who performed day-to-day governance and advised the emperor of China.
  7. Rachel K. Bright, “Migration, Masculinity, and Mastering the Queue: A Case of Chinese Scalping,” Journal of World History 28, no. 3 (2017): 551-586. A queue is a hairstyle that was imported by the Manchus into China in 1644. Under Manchurian colonial conquest, all Chinese men were “required to shave off all hair at the front of the head above the temples and the rest of the hair would be braided at the back of the head.”
  8. “Yan Phou Lee,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 27.
  9. Wenxian Zhang, “Standing Up Against Racial Discrimination: Progressive Americans and the Chinese Exclusion Act in the Late Nineteenth Century,” Phylon (1960-) 56, no.1 (2008): 11.
  10. Zhang, “Standing Up Against Racial Discrimination,” 11.
  11. “Yan Phou Lee,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 27.
  12. Yan Phou Lee, “Why I Am Not a Heathen: A Rejoinder to Wong Chin Foo,” North American Review, September 1887, 36.
  13. Scott D. Seligman, The First Chinese American: The Remarkable Life of Wong Chin Foo (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2013), 137.
  14. Seligman, The First Chinese American, 137.
  15. Yan Phou Lee, “Why I Am Not a Heathen.” 
  16. Yan Phou Lee, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 27.
  17. “College Notes,” Christian Union (1870-1893) 26, no. 1, (July 7, 1887): 19.
  18. “Yan Phou Lee,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 27.
  19. Yan Phou Lee, “A Chinese Market,” St. Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks, May 1888, 546.