The Origin and Early Development of Chinese Connections at the University of Pennsylvania Law School

AuthorLi Chen
Date01 July 2020
Publication Date01 July 2020
The Origin and Early Development
of Chinese Connections at the
University of Pennsylvania Law
Li Chen1
The University of Pennsylvania Law School has had a long relationship with Chinese students; indeed,
it was among the pioneers in the admission of Chinese students in America. To better understand the
origin of this affiliation, this article traces the relationship between the celebrated Chinese diplomat
Wu Ting-Fang and the then Dean William Draper Lewis, exploring the pivotal role this relationship
played in forging the law school’s Chinese ties. The association was cemented when Penn Law School
welcomed its first Chinese undergraduate student in 1906 and graduate student in 1908. The lesser
known details of these two pioneering Chinese law students’ backgrounds, academic pursuits at Penn
Law School and their key achievements upon graduation are revealed in this article as well. Against a
backdrop of racial prejudice and the legal subordination of Asian peoples in a new American empire, the
personal efforts of men such as Dean Lewis were critical in the admission of the first cohort of Chinese
law students to American law schools in the early part of the twentieth century.
The University of Pennsylvania Law School was among the pioneers in the admission of Chinese
students in America. Prior to them, there were only five universities which had admitted and graduated
Chinese law students.2 Crucial to this process was Dean William Draper Lewis’ friendship with a
celebrated Chinese diplomat, Wu Ting-Fang. On 22 February 1900, Wu was awarded the degree of
Asian Journal of Legal Education
7(2) 195–214, 2020
© 2020 The West Bengal National
University of Juridical Sciences
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/2322005820923463
Corresponding author:
Li Chen, Fudan University Law School, Shanghai 200438, China.
1 Fudan University Law School, Shanghai, China
2 These five universities were Columbia University (Chang Hong Yen, LLB of 1886), State University of New York (Nelson Tsz
Ching Yen, LLB of 1893), New York University Law School (Owyang Kee, LLB of 1899), Yale Law School (Wang Chung Hui,
LLM of 1903, DCL of 1905; Chang Yu Chuan, LLB of 1903, LLM of 1904) and University of Oregon Law School (Seid Back Jr.,
LLB of 1907).
196 Asian Journal of Legal Education 7(2)
Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, together with Harvard Law School Dean James Barr Ames3 and Senior
Associate Justice John Marshall Harlan of the Supreme Court of the USA.4 Wu was invited as the
principal guest of honour and orator at the University Day in 1900, which coincided with the dedication
of the Law School’s new building. Dispelling stereotypes that depicted ‘Chinese justice’ as barbaric and
irrational,5 Wu charmed the crowd with charismatic manners, flawless English and consummate
oratorical skills. Wu’s connections with the University and its law school soon paved the way for two
Chinese law students to gain admission. This article describes his early associations with the Penn Law
School that began with his impressive speech at the University Day in 1900. It also sheds light on lesser
known details of how the law school’s first two Chinese students—an undergraduate and a graduate
student—gained admission, their academic pursuits there and their achievements upon graduation.
Wu Ting-Fang at UPenn University Day 1900
The Chinese government had appointed Wu Ting-Fang Chinese Minister in Washington DC in 1896. He
quickly became a popular figure in the diplomatic circle and acquired a reputation in the USA as ‘a man
of intelligence, education, and perceptions’.6 At the proceedings of the University governing body on 5
December 1899, the University of Pennsylvania extended a formal invitation to Wu to be the orator of
the University Day,7 an extraordinary honour which was customarily extended only to the most highly
respected dignitaries. Two very eminent personalities had immediately preceded him as orators—
William McKinley, President of the USA, in 1898, and Seth Low, President of Columbia University, in
1899.8 Wu was the first foreigner to be so honoured at the University Day,9 a fact all the more notable in
the context of the times. Given the entrenched racial discrimination exemplified by the Chinese Exclusion
Act of 1882, the selection of a Chinese person to be the orator of the University Day ‘was certainly novel,
and the American mind, accustomed to look upon the Chinese as an inferior race, [was] taken by
surprise’.10 Wu, however, was delighted to witness the launching of the ‘magnificent building for the
Law Department’11 and was particularly interested in the law school thanks to his own legal education
and previous vocation as a barrister-at-law.12 Moreover, as we shall see, the timing of the invitation and
the content of his speech gave special importance to the occasion.
In 1900, the occasion was hailed as ‘the biggest educational event of the year’13 since the dedication
of the law school’s new building coincided with the celebration of University Day. The University had
3 University of Pennsylvania, The Proceedings at the Dedication of the New Building of the Department of Law (21 and 22
February 1900) 88 (1901). Dean Ames later admitted the first two Chinese students in 1909 and 1910 at Harvard Law School.
4 Id. There were four other distinguished recipients.
5 See, for example, the article reprinted from the Boston Herald that year describing in gory detail the punishments meted out as
typical of the ‘rotten East’. Boston Herald, Chinese JusticeScenes in a Canton Court-room, the green bag 1, 498–500 (1889).
6 Chinaman and Yankee, Times (Pittsburg), 23 February 1900 (Newspaper Clipping at University of Pennsylvania Archives).
7 University of Pennsylvania, University Bulletin, Vols. 460–61.
8 Supra note 2. Low’s father was a major figure in the China trade, and his aunt had lived in China.
9 Id. at 97.
10 Supra note 6.
11 Supra note 3.
12 See generally Li Chen, Lawyers as the Emerging Diplomatic Elite in China: The Making of the First Chinese Barrister at the
English Bar, 2(2) c.j.c.l. 337–76 (2014).
13 University Day, Dedication of the U. of P.’s New Law School, 18 February 1900 (Newspaper Clipping at University of
Pennsylvania Archives)

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