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Fortunate Sons: The 120 Chinese Boys Who Came to America, Went to School, and Revolutionized an Ancient Civilization

3.74  ·  Rating details ·  241 ratings  ·  65 reviews
At the twilight of the nineteenth century, China sent a detachment of boys to America in order to learn the ways of the West, modernize the antiquated empire, and defend it from foreigners invading its shores. After spending a decade in New England’s finest schools, the boys re-turned home, driven by a pioneering spirit of progress and reform. Their lives in America ...more
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published February 14th 2011 by W. W. Norton Company (first published January 3rd 2011)
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Start your review of Fortunate Sons: The 120 Chinese Boys Who Came to America, Went to School, and Revolutionized an Ancient Civilization
Jan 20, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Cheryl by: First Read
Exceeded my expectations and then some. Highly readable, it is amazing to me how much I learned easily thanks to the superb writing of these authors. The incredible dedication of Yung Wing is an inspiration.

I found myself intrigued by the decisions that went into sending young children to a foreign country, awed at the sacrifice of their parents, appalled the incredible ugliness of how San Francisco treated its Chinese immigrants unfortunate enough to live there, proud of the kindness and care
Rick F.
Jan 16, 2011 rated it it was amazing
The beginning sentence in the book synopsis "At the twilight of the nineteenth century, China sent a detachment of boys to America in order to learn the ways of the West, modernize the antiquated empire, and defend it from foreigners invading its shores." only hints at what is an utterly engrossing account of a little chapter in Sino-American relations. Fortunate Sons: The 120 Chinese Boys Who Came to America, Went to School, and Revolutionized an Ancient Civilization is quite well written and ...more
Feb 05, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, asia
This is an interesting story of the lives of some of the 120 boys who were sent to the United States to study in 1872 with the intent that they would remain for 15 years. The political winds changed so they were recalled to China in 1881. Even though only a few had completed college, these young men changed China.

My complaint about the book is that it is either too broad or too short. A book this length probably should have focused on the life of one man with stores of others woven in from his
Jan 26, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Fortunate Sons delivers so much more than I'd even hoped for. Don't let its size fool you; it packs a lot into 300 pages, including the better part of a century. The journey begins at Yale, in October of 1850, where readers meet Yung Wing, the man pivotal in later bringing the 120 "fortunate sons" to the United States for schooling. Following him back to China, the authors begin to delve deeper into China's rich and complex history, culture, character, because the story of China's sons is also ...more
Because I have read a lot of Chinese history (for more than 30 years), I have a fairly good background in Chinese history so I found this book at times both boring and occasionally surprisingly interesting but the ratio (8:2) was insufficient to hold my interest. It would have made more sense for me to skim through the background sections and just read the pages that told the story of these 120 young men who came to America to learn 'about the west', but unfortunately I didn't. The stories of ...more
William Blair
Oct 10, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This is another one of these books that are ostensibly about one thing, but actually about another. It's really Chinese History, which means that I have just admitted that I knew very little about it. The book ends with "The Last Emperor, Starring John Lone, Joan Chen and Peter O'Toole" (no, not the movie, but the history). It starts ... somewhere, but inbetween China sends some young boys to America to study. They return and eventually play huge parts in bringing China into the 20th century. I ...more
Anne Augusta
May 18, 2019 rated it really liked it
This book provided a compelling story of a group of young men who had extraordinary lives. Well-written and fascinating, this book is an eye-opener.
Tim Giauque
Jan 22, 2011 rated it really liked it
I received this book gratis as part of one of Goodreads' wonderful giveaways. Thanks, folks!

Fortunate Sons is a well-written, engaging book about a time in history that perhaps few people know very much about. The core of the story is a program launched by the Chinese government in the nineteenth century to send some of their best students to the United States to attend college. In so doing, the imperial Qing government hoped to learn some of the secrets behind the United States' rise as a world
Nick Pohl
Jan 23, 2011 rated it really liked it
I got this book compliments of First Reads, and it's my first one.

Overall, for a history book, it reads very smoothly and is not hard to get through like some books in the genre can be. It is packed with interesting anecdotes and stories that focus on just a few of the 120 students sent to the U.S. to study. It gives a good background view of the China they are a part of and gives you a sense of the struggle China has gone through (and might even continue to grapple with) growing out of its
Hayward Chan
Apr 24, 2015 rated it really liked it
It isn't the first book I read on this topic, but definitely the most readable one. Most other books are either dry narrative of who did what when or hopelessly propagandic (ever since the Opium War, the western never stopped harassing Chinese people....) This book covers one thing that most books missed: the psychology of the boys. These boys, who left home when they were small and spent their formative years studying in New England, were lively characters in the stories together with their ...more
Jan 04, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, first-reads
Is this a sad story or a happy one? Liel Leibovitz asks the question, but I can't answer it. His story of Chinese boys being educated in America starts as a flat-out hilarious one, with a football game and a Chinese student in silk robes. At times it's optimistic, with opportunities for learning, exchange, and acceptance. But in the end there's too much xenophobia (on both sides), political corruption, and war. The Chinese Mission project may have been good for China, may have even been good for ...more
Jan 20, 2011 rated it liked it
This is a solid 3.5 stars.

I won this book in a Goodreads giveaway and was initially very excited to read it, but found my interest waning toward the end of the book. It describes an interesting period of history when 120 Chinese boys were sent to America to be educated in the late 1800s, and then what transpired when they returned to China. I found the first half of the book a bit more engaging than the latter half, and I enjoyed reading about the boys' experiences together as students. I also
Jan 20, 2011 rated it really liked it
What a fascinating book. This book introduces you to the first Chinese man to graduate from Yale, his journey to bring other Chinese boys to the US for a Western education, and the successes and failures they encounter in their attempts to modernize China.

The book was an eye opener for me because I had never heard about China sending boys to the US in the 19th century. It was unfortunate to read that the internal politics of the country and it's antiquated culture prevented the boys from
Jan 19, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Sinophiles
Recommended to Josiah by: Goodreads
Plot: B - The plot was easy to follow. I was worried about how the students would integrate into US society, and later back into Chinese society.
Writing: A - The writing suited the topic. This is nonfiction.
Vocabulary: B - There was not too much difficult vocabulary, but it would have been nice to include a pronunciation guide for the Chinese names.
Illustrations: There are black & white photographs of real people.
Level: 6th grade
Rating: PG - Sad topics include homesickness and racism.
Dec 03, 2011 rated it really liked it
I picked this book off the "newly acquired" shelf at the library and found myself immersed in a story unknown to me and fascinating in its historical significance. Who would have known that a young man from China entered Yale in 1850, sponsored by an American Missionary in China. From that one young man emerged a program several decades later to send a hundred young Chinese to study in America and bring back ideas for Chinese economic development. This book traces the travel of the group, their ...more
Jan 21, 2011 rated it really liked it
I enjoy books that tell the true stories of extraordinary individuals. The men whose stories are related in "Fortunate Sons" are fascinating because their lives are intertwined with the modernization of China in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. While the authors do discuss many events in Chinese history such as the Boxer Rebellion and the 1911 Revolution, these events are described in a way that is easy to understand for someone not familiar with them. This makes for a work that ...more
3.5 stars

This was enjoyable enough, but alas, the authors simply had too much to work with here. This book was super informative, but it tried to cover too much in too short of a space. Often I found myself trying to fill in the blanks as the authors surged ahead years in between chapters, and I felt like there was a lot left unsaid in this book. I wasn't expecting for this book to attempt to summarize China's political state from the 1860s to the 1920s as well as try to discuss the lives of the
Jul 10, 2011 rated it liked it
I would give this 3 1/2 stars if I could. It describes an interesting chapter of history when 120 Chinese boys came to be educated in Connecticut in the 1870s and then what happened when they went back home. I thought the first half of the book was quite a bit stronger than the second half. The history of their teacher Yung Wing was very compelling and I really enjoyed reading about the recruiting of the boys and their experiences together as students. The authors also managed to weave in the ...more
Debby Stephan
Feb 13, 2011 rated it really liked it
I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway and I truly enjoyed it. This is exactly the type of book that you need to read if you want to learn about history because it personalizes it. It is well written and because I could relate to the characters, I learned a lot. Reading this book has deepened my appreciation for the Chinese and their civilization. Although the Chinese have been more advanced than the rest of the world throughout most of history, when that advantage was threatened, they ...more
Jan 24, 2011 rated it really liked it
I received this book via GoodReads giveaways and am so glad I did. It is history at its best. Combination of personal history with textbook facts about both Chinese and American relations and policies in the late 1800's and early 1900's was truly fascinating. The books follows closely a handful of the 120 boys from China who come to America's east coast to learn new ways of modernizing their own country while still trying to fit in with the American way of life and hold on to their Chinese ...more
Jan 26, 2011 rated it it was amazing
I would recommend this book to anyone who wishes to understand the history of China in the past 170 years. Well written and easy to read, describing the workings of an ineffective government of a country with so many possibilities. Men who had visions and education in the 1800's, and who had the ability to bring about change for their peoples were rendered ineffective. The courage of the young men who had the vision is unfailing. Leibovitz & Miller bring the story of 120 sons of China to the ...more
Jan 26, 2011 rated it liked it
This is an amazing book which tells a fascinating story, has a happy and sad ending, and has the advantage of being true. It reads like fiction, but has been painstakingly researched, with source material as diverse as imperial communications and private letters. While there wasn't room enough in one book to discuss every single one of the 120 Chinese boys who came to America at the turn of the nineteenth century, enough time is devoted to different boys to get a feeling for the highs and lows ...more
Based on the description of this book, I really want to read it. And then I saw a review that my friend Rick shared here on Goodreads, and his review is so great that I really hope I win a First Reads copy of this book!!!
I'm fascinated by east/west relations, especially during the time period covered in the book (late 19th century.) There was (and still is) so much for the east and west to learn from each other, and I just find it fascinating that a group of Chinese boys were sent to schools in
Jan 19, 2011 rated it really liked it
This was a very interesting book that provides details about a fascinating historic event that I was completely unaware of. The only reason I couldn't give it a 5 star rating is my frustration that the book didn't cover enough: the authors swung between giving personal details of some of the "Fortunate Sons" to providing the details of China's politics and culture. Granted, this is an awesome task. But there were so many characters that it would have been easier for me had they been fleshed out ...more
Nov 30, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, china
Interesting story Chinese kids sent to America in the 1800s as factions of the Qing Dynasty attempted to modernize. The story starts with a young man Yung Wing, who with help from foreign missionary friends, went to Yale in 1850. After struggling upon his return to China, he eventually found his way to helping another 120 boys come back to the U.S. to CT in the 1870s as high school students. These kids went on to help shape the end of the Qing dynasty and the start of the next phase of China ...more
Yvonne O'connor
Apr 30, 2013 rated it liked it
The book is less a story of the 120 boys selected to go to America for schooling, than a history lesson about China in the late 1900's and leading up to the Boxer Rebellions and start of Chang Kai-Shek and Sun Yat Sen. The beginning and ending save the book from becoming a listing of the names and places and dates of history. The middle is VERY tough to trudge through. But, if you put in the time, you are eventually rewarded with a kind of "full circle" on at least a handful of the students, who ...more
May 17, 2011 rated it it was amazing
A little-known and fascinating story about 120 Chinese boys who came to Connecticut to learn English, complete high school and attend college in the 1870's in order to return to China and help bring her into the modern world. The story of the boys is amazing and inspiring but I especially appreciated the authors' abilitly to synthesize the complexities of 19th century Chinese social and political history. I have a much greater understanding of the challenges China faced, especially during the ...more
Jan 20, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: first-reads
I received a copy of this book through the First Reads program. It took me about a month to read the book because, as I discovered, I didn't actually know that much about Chinese history. Every page of this book was crammed with information and story. Trying to absorb it all could only happen at an imperial pace. The book is well-written and the ARC I received did not have the pictures that are supposed to in the published edition. I would like to see them. This is definitely a book for history ...more
Margaret Sankey
Jul 23, 2011 rated it liked it
Starting in 1872, the Chinese government, at the urging of a handful of progressive (and mission-educated) scholars, sent 120 young boys to New England to be prepped for education at Yale--and to form the core of a new Chinese middle class civil service. Perhaps most interesting is the attitude of the New Haven grandees--they were enormously flattered to be sought after as an educational model, thus the boys were Confucian Scholars and should be exempt from 19th century racial assumptions as ...more
Nov 16, 2013 rated it liked it
An interesting look back at an early 20th century Chinese program that sent young men who didn't know English to New England for years of education, and what became of them on return to a country in transition.

Their mentor Yung Wing, has perhaps the most vivid story, maybe because he left the most extensive autobiographical writings. The authors dish up a roster boys with colorful nicknames ("Fighting Chinee," "Cold Fish Chalie") but the balance between focusing on a few boys and giving some
Feb 08, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: first-reads
I enjoyed reading about the end of the Qing dynasty and how this group of young Chinese boys who studied in the US for several years went on to play key roles in modern China. What really surprised me, however, was how they didn't become revolutionaries. It was fascinating to read about the where the boys ended up some 50 years after they returned to China. I'd recommend this book to anyone who is interested in modern China, even though who are well-versed in Chinese history.
Jan 20, 2011 rated it it was amazing
A first reads win. This was a fascinating look into a piece of history I knew nothing about. While I have been interested in Eastern history, my reading has mostly focused on Japan. This view from the perspective of the Chinese Educational Mission was engaging and informative. The perspectives and accomplishments of several of the boys are presented and analyzed. An excellent choice for someone interested in the development and history of China.
Feb 08, 2011 marked it as to-read
I have not read this, yet, but the subject fascinates me, as my grandfather, Chien Chang Kan, also came to America (at age 16 in 1920), went to school (he graduated at the top of his class from RPI in 1925 with a master's degree in civil engineering), and went home to help modernize China. His specialty was building bridges, and he helped build the first steel suspension bridge in China designed and built entirely by Chinese engineers and Chinese labor.
Ben Casper
Jan 14, 2016 rated it it was ok
this "book" is what i like to call a translation service. it assembles hard to find information, often in other languages, and ties it together to tell the story. know that the main subject, yung wings memoir, "when i was a boy in china" which this book is basically a summary of, plus unnesesary historical backround, is available. there is absolutly no reason to waste your time on this lazy assemblage.
Feb 16, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
3.5 stars

Books about China are very interesting. Besides the Good Earth, most books I've read were about the Mao era. This starts in the 1850s and goes up to the 1930s. Mao makes a brief appearance but mostly you just see how everything led up to him. (Not that the book is at all about him. You can just see what is happening in China that would turn out a Mao.)
Jenny Brown
May 31, 2011 rated it really liked it
A very well researched look at a little known story about a group of Chinese boys who were sent to Hartford, CT to go to high school with a goal of attending universities where they could train to bring home modern technology to China. Gives insight into life in China in the period between the mid 1850s and the revolution that removed the last emperor.
May 26, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This was so interesting!! In the 1880's, China sent 120 boys to New England for prep school and college. They came home and became leaders in China's stumbling modernization. What foresight to commit to schooling 12-year-olds at a time when the country was faltering under the multiple assaults of opium, imperialism, and monarchy! Read this book.
Feb 15, 2011 rated it really liked it
It was fascinating! This was a piece of history I knew nothing about. It is also a quick read. I did have a hard time keeping many of the Chinese names straight, but that is my fault. This is another book that is a quick overview of a topic that could justify a lot more scholarship.
Jan 12, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This is a fascinating account of some of the early Chinese scholars who came to the U.S.--their challenges both here in the U.S. and when they were pulled back to China. It is easy to digest, and gives a great overall picture of China/U.S. relations.
I highly recommend it.
Aug 04, 2011 rated it really liked it
This is a fascinating story of.....well, you can read the title. The authors do an exceptional job at synthesizing disparate perspectives to tell the unifying story. This juncture of Chinese history is captivating too.
I read half of it, then kind of petered off and other books kept getting read instead until I finally took it back. It's an interesting period of history and I learned more about late 19th century China than I had known before.
Mar 25, 2011 rated it it was ok
I found it interesting that China sent students to the U.S. in the 1800's to be educated. Now we are 25th in Science and Math out of 34 countries.

It was interesting, but I had a hard time keeping track of who was who.
Feb 07, 2013 rated it it was ok
As a quick history of China from about 1850-1925, this is a pretty good book. But it's not very good at really telling the stories of the 120 students. Mostly they're a device to draw you to read the book, really.
Jan 03, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Fascinating story, and very well-written. Aside from being a powerful story about the young men who made this epic trip, it's a compact lesson on Chinese history from the mid-1800's to the early 20th century.
Feb 04, 2011 rated it it was amazing
120 people can't change the world, or can they? After reading this book, I think it could be argued that China is striding into modern power because of this seemingly insignificant education experiment.
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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet magazine and teaches at New York University. He is the coauthor of Fortunate Sons, Lili Marlene, and The Chosen Peoples. He lives in New York City.