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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Jimmy Yen - My Personal Greatest Hero

Who do we most respect and admire? Why our Heroes of course. What are the characteristics of a Hero? Heroes are courageous and self-reliant, and they are greatly admired. Being courageous and self-reliant are the characteristics that create heroes. Being admired is something that comes afterward.

Name a genuine Hero who followed the crowd? It’s a crazy question, because Heroes don’t follow the crowd. A hero may or may not lead other people, but all heroes lead themselves. Heroes are self confident independent thinkers who make courageous choices. By committing their entire focus to their goals, Heroes leave no time or energy for worry or self-inflicted emotional suffering. Heroism is a path to a joyful life as well as to inspired service.

Want to be a Hero, just pick one to emulate - WRONG. To be heroic, don’t emulate a hero, learn from one. Heroes don’t follow anyone, they set their own course.

At the end of this article there is an exercise for considering your own greatest hero and which of their qualities inspire you.

Y. C. James (Jimmy) Yen (Yan Yangchu): (1893-1990)
- Charismatic Visionary, Humanitarian, and Educator


An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come.
- Victor Hugo
Go to the people
Live among them
Learn from them
Love them
Serve them
Plan with them
Start with what they know
Build on what they have.

- Jimmy Yen
A leader is most effective when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, his troops will feel they did it themselves.
- Lao Tzu

My personal Greatest Hero is Jimmy Yen. You have probably never heard of Jimmy Yen - most Americans haven’t. Not that he went without recognition. The novelist Pearl Buck wrote his biography. Time magazine wrote about him, and Reader’s Digest wrote about him several times - once as a feature article. In 1943, Jimmy Yen received the prestigious Copernican award as one of 10 highly influential "modern revolutionaries" including Albert Einstein, Orville Wright, Walt Disney, and Henry Ford. He also received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for International Understanding in 1960, and in 1983 he received the Eisenhower Medallion of the People-to-People Foundation for his ‘exceptional’ contribution to world peace and understanding.

Jimmy Yen was a very unassuming man who never sought personal recognition or glory. He didn’t start out with a huge vision, either. His greatest commitments were to his wife, his strong Christian faith, and to the people around him. His immense contribution to humanity began in a very small way, and grew, and grew, and grew exponentially.

In 1918, immediately after graduating from Yale University, Jimmy Yen was swept up into the First World War. He went to France as a YMCA volunteer to interpret for a few of the 180,000 Chinese peasants who had been brought to France by the Allied Forces to work as laborers.

While working among the Chinese laborers, Jimmy found these people to be eager and intelligent, but universally uneducated - that is, unable even to read or write their own name. Jimmy spent many hours reading Chinese language newspapers to these men and writing letters for them to send back to their loved ones in China.

Jimmy wished that he could teach his new friends to read and write, but there was a second reason for these people’s illiteracy beyond the poverty and exceedingly hierarchical class structure of rural China. Chinese is an extremely complex language that is written using tens of thousands of intricate characters - each representing a complete word, rather than a letter.

Even more confounding for a common Chinese speaker trying to master reading and writing, the language that was read and written by educated Chinese at that time was Classical Chinese, which is not a written representation of conversational Chinese, but rather a formalized language virtually unchanged for 2000 years. It was as if the only path for an Italian to learn reading and writing was to learn to read and write Latin.

In spite of the great perceived difficulties, and the mediocre success that other YMCA volunteers had had in teaching the laborers to read and write Classical Chinese, Jimmy still visualized the laborers reading their own newspapers and writing their own letters home.

As he looked at the correspondence he was writing, Jimmy was struck by how often a very small number of characters (words) recurred. Inspired genius struck, and Jimmy selected 1000 characters that he believed could communicate virtually any idea.

Putting flesh on the bones of inspiration, Jimmy made the decision to teach the writing of Vernacular Chinese (Baihua) - a written representation of spoken Chinese - rather than Classical Chinese. Although there had been a effort to promote Baihua in China for several years, it had not gathered momentum, and Baihua remained virtually unused.

Jimmy offered to teach the laborers reading and writing using his 1000 Character System. 40 of the 5000 men in his camp accepted his offer. The training was so successful that many more wanted to join the next class.

Soon, almost all the laborers in that camp were writing their own letters home, and reading a newsletter Jimmy had printed for them in 1000 Baihua characters. Word spread rapidly, and other volunteers started teaching Jimmy’s 1000 Character system throughout the Chinese laborer camps in France.

Jimmy then made a vow to return to his country of birth and educate everyone in rural China.

Jimmy returned to the United States, completed a Masters program at Princeton, obtained financial support from the YMCA-In-China program to launch a Chinese literacy program, and set sail for China with his new bride Alice - who was to become his lifetime companion and committed co-worker in the Literacy and Rural Reconstruction movements.

In 1923, Jimmy established the Chinese Mass Education Movement, and launched what quickly became a nationwide program to teach 1000 Character literacy.

In 1926, Jimmy expanded his work to address the four interlocking problems of ignorance, poverty, disease and civic inertia, with an integrated Rural Reconstruction program of education, livelihood, health and self-government - “integrated, people-centered and sustainable rural development” in his words.

In 1928, John D. Rockefeller Jr. made a large personal contribution to Jimmy’s work and inspired many other Americans to do the same.

With the onset of the Second World War, Jimmy came back to the United States to raise funds for reconstruction in China. Jimmy made powerful friends in America - including Eleanor Roosevelt and Henry Ford - and in 1948 secured funding for post-war reconstruction through the “Jimmy Yen Provision” of the China Aid Act.

In 1950, when his work in China was halted by the incoming Communist government, Jimmy and Alice turned their attention to the world, working with rural reconstruction in the Philippines Thailand, India, Ghana, Guatemala, Columbia, Mexico and Cuba.

In 1960 Jimmy founded the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction in the Philippines.

In 1985 the Chinese government finally welcomed Jimmy back to China and acknowledged his immense contribution to Mass Education and Rural Reconstruction in China.

Today, the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction (IIRR), a worldwide organization based in the Philippines, continues the work begun by Jimmy and Alice Yen and serves as a living memorial to their work.

Beginning with the desire to teach a few simple laborers to read and write, Jimmy Yen’s life unfolded over more than 70 years of service to directly benefit tens of millions of people around the world.

Best of all for me personally, Jimmy Yen is my uncle. In 1921 Uncle Jimmy married Alice Huie - my aunt and the daughter of my grandfather - the Reverend Huie Kin, pastor of the First Chinese Presbyterian Church of New York City.

For me, Jimmy Yen represents the ultimate in inspired selfless service. Day after day after day, he just did the best he could to take one more small step toward what he believed in. His commitment and enthusiasm were so infectious that people around the world became inspired by his vision.

Exercise: Who is your Personal Greatest Hero? Take pen and paper. Write why you admire your greatest hero, and which of their qualities you want to emulate in your own life.

5 comments:

  1. Wow. Nice article Jonathan. Awesome:) and your uncle Jimmy yen's work was remarkable:)

    ReplyDelete
  2. amazing story Jonathan, would love to have had someone like that to live up to, what an amazing person he was. I would love to do something that I can honestly say that it made a difference to so many people

    ReplyDelete
  3. Wow, very inspiring. Very nice to have had such a person in your life and many must wish for the same including me.

    ReplyDelete
  4. amazing story!..my heart goes to jimmy yen for his dedication to serve humankind in his best. i came from the philippines. in my old age i been teaching oriental art in a country i accepted to be my second home. i love it and had been at it for 6 years. teaching people has been my desire since i was younger. never did it come to my mind that i will be doing this kind of activity at a very late age and at a place so strange for me before. god is the one who works in us. he got plans for us that we have to accept with all our hearts and minds. thank you for sharing with us the incredible story of your uncle, jimmy yen.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hello Sir, I would like to get in touch with you to ask for a personal favor , as I am tasked to create a short film presentation about IIRR and Dr. James Yen. I am a staff of IIRR and I would like to discuss my intention to use excerpts of your article in the feature film. I hope to hear from you. Thank you so much for writing and sharing this article.

    Noreen Vergara
    noreen.vergara@iirr.org

    ReplyDelete

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