Ch’uan Yueh-Tung: Lou Hoover’s Chinese Language Instructor

Lou Henry Hoover is seen resting her arm on a cannon during her time in China. This photo is dated from 1900.

By Thomas F. Schwartz

Lou Henry Hoover’s papers contain a published obituary of Ch’uan Yueh-Tung, revealing the following information:

“Mr. Ch’uan’s chief contribution, however, was his teaching of Chinese. He spoke the beautiful Peking dialect [Mandarin] without a flaw and to hear him speak was like listening to delightful music. He was an enthusiastic teacher and many of the missionaries and men in government positions owe their proficiency of speech and their love of the Chinese language to him. His most famous students are ex-President and Mrs. Hoover, whom he taught for a time when they were in China. After the establishment of the North China Language School he taught there until old age forced him to retire.

Much has been written about the Hoovers speaking to one another in Chinese during his Presidency so others in the room would not understand their conversation. This is untrue.

Mrs. Hoover was the linguist and Herbert Hoover had only the most rudimentary use of basic expressions. He was neither fluent in Chinese nor any other foreign language. Mrs. Hoover was fluent in at least five to seven languages, including Latin, allowing her to translate De Re Metallica for an English reading audience.

Lou quickly sought a language tutor upon arriving in China in 1899. Given Ch’uan Yueh-Tung’s reputation as a teacher, she sought out his services. Upon Herbert Hoover’s election, Lou received a letter from one of Ch’uan’s sons on January 11, 1929, which read:

“My father, Mr. Yueh-Tung Ch’uan, your old Chinese language teacher of the China Boxer’s days, wishes to tender you and Mr. Hoover his heartiest congratulations upon his being elected to the most important position in the United States, if not in the entire world, in which all the Ch’uans cordially join with their father. Needless to say that we have been watching the progress of the presidential campaign in the United States with keen interest and had no doubt that Mr. Hoover would come out victorious. Perhaps it may not be assuming too much when I say that my father took particular pride in Mr. Hoover’s election. When the news of Mr. Hoover’s victory reached Peking [Beijing] some of our friends joked with my father saying, ‘Now you can have the title of Tai Shih (Imperial Tutor), as one of your pupils has been elected the ‘emperor’ of the United States!

With all our very best wishes for Mr. Hoover’s success in the administration of the affairs of your great nation and good health to him, to you, and your entire family.”

Correspondence between teacher and student continued during and after the presidency, usually through intermediaries who also studied with Ch’uan. That correspondence will be subjects of future blog posts.

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