Necrology of My Father

I recently rediscovered a necrology (obituary) of my father written by Dr. D. E. Mungello of Baylor University and originally published in the Sino-Western Cultural Relations Journal, XIX (1997).

Reading it again, this time as an adult nearly twice as old as the teenager who read it before, I find that I gain deeper insight into the person who was my father. I feel like I can learn more about myself if I learn more about him. I was barely 18 when my father died, with many of those eighteen years being spent in conflict with him, as can be typical with teenagers and their fathers. I never really got to know my father as a man. Reading the necrology and other articles by and about him gives me a chance to get to know my father a little better. I never would have admit this back then, but I am very much like him, and today I am proud to say so.

Below is the necrology, posted with permission from Dr. Mungello.


Dr. John Dragon Young (楊意龍博士)

John Dragon Young was born on November 5th 1949 in Beijing. He came from a notable academic family whose members have included the English translators, Gladys Yang and Xianyi Yang. In the aftermath of the Communist Liberation, his family fled mainland China to Hong Kong where he received his primary and secondary schooling. He came to the United States for his post-secondary education and graduated magna cum laude from California State University at Hayward. His graduate work in History was done at the University of California at Davis and completed in 1976. His dissertation was directed by Professor Kwang-ching Liu (劉廣京教授) and was later revised and published as Confucianism and Christianity: the First Encounter (1983).

Dr. Young returned to Hong Kong in 1977 where over the next decade he held a number of academic positions. These included employment as a Research Officer of the Centre of Asian Studies at the University of Hong Kong and as a teacher in the Extra Mural Department of the University of Hong Kong. He cofounded the Modern Chinese History Society of Hong Kong and served as its first president. He wrote the foreword that appears in the first issue of the Modern Chinese History Society of Hong Kong Bulletin 香港中國近代史學會會刊. After serving as an active Head of the Department of History, Hong Kong Baptist College, he resigned over what he regarded as a matter of principle. This event was a watershed in his life and he would never again obtain a full time academic position in History.

For the next five years, Dr. Young was involved in the political life of Hong Kong. His academic involvement moved in this direction when he became a professor in the Graduate School of Journalism at Chu Hai College, although he also served as the Director of the Historical Research Centre of Chu Hai College. His commitment to Hong Kong was more than what one would expect toward a place that provided him merely refuge. He had a genuine concern for the people of Hong Kong and would increasingly come to believe that Hong Kong’s unique identity could play an important role in mediating between mainland China and the United States. As part of his effort to raise the people’s consciousness of legal institutions in Hong Kong, he successfully ran for a seat in the Shatin (New Territories) 新界沙田 District Council in 1988.

Excited by the implications for democracy by the Tiananmen student demonstrations, he travelled to Beijing in May 1989 to attend the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement. His intense disappointment over the outcome of events of June 4th would lead him to turn his energies toward Hong Kong. Increasingly, Dr. Young was involved in media debate over political events there. His public criticism of the forced repatriation of Vietnamese refugees led to an extended dialogue with Governor David Wilson over Hong Kong affairs. However, in 1991, his political life suffered a reverse when he was defeated in his independent candidacy in the first Legislative Council elections in 1991.

In 1992 Dr. Young returned to California. He became an advisor on Asian affairs to the San Francisco Mayor’s Office and obtained American Citizenship. He became an editorial consultant with the «大華間雜誌» (Chinese Journal) (San Francisco). After drifting away from his earlier interest in cross-cultural studies, he wrote a series of articles on Hong Kong’s impending absorption by the People’s Republic of China. He published these in such publications as «星島日報» (Sing Tao Daily) (San Francisco) and Asian Week. In addition, he wrote book reviews on China for the leading English-daily in Hong Kong, the South China Morning Post.

Unlike many Chinese academics who established residency and citizenship in the United States, he moved back and forth between the cultures of the United States (mainly the Chinese subculture of San Francisco) and Hong Kong where he had a base at the Centre of Asian Studies of the University of Hong Kong as an Honorary Research Fellow. There was a price to be paid for moving back and forth between these two cultures without being anchored in either. His understanding of American culture was deep and sophisticated, but he appeared much more Americanized than he actually was. The academic job market in the United States continued to be tight and a position there eluded him. Dr. Young’s eventual move back to Hong Kong was probably decided by his securing employment as a member of the Department of Translation of the Chinese University of Hong Kong 香港中文大學翻譯系. In this final academic position, he was involved in teaching the translation of legal terminology from English to Chinese and from Chinese to English.

During the last years of his life, Dr. Young returned to his early interest in the early modern history of Chinese cross-cultural contacts. Sun Yat-sen held a particular fascination for him, perhaps because of the parallels in their lives divided between Hong Kong and Overseas Chinese areas. He wrote reviews for this journal and collaborated with this writer on translating a passage from Yang Guangxian’s 楊光先 Budeyi «不得已» (I cannot do otherwise) (1665) as part of a Sino-Western section for a new edition of Sources of Chinese Tradition edited by Wm. Theodore de Bary. He was one of the organizers of the conference “Christianity in China: Foundations for Dialogue” held at the University of Hong Kong in May of 1992 and he coedited the papers for publication. He was an enthusiastic participant in the International Symposium on the Significance of the Chinese Rites Controversy in Sino-Western History which took place in San Francisco in October of 1992 and in the International Symposium on the History of Christianity in China which took place in Hong Kong in early October of 1996. He looked forward to further involvement in cross-cultural studies.

Dr. Young was self-effacing and personable. On his visit to Texas in the spring of 1995 he enthralled Baylor students with his description of secret societies in contemporary Hong Kong. He experienced a great deal of frustration in his life which made him, at times, critical. He had strong feelings about the issues for which he cared most, including lingering imperialist attitudes toward the Chinese and the future of democracy in Hong Kong. In an article on the meaning of Chinese patriotism, he wrote that whereas in Western democracies, criticism of one’s government “is considered a right, or even a duty,” this is not the case in China where traditionally government officials have acted as “parents” of ordinary Chinese. He believed that the dilemma of Chinese patriotism would continue beyond 1997 “unless efforts were made to inform the average Chinese person that loyalty to China is not necessarily equal to total obedience of its government” (Asian Week, February 18th 1994, p. 2 & 19).

There is reason to believe that Dr. Young might have played a significant intellectual role in Hong Kong after its absorption by the mainland. Unfortunately, his life ended on a note of bizarre tragedy when he was struck by a lorry in the Central district of Hong Kong Island and in a spectacular fall, landed on his head, suffering a brain injury. After three weeks in the hospital, he died on November 5th 1996, which with sad irony, was his 47th birthday.

He is survived by his parents in Vancouver, by a sister in Hong Kong, by a son and daughter in San Francisco and by a daughter in Hong Kong.

In retrospect, Dr. John Dragon Young was a man whose life from birth until death was characterized by struggle. Many of these struggles were inflicted on him by the historic upheavals of 20th-century China. Others were merely personal. But some of his struggles were for the most noble of ends. He will be missed by those of us who valued him as a bridge between East and West, as a colleague and as a friend.

D. E. M.

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