Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies

The Freeman Orientation, Part 1 (Introduction)

By Nancy Smith

Mansfield Freeman spends his summers at Skunk Hollow Farm, an old and secluded homestead at the end of a long dirt road in upstate Vermont. The decor is modified Colonial, with vibrant Oriental accents-reflections of Freeman's New England heritage and a life devoted to interests in East Asia.

A picture window in the living room frames a still pond, a small flock of sheep, mountains curving into the distance. There are no loud noises. With the view as a backdrop, Freeman entertains. At 92, his six-foot frame may have lost resilience, but his mind and his conversation are supple and swift. He loves to talk, even better, to debate. He is cordial, but says he can see little point to an article written about him. "Your years in China," we reply. "Your entrepreneurship in opening the Orient to business in the '20s. Your scholarly pursuits."

With a brush of his hand, he dismisses them all. "It was all very ordinary and straightforward," he insists. "My story is that of a young man who set out to make a living and did; not exciting at all. We were very conservative in my day, remember, not like the young people of today."

In the autumn of 1919, Mansfield Freeman went to China to teach English at Tsing Hua, a small college in Peking. Only three or four months after his arrival, while on a short holiday in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province, he was invited to deliver a public lecture on the value of education. He had only begun to learn Chinese, so asked for the assistance of a translator but was told none was available. "Today I'd have the sense to decline to speak," he says, "but I was young then and thought I could do anything.

"They placed a man behind me, at a blackboard, to write down important points of my lecture. I'd say something, then look around at the blackboard to see if he had written anything down. If he hadn't, I knew I had to do better. If he had, I knew I'd gotten an idea across-but it was not good Chinese!"

In the 22 years he spent in China, before the advent of World War II forced him to return to the United States, Freeman's Chinese became very good indeed. His foray into formal teaching was short-lived, and he spent most of the time between the two world wars as a senior executive of the American Life Insurance Co. His curiosity about the people and the country evolved into deep affection. Through patient study and careful observation, he became one of very few Americans who were truly knowledgeable about the culture, politics and national character of the Chinese. He earned as well a reputation as a philanthropist (for, among other efforts, his activities in aid of famine relief) and as a serious scholar of Chinese philosophy.

Half a century after he first ventured to Asia, Freeman found a new outlet for his scholarly interest in China through Wesleyan's East Asian Studies Program. By providing critical assistance when the program was in its infancy, he helped to open this rich field to new generations of students.

"The United States faces east and west, but our orientation has always been toward Europe," he says. "In the past, this country has frequently blundered in its relations with Far Eastern peoples, not from intent, but from a lack of understanding.

"When we first opened the door to Communist China, for instance, did we tell the Japanese we were going to re-establish trade? Japan had been longing to get back into the China trade; did we consult them or ask them to come along? No. Suddenly they read in the newspapers that our president was in China making a deal. This was terribly insulting-and it was an insult largely caused by our own ignorance.

"We needed then, and we need still, more knowledgeable people in our embassies and our businesses and our cultural organizations, who understand how Orientals think and what they think about-their philosophy, way of doing business, family systems, social customs. We need to know to save us from making costly, foolish mistakes in the future."

 

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