Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies

The Freeman Orientation, Part 3 (Years in China)

By Nancy Smith

When Mansfield Freeman was an undergraduate, Wesleyan was a college of about 300 students. People could get to Middletown by train in those days, and they took horse-drawn cabs to get up the hill.

Freeman, who was preceded at Wesleyan by his grandfather, great-uncle and uncle, joined Eclectic fraternity, majored in English and "took every course in philosophy that was offered."

After graduation, he joined the Army and served in a medical unit in France during World War 1. At the end of the war, when he returned to the States, he had his sergeant's stripes, a bachelor's degree, a lovely fiancée named Mary Houghton and no particular inclination toward a profession.

Of the several job possibilities available, he chose the most adventurous-teaching English at Tsing Hua College in Peking. "I had no formal training as a teacher," he says, "but I called up my fiancée in Boston and asked if she could be ready to be married and to go to China in two weeks."

She was and they were and they did. The young couple spent their honeymoon aboard the Empress of Russia, three weeks at sea, traveling with a boat load of Chinese laborers being repatriated after the war. Learning Chinese was an imperative for the Freemans. "Our servants spoke no English," he remembers. "Mary had to go out and negotiate with the cook from the first day; it was quite a strain. She learned the vocabulary but not much grammar-there was nothing in the kitchen she didn't know the name for, but she was not good at putting words together in sentences. I was more fastidious about sentence structure."

Freeman hired teachers, even taking one with him on vacation when the college closed for the summer. "It was very important to me to be able to talk with people in the streets."

Thus from inclination and necessity, Chinese became the language of the household and the Freeman's son, Houghton (Wesleyan Class of '43), born in 1921, spoke only Chinese until the family's first home leave when he was 4.

Mary Freeman developed her own singular methods of coping with life in China. When they traveled to Taiyuan (the occasion of Mansfield's first extemporaneous public lecture), they booked a room at a local hotel that proved to be neither charming nor clean.

They were invited to dine in a private home. "It was exceedingly cold," Freeman notes. "As in all houses in China in those days, there were just a few open braziers around. To keep warm, you put on more coats and several pairs of socks."

The food presented a problem greater even than the cold.

"Because we were special guests, they gave us the finest food they could find. Imported things. We would have been more than content with simple local beef or lamb, but we were treated to sea slugs, and had to pretend to be delighted.

"Mary became disgusted. She was cold, our hotel was rotten, the food was frightening and she'd lost interest in my interviews. She got up from the table and said, 'I am going out in the street and I'm going to find someone and ask him to take us in.'

"No one else spoke English. I explained to my host that my wife was indisposed, and she walked out. I stayed to finish my meal.

"Out in the street, Mary had seen a young man coming along, obviously a foreigner, and she'd approached him and said ''I'd like to come to your house.' He said, 'Of course, I'd be charmed. I'm the secretary of the local YMCA and my wife and I have a nice house with a guest room.' So by the time I joined her she'd arranged for our room and board and made the rest of our stay very comfortable."

About a dozen foreign teachers, all Americans, worked at Tsing Hua, where they were provided with modest houses on the campus. In the 1920s there was considerable civil unrest in China as power in the government shifted and changed. Occasionally, Freeman remembers, marauding and looting soldiers threatened to invade the Tsing Hua campus, causing him to spend nights patrolling its foreign resident section.

Still, "Peking was a delightful city in those days," he says. "All the foreigners were heads of companies, diplomats, people from the missions, scholars or artists. And everyone traveling to China always visited Peking; the dinner parties were quite brilliant."

This pleasant life was marred by the death of the Freemans' second child, Mansfield Jr., who was born in 1923 but died of dysentery before his first birthday.

In 1923 Freeman became involved in famine relief, distributing rice and grain to afflicted areas in northern China. On one expedition, he picked up a serious case of typhus that left him debilitated for months.

At Tsing Hua, he found a select group of students, extremely bright, 18 or 19 years old or older and, on the whole, more docile than their contemporary American counterparts. But in those early years, he did not probe much into their thoughts or feelings. "I never fathomed the deep sorrow of my students at the deplorable state of the country or their resentment at the West. They were too polite to inform me of how they felt."

But by what he calls "a process of osmosis," he began to extend his connections, to acquire knowledge.

On the campus and in Peking, he sought contact with scholars and intellectuals. Among them was Professor Hu Shih, one of the foremost philosophers of 20th-century China. He asked Hu Shih to recommend a philosophical writer, someone who could add substance to his language studies.

Hu Shih, who had studied at Columbia University and was deeply influenced by the writings of John Dewey, had worked extensively on the writings of an 18th-century philosopher, Tai Chen. He suggested that Freeman look into the works of Yen Yuan (17th-century philosopher who was Tai Chen's intellectual antecedent), thus inaugurating Freeman's lifelong dedication to the craft of translation. Years later, in 1972, Freeman published an introduction to and translation of Yen Yuan's Preservation of Learning. He is now at work on a similar book about Tai Chen.

His friendship with Hu Shih and other scholars involved Freeman with a group of intellectuals who knew Chinese traditions, philosophy and culture very well but were also critical of them. Through these men, Freeman developed not only an interest in the philosophers but also acquired his particular pragmatic view of Confucianism. ("Very like Mr. Freeman himself," says Schwarcz. "These Confucian thinkers were realistic, problemsolving literati, connected to the real world.") According to Schwarcz, Freeman was far better informed than most Western scholars of what was going on in academic circles in China at the time.

"The intellectuals I knew in the 1920s were universally critical of the government, its inefficiency and its corruption in selling the country to the Japanese," Freeman wrote in a letter to Schwarcz in 1985. "If there were some of them favorable to Communism, it was not because of a serious study of Marxist philosophy but from the hope that a movement that had successfully overthrown the autocratic monarchy of Russia might be a vehicle in China to blunt the inroads of European and Japanese imperialism."

After he'd taught at Tsing Hua for three years, Freeman was offered a job with the American Life Insurance Co. (then the Asia Insurance Co.) by the manager of the firm's Peking office. Freeman refused, but was intrigued when the manager then suggested that he train some of his Chinese students to sell life insurance. "That was a challenge. I put a notice on the bulletin board that attracted three or four students. I knew nothing about insurance, but I got a book on the subject and gave them a good course of lectures.

"When summer came, I sent them out with applications to solicit their friends. They returned in a week or so, complaining, 'We can't sell this; perhaps the instruction we got was faulty.'
"'Not at all,' I replied, 'it was the best you could have had. To prove it, I'll go out with you and show you how to sell.' It was all bluff of course, I'd never sold anything of the sort, but when they took me out, I sold the first prospect I went to see."

That summer Freeman and his team made what he modestly calls "some sort of record."
The directors of the company were so impressed that its president, C. V. Starr, visited Freeman and persuaded him to join the firm. "I got into the insurance business by the back door," says Freeman, "but Mr. Starr was the reason I stayed in it. My initial confidence in him grew into real respect and love."

He managed the Peking office for several years, then, after a tour of home leave, returned to China and was assigned to the company's headquarters in Shanghai.

Shanghai, he found, was very different from Peking. "It was a busy, industrial city, with very little intellectual life and no culture at all. It was a world of dances and cocktail parties rather than lectures and discussions. I expect the distinction still exists."

In Shanghai the Freemans had a house out in the country, away from the center of town. They kept police dogs and one day one of them bounded through the gate and out into the road, where it exuberantly jumped on a Chinese boy.

"We brought the boy right into the house and cared for him," Freeman says. "But a crowd of people gathered outside the gate shouting against foreign devils attacking one of their children. I could see a riot building.

"I went out of the gates to calm them down. Fortunately the Chinese have a great sense of humor. I began to mimic the leader of the mob, who was throwing his hands around, and the crowd began to laugh. Soon they were in a good mood, and after I thanked them and said the boy would be looked after and sent home, they just melted away."

The Freeman family left its own mark on the city. Freeman's father, the Rev. Luther Freeman, was a Methodist minister who had parishes in Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Missouri and California and served for a time as president of Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. He visited Mansfield and Mary Freeman in Shanghai, where he started what later came to be known as the Community Church. An interdenominational organization, its first meetings were held in the bar of the country club. The owner of the club allowed services after 2 o'clock in the afternoon, but stipulated that the churchgoers be out by 5 p.m. when his drinking customers began to arrive.

Freeman remained in the insurance business for the rest of his working life, becoming, in 1933, president of the life insurance portion of Starr's general insurance enterprise. He and his family continued to live in China, in Shanghai, until the summer of 1941.

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