A Guangdong township is celebrating its famous past, writes Mark O'Neill
He persuaded the last emperor to abdicate, was the first prime minister of the Republic of China, negotiated to keep the British out of Tibet and was a personal friend of two US presidents. Tang Shaoyi is the pride of the small township of Tangjiawan (the bay of the Tang family), on the outskirts of Zhuhai , and one of the main reasons why earlier this year it earned the title of a township famous for its history and culture, one of only 20 on the mainland. It has been inhabited for almost 700 years.
For a township with a pre-war population of only 20,000, it boasts a remarkable lineup of famous men - most of them called Tang - men who founded Qinghua University in Beijing, the Chinese Lawyers' Association, the Hua Mei bank in Hawaii, two of Shanghai's biggest tea companies, and one of the most famous performers of Cantonese opera. Sun Yat-sen came from the neighbouring county.
Its fame has much to do with the fact that of the 120 secondary students sent by the Qing dynasty to study in the US at the end of the 19th century, 13 came from the township. This gave them a head start over their countrymen in the command of English and the secrets of the advanced industrial world.
Tong Oi-chun, 75, who left the township in 1949 and purchased a unit in one of the new residential compounds in 2001, said what made Tangjiawan special was its overseas links. 'People from this area were among the first in China to go abroad, to Southeast Asia, Hawaii and the US. Those who went abroad kept their links with their families at home, sending back money and providing opportunities for education and business that were unavailable to other Chinese. So there was money to build nice new buildings and in a style that contained foreign elements, making the township different,' he said.
'Many of the men who went abroad insisted on taking a wife from the township, even though they had been abroad for a long time.'
This area of Guangdong has sent more migrants overseas than any other part of the mainland, giving Tangjiawan access to capital, knowledge and connections from overseas.
No one made better use of these than Tang Shaoyi. He was born in 1862 in a comfortable house down a narrow alley in the centre of the town, the son of a tea exporter. He was one of the 13 to go to the US in 1874. He attended a secondary school in Hartford, Connecticut, and then Columbia University in New York where he studied liberal arts and made friends with Herbert Hoover, who went on to become Republican president between 1929 and 1933.
On returning home in 1881, Tang went to the Tianjin Institute of Foreign Studies, before being posted as a commercial officer in Korea, where he became consul-general in 1896. Then he returned home to become head of customs in Tianjin, where in 1900 his house was hit by a shell launched by the Boxers, who ran a campaign to drive foreigners and Christianity out of the country.
The shell killed Tang's wife and fourth daughter. Hoover, who was in Tianjin working as a mining engineer and lived across the street, rushed into the burning house and helped rescue the family, including a baby girl, who went on to marry China's representative to the Versailles peace talks in 1919 and became its ambassador to the US.
Tang's next major assignment came in 1904, when he went to negotiate with Britain following its invasion of Tibet that year, under which it enforced trade treaties with Lhasa . Tang persuaded Britain to sign a treaty in April 1906, under which it recognised Chinese sovereignty over Tibet - which lasted until 1913, when the last Chinese troops marched out of Lhasa, in the wake of the 1911 revolution, and the Dalai Lama returned to his capital.
A loyal servant of the Qing emperor who had been educated in a democratic republic, Tang played a crucial role in the end of the dynasty. He helped persuade the last emperor, Puyi, to abdicate and was chosen by Sun Yat-sen as the first prime minister of the Republic of China on March 25, 1912.
Unfortunately, Tang could not tolerate the interference of others in his work and resigned after only three months. He would not hold a senior position in the Republican government again and became the chairman of an insurance company in Shanghai for several years.
In 1919, he sent a telegram to his son-in-law in Versailles, telling him not to sign the peace treaty ending the first world war, because he considered it unjust to China, an ally of Britain and France during the conflict.
Weary of the endless conflicts within the central government, in 1929 Tang took up the post of chief of his native Zhongshan county and started an ambitious programme of modernisation. But he only lasted until October 1934, when he was forced to resign after a mutiny arranged by a local warlord.
He moved his family back to Shanghai. After it fell to Japan in 1937, he sent his family to the safety of Hong Kong, but he remained behind. The Nationalist Party was split, with one part negotiating in secret to form a government in collaboration with Japan and the other against. Each wanted Tang on its side.
On the morning of September 28, 1938, a Chinese group sympathetic to Japan went to meet Tang at his home in Shanghai. Two days later, a man visited the house and stabbed him to death. It is unclear who ordered the killing.
The Nationalist government in Chongqing offered 5,000 yuan for the funeral, in honour of a distinguished public servant.
Tang's greatest legacy is a magnificent park that he bequeathed to his home town in 1932. Now called the 'park of common happiness', it covers an area of 34,000 square metres, with thousands of trees, including 300 foreign varieties, which Tang brought back with him from his travels. He bought the property in 1910 and expanded it in 1914 and 1921, adding a man-made lake with a zig-zag stone causeway, a copy of that he had seen in the West Lake of Hangzhou . He chose the site because of its fung shui, with rolling hills and a view of the sea.
He built an elegant three-storey building where he had his office and entertained visitors, including Hoover, Mei Lanfang , the Beijing opera performer, and Wang Jingwei , the number two in the Nationalist Party who went on to lead a government that collaborated with Japan.
The place where Tang slept and his family lived has been turned into a museum, with evocative pictures of an extraordinary career: the young Tang in a group of Chinese students in the US, stiff and uneasy in their strange setting: a photo with a British general after the negotiations over Tibet: the first cabinet of the Republic of China, so full of hope and optimism: his letter to his son-in-law asking him to reject the Treaty of Versailles; and a letter in 1938 - in English - from a senior Nationalist official asking him to approach the Japanese about a possible peace agreement. There is a photograph of the family of Theodore Roosevelt, US president from 1901 to 1909.
One room is full of pictures of his four wives and more than a dozen children, the face getting older and sadder as he sees the young republic destroyed by warlords, political infighting and the Japanese invaders.
His own life had a tragic end, destroyed as he was trying to extricate his country from a terrible war.
For outsiders, Tang remains the embodiment of a successful bureaucrat and businessman who held high posts under different regimes and became a rich man in the process.
Staff at the park said government officials from all over the mainland came to stand in the middle of a sun roof Tang built on top of his office. It is similar, but smaller, than the one in the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, with excellent fung shui.
'Mr Tang left them a slogan to repeat,' said one of the staff. 'It is shengguan facai [rise in the bureaucracy and make your fortune]. They stand here and pray for good fortune.' But Tang designed the staircase that led to the roof in the shape of a coffin [guancai], a pun on the slogan.
Tang Guanrun, 66, a retired civil servant in the town, said some people realised that if they did not make an effort to preserve the old buildings, they would be demolished in the name of economic development. 'If we look after them well, that will be good for the tourism of the town. Our history before the middle of the 19th century is not so different to that of other townships in Guangdong. The land here is good and the fishing excellent.'
Zhu Xiaoming, an associate professor at Jinan University in Guangzhou, said Tangjiawan could be considered the number one bay in southern China.