This Week in History: Birth of Wellington Koo, Dapper Diplomat

By Ned Kelly, January 27, 2020

1 0

The first and only Chinese head of state to use a Western name publicly, Wellington Koo was born in Shanghai on January 29, 1888. And with a silver spoon in his mouth; the son of a merchant father (who named his son after the Duke of Wellington), he grew up in a mansion in the International Settlement, and was educated at the prestigious St. John’s College school.

Yet, while life may have been privileged, it was not without injustices for a young Chinese boy. Koo got a taste of foreign discrimination when, at the age of nine, a British policeman fined him for riding his bicycle on the sidewalk, while an English boy in front of him went unpunished.

It was an oft-cited experience that he never forgot; Koo spent his life attempting to dismantle the causes of the superior-inferior relations between foreign powers and China, and was instrumental in negotiating the end of the ‘unequal treaties’.

After completing his PhD in international law and Diplomacy from Columbia University, Koo returned to China in 1912 to serve the new Republic of China as English Secretary to President Yuan Shikai. In 1915, and at a precocious 28 years of age, he became ambassador to the United States, the youngest ranking diplomat ever to go to the US.

In 1919 Koo was a member of the Chinese delegation to the Paris Peace Conference following the end of World War I. There, before the Western powers, Koo demanded that Japan return Shandong to China, and called for an end to unjust imperialist institutions in China. Despite American support, the Western powers refused his claims.

This rebuff, and the transferring of German concessions to Japan, sparked widespread student protests in China, in what came to be known as the May Fourth Movement. Reflecting the sentiment of their nation, the Chinese delegation were the only nation that did not sign the Treaty of Versailles.

Koo was briefly Acting Premier, Interim President and Foreign Minister during a period of chaos in Beijing under Chang Tso-lin in 1926-1927, as well as being China’s first representative at the newly formed League of Nations and the country's signatory of the UN charter. He also served as ambassador to France and Great Britain.

A dapper gent, his prodigious relations were not restricted to the diplomatic. He married five times: including to the Pao-yu “May” Tang, daughter of former Chinese prime minister Tang Shaoyi; to Hui-lan Oei, one of the 42 acknowledged children of sugar magnate Oei Tiong Ham; and to a Mongolian Princess, Betty Char-nuis Borjit Yen – cousin and bitter rival of Hui-lan – who later became a noted fashion designer in Hong Kong.

Limited to the island of Taiwan after the Kuomintang lost its grip on power, Koo retired from the diplomatic service in 1956, going on to become a judge at the International Court of Justice at the Hague. He rose to vice-president before his retirement, aged 80, in 1967. He settled in New York, where he died in 1985.


For more This Day in History stories, click here.

more news

This Day in History: Google Announces Exit from China Market

Google's China-based google.cn search webpage, launched in 2006, had a turbulent time operating on the Chinese mainland.

This Day in History: Massive Haiyuan Earthquake Devastates Gansu

Statistics released in 2010 show at least 273,400 were killed by the earthquake in Gansu, with Haiyuan losing 73,604 people, nearly half of the county’s entire population.

This Day in History: Nelson Mandela's Changing Relationship with China

South African leader's close links with the Middle Kingdom.

This Day in History: The Discovery of Peking Man

And its mysterious disappearance in World War II...

This Day in History: China’s First KFC Opens by Tiananmen Square

On November 12, 1987, KFC made its debut in China near Qianmen in Beijing.

This Week in History: The Birth of Sun Yat-sen, Father of Modern China

To this day, more than 150 years after his birth, Sun is one of the most revered political figures among Chinese people.

This Day in History: When Albert Einstein Came to Shanghai

On arrival the Swedish consulate reiterated that he had officially been awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics.

0 User Comments

In Case You Missed It…

We're on WeChat!

Scan our QR Code at right or follow us at Thats_Shanghai for events, guides, giveaways and much more!

7 Days in Shanghai With thatsmags.com

Weekly updates to your email inbox every Wednesday

Subscribe

Download previous issues

Never miss an issue of That's Shanghai!

Visit the archives