T. L. Li (李天祿)

I return to the South this week with a Vanderbilt student: Dr. T. L. Li (李天祿, pinyin Lǐ Tiānlù; courtesy name 福田, pinyin Fútián). Dr. Li was not only extremely involved in the international Methodist Church, but participated in political events and was savvy enough to navigate the changing political waters of China through the Communist takeover.

T. L. Li in the 1925 Who’s Who in China, pg. 486.


T. L. Li was born on 22 November 1886 in Tai-an, a city in Shantung (Shandong) province. However, several sources claim that he is from Beijing due to the amount of time he spent living and working there. We don’t know exactly when he came to the capital, but he attended Peking Methodist University and graduated from there with a BA in 1908. He then spent 5 years teaching English at Peking Methodist (1925 Who’s Who, pg. 486).

He was not just a teacher at this university, but a Christian, highly-involved in the work of the Methodist Church. He is listed in the 1912 Minutes of the Annual Conferences of the Methodist Episcopal Church as a member of the North China Conference and of the Asbury (Peking) Quarterly Conference (pg. 539). It seems that his position as an instructor at Peking Methodist University was considered a “posting” by the Church. Then, T. L. Li stopped working at the university after the spring semester of 1913.


It’s not clear what happened after the end of the semester, but very quickly T. L. Li boarded a ship in Kobe, Japan, bound for the United States (ship’s manifest). He was headed to Nashville, Tennessee with 2 suitcases. According to this paperwork, he was also already married. Later records show him having a wife named Lu Ying, but I don’t know if that was the woman he was married to in 1913, or when exactly they got married. Anyway, T. L. Li landed at San Francisco on 10 June 1913 and set out from there for Vanderbilt University (entry paperwork).

Unlike many of the other students I profile in this blog, T. L. Li came to the US solely for graduate work. This means that he did not have to do any remedial work at academies or re-take undergraduate level classes he had already studied in China. In this way, he is more similar to later arrivals, such as George S. N. Bien, who had their academic credits from China accepted by US institutions.

T. L. Li’s interests were broad; he studied economics, philosophy, English, and sociology while earning his MA (Register of Vanderbilt University 1913/14, pg. 174). Religion was still a concern to him, however; although he was not present for the North China Conference in October of 1913, he was listed as a member in his second year of studies (Minutes of the Annual Conferences of the Methodist Episcopal Church 1913, pg. 624). I assume this means studying to be ordained or to take another leadership role in the church, as it was his first year studying for his MA and he had already earned his BA 6 years prior. He also attempted to join the local Chinese Students’ Club, with mixed results. The Chinese Students’ Monthly reports:

Two Chinese students are now in Vanderbilt, and as two hardly make a large club they organized a Cosmopolitan Club with students from other lands. In this Cosmopolitan Club there are two Chinese, two Japanese, two Mexicans, one Bohemian and six Americans. Of the two Chinese students, Tien Lu Li came from Peking University after having been an instructor there for over five years. The other is Hu Chia Nung, who is in the Biblical Department.

Chinese Students’ Monthly, Vol 9 No. 1, pg. 152


T. L. Li appears in the CSA directory for the first time that spring, living at Wesley Hall at Vanderbilt University as of January 1914. He had narrowed his fields of study by this time, dropping English from the list of topics he was investigating (Register of Vanderbilt University 1914/15, pg. 178). He was awarded his MA at the end of the spring 1914 semester, with a principal focus in economics (pg. 201). He then stayed on at Vanderbilt to work on his PhD. The 1915 CSA Directory has him again living as Wesley Hall. He was again studying in the fields of economics, sociology, and philosophy (Register of Vanderbilt University 1915/16, pg. 192), but he also had a decidedly political bent to his interests. He wrote an article for The Methodist Review in 1915 discussing the state of Sino-Japanese relations in the wake of the Twenty-One Demands, which dealt with Japanese claims on former German holdings in Shandong Province, Japanese leases of Chinese railroads and mines, and demands for China to hire Japanese advisors in the financial and police sectors (Vol. 65, pg. 51).

His political interests were also evident in his eventual doctoral dissertation, which he successfully defended in the spring of 1916: “Congressional Policy of Chinese Immigration; or Legislation Relative to Chinese Immigration to the United States” (Register of Vanderbilt University 1916/17, pg. 214). And while he returned to Beijing to teach at Peking Methodist University and involved himself once more with the Christian community there, even speaking at the third anniversary event of the Peking YWCA (The Peking Leader 22 Oct 1919, pg. 4), he maintained an interest in politics, especially in what was becoming known as the Shandong Problem.


While Japan had been forced to drop the idea of Japanese advisors from their 21 Demands of 1915, the then-leader of China, Yuan Shih-Kai, was not in a position to go to war with Japan and had to accept the reduced Thirteen Demands. This included Japanese rights over the former German possessions in Shandong. This transfer from German control to Japanese control was then solidified by being included in the World-War-I-ending Treaty of Versailles in 1919. China was EXTREMELY upset over this, especially as Shandong was the historical birthplace of Confucius, and it led to China’s refusal to sign the Treaty of Versailles at all.

To mediate this dispute, US President Warren G. Harding called the Washington Naval Conference, which had the stated goal of disarmament in the Pacific and East Asian region. And on 21 October 1921, T. L. Li arrived in San Francisco, headed to Washington DC with dozens of other delegates to participate in this conference (entry paperwork). He was listed as a “compilor”; the 1925 Who’s Who states that he was a secretary to the Chinese delegation. As indicated by the name, the major outcome of the Washington Naval Conference was to limit the size and growth of the world’s navies. But more importantly to the Chinese delegation, Japan agreed to return sovereignty of Shandong to China. Victorious, T. L. Li and the other delegates returned to China on 7 February 1922 (Shen Bao, 8 February 1922, pg. 10). T. L. Li was awarded a 4th class Chia-ho decoration for his efforts at the conference (1925 Who’s Who).

An example of a 4th class Chia-Ho medal. Source.


T. L. Li returned to his teaching duties in Peking after the disarmament conference (Vanderbilt Alumni Record 1923, pg. 312). But he was starting to advance in his career. From 1922-1923, he served as the president of Peking Academy. Then, in 1923 he was appointed dean of the School of Arts of Shantung Christian University in Tsinanfu. Shantung Christian, also known as Cheeloo University, was founded by Presbyterian missionaries, and T. L. Li served as its dean until 1927, its vice president from 1927 to 1929, and its president from 1929 to 1930 (Who’s Who in China, 5th edition [1936], pg. 148).

It was not an easy tenure. The Chinese Civil War began in 1927, when Chiang Kai-Shek and his military forces attacked Communist Party members in Shanghai. Chinese Christians and Christian organizations were often caught in the middle; Nationalist forces often attacked Christian schools for organizing labor unions, which were seen as hotbeds of “radicals”, while Communist forces fought to gain control over territories, disrupting classes and causing damage and casualties along the way. Both sides also mistrusted the foreign nature of Chinese Christian organizations. Missionaries were evacuated and Christian colleges were forced to register with the central Nationalist government (The Chinese Recorder, 01 July 1927, pg. 453). The Chinese Recorder reported:

Shantung Christian University has kept open also. When the foreign staff was compelled to evacuate the Chinese staff was put in charge. Classes were kept going. About two-thirds of the students left but some of those who left have since returned. The departure of students was due to the evacuation of missionaries and uncertainty as to the attitude of government authorities towards the students. The administrative work is in charge of Dr. Li T’ien Lu and others who constitute a provisional Senate under his chairmanship.

– The Chinese Recorder, 01 July 1927, pg. 453



By 1928, T. L. Li felt that things had calmed sufficiently for him to continue his participation in the international Christian movement. In late February 1928, he joined a delegation of Christians to attend the International Missionary Council convention in Jerusalem (The China Weekly Review, 3 Mar 1928, pg. 22). However, Cheloo University’s trials were far from over. That November, the Board of Directors voted to begin the government registration process, completing all the steps in February of 1929. But the government delayed in granting approval for the school to continue functioning. Anxious for the future of their school, Cheloo began to hold twice-weekly Memorial Ceremonies for Sun Yat-Sen, and beginning in April they offered lectures on the San Min Chu I once every two weeks (The Chinese Recorder, 1 Oct 1929, pg. 676). The San Min Chu I (三民主義), also known as the Three Principles of the People, referred to Sun Yat-Sen’s political philosophy, and was probably mandated to be taught as proof of one’s dedication to the Nationalist government.

But in December of 1929, after so recently being named Cheloo University’s president, T. L. Li abruptly resigned. The newspaper article about it is frustratingly vague:

Cheloo University has been somewhat disrupted recently owing to troubles within the School of Nurses and the Arts College. The trouble lasted about two weeks. It inconvenienced the hospital but did not measurably affect the university as a whole. Among other aspects of the disturbance was an attack on President Li T’ien Lu. In consequence he deemed it necessary to resign in order to bring into the open the motives of those initiating the student agitation

– The Chinese Recorder, 01 Dec 1929 pg. 809

A later report clears things up slightly:

Kuo Wen reports that Anti-Christian activities are again revived in Shantung. Early in December, the students of Changshan and Yitu districts shouted “Down with Christianity” and ”Down with the Christians”, but were quickly suppressed by the educational authorities, who feared that international complication might ensue. Following which, the students of the Shantung Christian University started a movement against Christian management declaring that China must maintain her rights in educational matters. Encouraged in the students’ movement, some 200 workers of the Shantung Christian University declared a strike Jan. 3, apparently against the treatment accorded to them by the University but in fact against the Christians and their management. With the wholesale walkout of the workers all public services in the University premises have come to a full stop. Of the 70 patients in the hospital many have been advised to leave, a few of serious condition being turned over to the care of the doctors personally.

The China Weekly Review, 11 Jan 1930, pg. 232


T. L. Li then took his most important position: from 1930 on he was the dean of the Nanking Theological Seminary (1936 Who’s Who). It wasn’t smooth sailing there, either. Only 7 years into his eventual 20 year tenure at Nanking, the increase in intensity of the Chinese Civil War caused classes to be cancelled and the students and faculty evacuated. They left in small groups, causing immense communication difficulties:

A small group of families left for Chao Hsien in Anhwei Province soon after the first group had gone [on 24 Nov 1937]. This group included Dean Li Tien-lu and his family, Rev. Chu Pao-hwei and his family, Mr. Cheng Peh-chun and his family. Dr Li Tien-lu’s address is reported to be No. 7 North Gate, Chao Hsien, Anhwei. We learned this from Dr. Li Tien-lu’s eldest daughter who is now in Shanghai, and she learned this from his second daughter who is now in Peiping, and his second daughter heard directly from her father sometime in December. Again, his third daughter was for a time at Hankow, but has now gone to Chungking in Szechwan Province. We have as yet no reply to letters written to Dr. Li Tien-lu by his eldest daughter from Shanghai. So we are not sure whether his Chao Hsien address still holds good.

The Chinese Recorder, 1 March 1938, pg. 146

The Chao Hsien address did hold good, by the way, because on 1 April 1938, news was received in Shanghai that the Lis were coming to the city from Anhwei (The Chinese Recorder, 01 Apr 1938, pg. 206).


T. L. Li and his family remained in Shanghai, working at what was called the Nankai Theological Seminary Extension. He and his wife Lu Ying lived on 550 Avenue Rue Albert, which was in the International Settlement. He continued his international travel, heading to Atlantic City, New Jersey in March of 1940 (entry paperwork) and New York City in April of 1948 (entry paperwork). Since his US contacts for both trips were missionary boards, these trips were probably to attend conferences, much like his Jerusalem trip of 1928. His wife had probably passed away by the 1948 trip, as T. L. Li does not list her as his China contact. He was back in China by October of 1948, helping to celebrate the 40-year anniversary of a women’s mission in Shanghai (Shen Bao, 30 Oct 1948, pg. 4).

He retired in 1950, but continued to serve on the Nanking Theological Seminary Board. The most recent update I have on him is from the Encyclopedia of World Methodism, which got their information from the 1954 Who’s Who in Modern China (The Encyclopedia of World Methodism, Vol. 2, pg. 1434). But his affiliation with Nanking Theological Seminary probably helped him survive the Communist takeover, when many Christians were forced to flee as suspected subversive elements. Nanking Theological Seminary was able to survive by reorganizing their system of theological education under the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. “This organization,” states Wikipedia, “promoted a three-self strategy of ‘self-governance, self-support, and self-propagation’ in order to remove foreign influences from the Chinese churches and to assure the government that the churches would be patriotic to the newly established People’s Republic of China.” Thanks to the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, the Christian church, and Nanking Theological Seminary in particular, was able to continue to operate until the Cultural Revolution in 1966, and began to operate once more in 1979 after the death of Mao.


I don’t have any death information for T. L. Li. The “Guide to doctoral dissertations by Chinese students in America, 1905-1960”, by Tong-li Yuan, does not list a date of death for him, indicating that T. L. Li was still alive in 1961 when it was published (pg. 38). However, this could also mean that there was no information on his death. What can be said for certain is that T. L. Li lived to an old age in China, and worked in his field until the end.

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