S. N. Au-Young

Today’s post is on S. N. Au-Young (欧阳心农, pinyin Ōuyáng XīnNóng), who attended the University of Michigan, Brown, George Washington University, and Columbia University. The antithesis of Tony Stark, S. N. Au-Young was a lawyer economist philosopher-poet, as well as a descendant of the famous Song Dynasty intellectual Ouyang Xiu, and later in life he had an affair with modern dance pioneer Ruth St. Denis.

Portrait photograph taken in 1928 (at 35 years old!) by Arnold Genthe. Source.

S. N. Au-Young was born on 18 September 1893 (link to WWII draft paperwork), although when he entered the United States, his listed age would have made his birth year 1898. He was from Guangzhou Province, and was born in either Canton (Guangdong) or Hong Kong – sources differ on this. He has a Chinese Exclusion Act file, so that leads me to think that he was born in Canton, rather than in Hong Kong, since in the latter case he would have been a British citizen. We know very little about his family, although his father may have been a poet (阜阳师范学院学报(社会科学版), 总第 167 期 [May 2015], pg. 280). The rest of his early life is also unknown, but he attended a provincial university in Guangzhou and earned his LLB (undergraduate law degree) in 1915.

After graduation, he decided to study in the United States. He left from Hong Kong on 6 April 1915, headed to San Francisco. His entry paperwork is a little confusing; he appears on the ship’s manifest, aged 17, headed for Ann Arbor (link). However, his information on the entry paperwork is crossed out, indicating that he was scheduled to board, but never did (link). We know he did board, though, because his Chinese Exclusion Act file has an entry date of 3 May 1915, the day that his ship, the Manchuria, docked in San Francisco. So he must have been on the ship. The entry paperwork also has other errors, such as listing his final destination as “Michigan Bluff, California” – possibly a misunderstanding as he was going to Michigan, although his listed US contact is an aunt who lived in Michigan Bluff.


He entered the University of Michigan in the fall of 1915, studying in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (University of Michigan Register 1915/16, pg. 503). But he only stayed in Ann Arbor for one year, leaving in the fall of 1916 to enroll at Brown University (Chinese Students’ Monthly, vol. 12, no. 1 [Nov 1916], pg. 59). Interestingly, this is the only mention of S. N. Au-Young in the Chinese Students’ Monthly for the entire time he was in school in the United States. It seems he wasn’t much of a joiner and although he was a member of the CSA and his local Chinese Students’ Club, he wasn’t very active.

When he enrolled at Brown in 1916, he was already a junior, listed as a member of the class of 1918, and was studying philosophy (The Catalogue of Brown University (1916-1917), pg. 208Annual Register of the Associated Alumni of Brown University 1921, pg. 134). But like with his experience at the University of Michigan, he only stayed at Brown for one academic year before transferring again. The 1918 Chinese Students’ Association Directory lists him as living at 2717 Ontario Road in Washington, DC. He had transferred to George Washington University and was studying political science. He graduated after 3 semesters at GW, having amassed 117 credits from the various universities he attended. The George Washington Catalogue lists his address as 730 22nd Street, and that he earned his BA at Winter Convocation in 1918 (pg. 211; pg. 277).

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S. N. Au-Young in the 1918 Cherry Tree, George Washington University’s year book. His description reads: “Au-Young is one of our illustrious students from the Far East who has absorbed all the knowledge in the Political Science Courses and is going back to China to help run the country.”


Despite his yearbook description, S. N. Au-Young did not return to China in 1918, instead heading to New York to do graduate work at Columbia University. He studied Public Law in the graduate school of Columbia College – the liberal arts school of Columbia University (Catalogue of the Officers and Students of Columbia College, for the Year 1919, pg. 371). The directory at the end of this catalogue lists his address in New York as 507 W 112th Street (pg. 36). He was at the same address for the 1920-1921 year (Catalogue of the Officers and Students of Columbia College, for the year 1920 [Directory], pg. 56), and was a candidate for a Master of Laws in the spring of 1921 (Columbia University School of Law Announcement 1920-1921, pg. 30). However, he does not appear in the 1921 Catalogue, not even as someone who earned their degree the previous year. He also doesn’t show up in the 1931 Columbia University Alumni Register, so I don’t know for certain that he graduated from Columbia at all. Regardless, he returned to China most likely in 1921.


S. N. Au-Young moved to Shanghai upon returning to China, possibly living or working at 20 Museum Road (The China Weekly Review, 7 Mar 1925, pg. 16). There is a suggestion that he lectured at Peiping University and Yenching University in Beijing, as well as at St. John’s University in Shanghai, but I’ve only found one source that claims this. He was active in several Returned Students’ organizations, helping to form a University of Michigan Alumni Club in Shanghai in May of 1924 (The Michigan Alumnus, Vol. 30 [1924], pg. 1011), and regularly attending the American University Club in Shanghai (The North-China Herald and Supreme Court & Consular Gazette, 4 Apr 1925, pg. 17). In fact, he seems to have been much more involved in Chinese overseas student affairs while in China than he ever was while he was a student!

As for his career, S. N. Au-Young worked as a lawyer in the Shanghai area, as well as serving as the director of the Chinese Government Bureau of Economic Information in Shanghai (The China Weekly Review, 15 Aug 1925, pg. 222; The Chinese Recorder, 1 Sep 1925, pg. 580). Shen Bao, the Chinese-language newspaper in Shanghai, also reports his involvement in the Institute of Pacific Relations, or 太平洋國民會議. Through his work with this organization, he was tapped to be a delegate at the Pan-Pacific Conference in Honolulu, Hawaii, in the summer of 1925 (link to entry paperwork).


Up to this point, S. N. Au-Young’s life story has been extremely similar to many other young Chinese students who returned to China after their schooling in the United States. Political science and economics were extremely common fields of study, after engineering, and government service was almost de rigueur for Returned Students. But something happened to S. N. Au-Young at this time in his life, something I have been unable to uncover in my research, because after this point in his life, he left the “typical” Returned Student path and went in a completely different direction.

I don’t think he returned to China at all after the Pan-Pacific Conference in Hawaii. Instead, he immigrated to the United States. There are no records of this entry, but he was in the United States by 1927, because he attended a welcome reception for Alfred Sze, the Minister from China, at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington DC (The Washington Post, 20 Feb 1927, pg. S6). He was important enough to be in the receiving line for Mr. Sze, but the article does not indicate in what capacity he was invited to the reception, although he did give a speech about China.

He also began to write and publish poetry. His poem “Tao” was published in the New York Times:

Under the purple heaven
Hangs a silver moon
Casting liquid pearls
Upon the sapphire pool of lotus blossoms

Silence everywhere,
Save the solemn call of sacred temple bells
Amid the incense cloud in the holy sanctuary
My soul and I
Communing with God.

And we inhale the perfume of silent beauty,
And penetrate into the mystery of the night.
We both find Tao, the eternal way.
When dawn is breaking
A knock is heard at the windowpane of my soul.
Lo, it is Father Wisdom!

New York Times, 17 July 1927, pg. E8


At this time, S. N. Au-Young was based around Washington DC; he attended Mr. Sze’s welcome reception, he discussed Confucianism at a Fellowship of Faiths meeting at the Universalist Church of the Messiah in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (East West Magazine, 1929 (Jan-Feb), pg. 27), and was a member of the Edgar Allen Poe Society of Baltimore, Maryland, writing a poem in 1929 entitled “To Edgar Allen Poe”. However, he was already connected to New York City at this early date, even if he didn’t live there, because he had his photograph taken by Arnold Genthe, who was based in NYC.

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In 1930, S. N. Au-Young published his first book of poetry, The Rolling Pearl, and not long after he moved to New York City permanently. He had supposedly come to the city in order to open a School of Chinese Philosophy and Cultural Studies, but I haven’t found any information about this school (Shelton, S., 1981; as cited at this blog [sorry for the secondary citation, but I have compared what is quoted in the blog to GoogleBooks snippet view, and it seems to be legit). He also spoke at philosophical and literary meetings, such as the one he attended in 1931 which aimed “for a union of Occidental and Oriental cultures with the view of establishing a universal religion of peace and understanding throughout the world” (New York Times, 4 Jan 1931, pg. 16).


Then, in 1934 he met Ruth St. Denis. He attended a meeting of St. Denis’ society for spiritual arts, a philosophical discussion group. They were instantly attracted to one another and began meeting one-on-one (Shelton, S.). S. N. Au-Young taught St. Denis about Taoism (Bramble, J., pg. 104). She wrote him letters containing flowery language like “…With you Imperial One, Giver of Love, Deep Beauty I Knew in an ‘Instant’ full of wonder and the mystery of creating gods” and said that with him, she “experienced a searing physical love for the first time” (Denishawn Dance Collection, Box 1 Folder 11). He wrote her poetry and dedicated his second book, “The Marriage of the Sun and the Moon” to her.

As might be expected from such intensity, their relationship was also unstable. St. Denis moved to London in hopes of forgetting S. N. Au-Young. He wrote to her: “Your leaving makes me sad and depressed, however, true wisdom will follow you wherever you go, and my spirit will always be with you” (Shelton, S.). But soon after she returned to the United States, they were seeing each other again, only for her to break it off again.

It was during this time that he wrote the book he is most famous for: an English translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. Completed in 1938, it was only the third such attempt to translate this work from Chinese to English. However, St. Denis was never far from his mind. In 1941, he wrote this poem, “The Perfume Lingers”:

In the deep silence
Of an ebon night
I hear the sound
Of falling-petals
Of chrysanthemum
Like the gossamer wings
Of white butterflies
Dropped on soft earth.

The flower is gone;
Yet its perfume lingers
And its spirit
Still dreams on….

– New York Times, 10 Jan 1941, pg. 18


S. N. Au-Young and Ruth St. Denis’ affair lasted until 1942 (Wenzel, L. & Binkowski, C., pg. 113). In Christmas of that year, St. Denis moved to California, while S. N. Au-Young stayed in New York, but by this point he was “ill and losing weight, and his thoughts were elsewhere, in war-torn China where, he hinted, he might return” (Shelton, S.). He registered for the WWII draft in 1942, but he would not live long after that. St. Denis, when she was informed of his death, wrote, “You must know that you were the only human who ever fulfilled that strange adolescent concept of love which I had carried always in my being until I met you….My Emperor is dethroned by a thousand furies of pain, gone like a ship on the horizon, lost to my human eyes” (Shelton, S.).

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