The Peter K. New Family Legacy


Peter Kong-ming New, in whose honor the SfAA holds the Peter K. New Award and Competition, not only boasted an incredibly wide-reaching and influential career in sociology and anthropology, but also an impressive family heritage. Late in his life, he began learning of his family’s astounding history. In the 1980s, over 100 letters written by his grandfather Shang-chow New (today transliterated as Niu Shangzhou) were discovered by Peter’s cousin, John F. C. New. Around the time the letters were discovered, Peter New was engaged in studies of medical missionaries and their contribution to health care in China, and in his research, he came across the name of Way-sung New, M.D., his father, who died when Peter was nine years old. Due to his father’s early death, Peter had very little sense of his family’s contribution to Chinese health care, nor of his grandfather’s fascinating place in Chinese history and the long saga of US-China relations. The finding of his grandfather’s letters allowed Peter to learn more about his family, which in addition to having an impact on China, also maintained lasting ties to American educational institutions and American culture, eventually making it possible for Peter himself to forge an influential career.

AncestorsPeter’s orphaned grandfather Shang-chow New (which he himself shortened to S.C. New) was one of the boys sent to the United States in the 1870s as part of an educational project put together by Yung Wing, the first Chinese student admitted to Yale, who had come to America in the late 1840s. Upon returning to China, Yung Wing persuaded government officials to allow him to undertake an educational enterprise that involved sending Chinese boys overseas for educational training. He believed that China should strengthen its trade and diplomatic relations with other countries, and that this initiative was one way to do it. With his guidance, 120 boys arrived in the U.S. in the 1870s, eager to learn more about the West and idealistic about helping their own country to modernize.1

Arriving in 1872 with the first group of boys was S.C. New, who was placed with a family in Springfield, Massachusetts for a number of years and later studied at Phillips Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire. Eventually, the Springfield, Massachusetts-based Mission from which the boys were sent to various schools and host families was shut down due to concerns that the students were simply being Americanized, and that the entire scheme did not serve China’s interests. Mr. New returned to Shanghai in 1881.

Upon returning to Shanghai, S.C. New was recognized as a very eligible bachelor, and in 1887 or 1888, he married into one of China’s oldest and best-known Christian families. His wife’s family was directly descended from a Ming Dynasty Prime Minister who in 1601 was converted to Catholicism by the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci. The News had four children, all of whom had illustrious international careers, with degrees from Cambridge, Radcliffe, and Harvard. Peter wrote of his “Chinese Yankee” grandfather that even after Shang-Chow returned to Shanghai permanently, “the American influence persisted, to the point that he married a Christian woman and he sent all four of his children overseas to be educated. In the early 1900's that was not the usual thing to do.”2  Mr. New proved to be an unconventional father, writing letters to his children in English, as well as giving his daughters the same educational opportunities as his sons, a progressive decision for a Chinese father at the time. One of his daughters had planned to go into medicine, but her education was halted when she returned to China after the death of her father. Both New daughters married successful husbands: a businessman and an ambassador from the Republic of China to the United Nations. The New England influence stayed with S.C. New throughout his life; though he never left Shanghai after 1881, he maintained over ten American and English periodical subscriptions and ordered from England dozens of mystery novels—both for entertainment and in order to stay abreast of cultural happenings in the Anglo-American sphere.

Ancestors 2S.C. New was instrumental in getting the first Western textbooks published in China, and also brokered a marriage, in traditional Chinese fashion, between his Western-educated sister-in-law Ni-Kwei-Tseng and Charlie Soong, who would become parents to some of the most important figures in twentieth-century Chinese history. Charlie Soong became a friend of Sun Yat-sen, while one of Charlie’s daughters, Soong Ching-ling, became Sun Yat-sen’s second wife, Madame Sun Yat-sen, who later became honorary president of the People’s Republic of China. Another daughter of Charlie Soong, Soong Mei-ling, became the wife of Chiang Kai-shek – Madame Chiang Kai-shek. In one scholar’s words, S.C. New “had a profound, though indirect, effect upon the modern history of China,” and Peter New’s family was about as well-connected as a family could be.3 These family political connections would later prove threatening to the safety and well-being of Peter, and in part caused him to set his sights on a career in the West.

Aside from ties to Chinese political figures, the New family also has a legacy of contribution to medicine in China. Peter New wrote that he “had never paid any attention to [Shang-Chow New’s] place in history—or whether he even had a place in history.” However, after some of Peter’s research on medical missionary work in China, and particularly after reading his grandfather’s 100 or so letters, Peter realized his family had a legacy of contributing to Chinese health care from the 1830s to 1937. Peter’s father, Way-sung New (Niu Huisheng), held an especially important role in modernizing Chinese healthcare. When he returned to China in 1915 after years of studying in the U.S., Way-Sung New became an orthopedic surgeon and was very active in the formation of the Chinese Medical Association, becoming president of the C.M.A. from 1930-1932. Way-sung New and his brother, Way-ling New (Niu Huilin), were some of the first Western-trained Chinese physiciansText, in an era in which Chinese men were still expected to be educated primarily in the classics. After Shang-chow New’s death in 1917, his two sons became well-respected and successful physicians in Shanghai, gaining national and international reputations. The photos below show the former site of Linsheng Hospital, founded by Way-ling and Way-sung New in 1920, which would later be crucial to the activities of field aid during the Battle of Shanghai in 1937.

In an article, Peter K. New suggests Shang-Chow New was a sort of visionary who recognized the importance of educating his daughters, and who helped his sons find jobs that did not cheapen their labor in an era in which Chinese medical institutions continued to privilege Western doctors. Interestingly, S.C. New also passed on a deep love for New England to his sons and grandson Peter. Of Shang-chow’s heritage, Peter wrote:

“Unknowingly, Shang-chow New, who was orphaned at an early age in China, and who probably never knew his own parents…passed on the influence that he had received in his early New England days to his children, two of whom lived in New England many years, and to his grandchildren, many of whom, such as John New, David Hsia, M.D., and I, also grew up and were educated in New England.”5

The New family was both indirectly involved in the formation of modern China and was also a fundamental part of the developing relationship between the United States and China as both countries labored toward modernization, coming into the modern era by watching and learning from each other.

HouseThe legacy of Peter himself is also extensive. A distinguished medical sociologist-anthropologist, Peter K. New was born in 1928 in the Year of the Dragon in Shanghai, spent his primary years in Hong Kong, and finished his secondary schooling in Massachusetts and New Jersey. He then earned a Bachelor of Arts from Dartmouth, and continued his education at the University of Chicago, the University of Missouri, and the University of Michigan, receiving his PhD in 1959. He researched and taught at the University of Pittsburgh, Tufts University, the University of Toronto, and the University of South Florida. Peter served as the president of two professional associations—the Medical Sociology Section of the American Sociological Association (1978), and the Society for Applied Anthropology (1980). He passed away in Toronto in 1985.

New KCThough Peter’s work usually focused on health and medical care issues, his research interests spanned the disciplines of anthropology, sociology, and social history. He was a sociologist of the American mid-west, spending about a decade in Chicago, Columbia, Ann Arbor and Kansas City. An adherent of the Chicago School of sociology, Peter kept his distance from the life of an Ivory Tower professor, choosing to mingle with real people. Numerous friends and colleagues concur that “whether studying small groups, communities, regions, societies, or nation-states, Peter was always primarily devoted to the well-being of persons, families, and other meaningful collectivities.”6  A former student and colleague wrote that “the one theme that appeared consistently in his work was a profound interest in ‘people on the margin’—individuals or groups, consumers or professionals, who were marginal by virtue of social class, culture, or for other reasons.”7  Peter always combated the chauvinist assumption that anthropologists and sociologists know more, and better, than the people whom they study.8

PK NewIn the seventies, Peter’s attention turned to China and its medical history. He studied the work of paramedic doctors in rural China, interested in their implications for the country. His work materialized as a documentary—The Barefoot Doctors of Rural China, 1975—and as an article in a medical anthropology anthology.9  A friend commented that so many have seen this documentary that “the image of Peter doing his sociology in the field, in the literal as well as the figurative sense, is widely and firmly implanted.”10  After this project, Peter became involved in a long-term study of the influence of Western medical missionaries and institutions on pre- and post-revolutionary China, and it was during this study that he began to understand his father’s impact in bringing Western medical knowledge and Western-trained doctors to China.11

The interests of Peter K. New were wide-ranging, as seen in his studies on food cultists, faith healers, osteopathic students, stroke victims, alcoholics, nurses, public housing residents, medical missionaries in modern China, and the plight of incoming U.S. minority groups fighting to control their health care.12  In his study of neighborhood health centers in the late 1960s and 70s, “Peter’s commitment to equality meshed with this extraordinary circumstance of a government war on structured socioeconomic inequality [the lasting effects of Johnson’s war on poverty] to produce a study which truly helped empower the poor.”13  Indeed, Peter’s view of poverty was that it is a function of powerlessness, and as one friend wrote, his “unwavering commitment to structural change with attendant shifts in the distribution of power and expanded opportunities for the poor led to a real methodological breakthrough for sociological and anthropological research.”14

When a colleague had difficulty beginning his study of the structural and ethnic barriers to medical care of Boston’s Chinatown residents, Peter initiated and in a sense came up with the “exchange methodology” concept, which was used successfully in a large number of minority group studies. Exchange methodology is remarkable in facilitating research because it functions based on a mutual relationship and exchange between the researcher and the people being studied. It “gave power to the people, who in turn learned to respect the researcher’s goals as similar to their own,” wrote the friend lucky enough to have received Peter’s aid.15  With this one idea of exchange methodology, “[Peter] found a way to put into practice at a micro level the type of structural change in power relationships which he viewed as essential at the societal level. In spite of his elite social and educational background, or perhaps because of it, Peter was a champion of the downtrodden, the powerless, the marginal people of society. He treated graduate students as his colleagues…Egalitarianism was Peter’s legacy.”16

PK New 2Peter New radiated copious charm in his life and career. Friends have written that “Peter had a great sense of humor which weighty scholarly matters could not suppress.”17  Many have commented on Peter’s astounding ability to mentor. Nearly every entry in The Charms of a Dragon, a volume of tributes to Peter’s guidance, advice, and influence, confirms that Peter was simply a natural, and took great pleasure, at helping graduate students and younger colleagues excel. One former student wrote that “he always taught, by words and examples, that a sociologist must be scrupulously honest with his or her subjects, colleagues, students and readers.”18  Even his contribution to the field of disability studies “was made through his role as a personal mentor and sponsor, his work in building informal networks and professional interest groups, and his intellectual contribution to interpreting the meaning of disability and the social context of handicap.”19  Peter was mentor to the generation of medical sociologists and medical anthropologists who entered the field of disability studies in the 1970s and 1980s, playing “a significant role as a source of inter-generational experience for social scientists working in the field of disability studies.”20  Though there were many different sides to Peter—he could be “delightfully irreverent, particularly in the company of students and younger colleagues”—he was powerfully dedicated to his profession, and approached his research and teaching with “a zeal that was infectious.”21 As a teacher, wrote one former student, he engendered respect because he made students feel “that what we had to say was important.” Students thus sought to emulate his model and adopt the values he brought to the profession, and as one of his mentees writes, “for this reason, his contribution lives on.”22

1.  Liel Liebowitz and Matthew Miller’s book on Yung Wing’s stellar project, which they call “the Chinese Educational Mission,” details, among other things, the impact of Civil War and Reconstruction-era America on the young Chinese students. Liebowitz, Liel; Miller, Matthew. Fortunate Sons: The 120 Chinese Boys Who Came to America, Went to School, and Revolutionized an Ancient Civilization. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2011. See the New York Times review of Fortunate Sons here.

2.  Peter K. New, “A Father’s Concerns: Selected Letters to Children Abroad from Shang-Chow New, A Chinese Yankee, 1913-1917.” The Charms of a Dragon: Peter Kong-Ming New, 1928-1985, ed. Yuet W. Cheung. Albany: Penzance Treetop Enterprises, 1992, 88-100. 97. The editor of The Charms of a Dragon, Yuet W. Cheung, explains in the editor’s note that the book is “a festschrift in memory of Peter Kong-ming New” (iii).

3.  Sterling Seagrave, The Soong Dynasty. New York: Harper & Row, 1985, 21-22.

4.  Peter K. New, “A Father’s Concerns: Selected Letters to Children Abroad from Shang-Chow New, A Chinese Yankee, 1913-1917.” The Charms of a Dragon: Peter Kong-Ming New, 1928-1985, ed. Yuet W. Cheung. Albany: Penzance Treetop Enterprises, 1992, 88-100. 97.

5.  Peter K. New, “A Father’s Concerns: Selected Letters to Children Abroad from Shang-Chow New, A Chinese Yankee, 1913-1917.” The Charms of a Dragon: Peter Kong-Ming New, 1928-1985, ed. Yuet W. Cheung. Albany: Penzance Treetop Enterprises, 1992, 88-100, p. 98.

6.  The Charms of a Dragon, 20-21.

7.  Ibid135.

8.  Ibid111.

9.  Ibid21.

10.  Ibid23.

11.  Ibid21.

12.  Ibid29.

13.  Ibid.

14.  The Charms of a Dragon, 30.

15.  Ibid.

16.  Ibid30.

17.  Ibid15.

18.  Ibid37.

19.  Ibid47.

20.  Ibid49.

21.  The Charms of a Dragon, 136.

22.  Ibid.

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