Our Founder

Dr. Y.C. James Yen

October 26, 1893 – January 17, 1990

Dr. Yen was born in 1893 in Sichuan Province in China and graduated from Yale University in 1918. He volunteered in France for the Y.M.C.A. among 200,000 illiterate Chinese laborers who had been imported to dig trenches.

While writing letters home for them by day and translating news for them at night, he developed a basic Chinese vocabulary of about 1,300 characters. These characters were later arranged in books titled “People’s Library” and amassed to some 1,000 books translating topics from Confucian classics, folktales and songs to simple and practical modern farming methods, rural hygiene, cooperatives and democratic citizenship. He subsequently earned a master’s degree at Princeton University and then returned to his homeland to teach in Changsha and Hopeh provinces.

Teaching Chinese laborers to read in Europe during World War I inspired him to return to China and in 1923, Dr. Yen founded the Chinese Mass Education Movement (CMEM), which supported mass literacy campaigns throughout China and taught millions of people to read and write.

In 1928, John D. Rockefeller Jr. donated $100,000 to the movement, which catalyzed other dignitaries to contribute. By 1931, an estimated 5 million students had attended CMEM classes and over 100,000 men and women were teaching daily without compensation in rural and urban schools. Dr. Yen’s work was disrupted by the Japanese invasion of China in 1937.

He was a key leader in the movement as it pioneered experiments in integrating rural development. By 1940, Dr. Yen and his colleagues had established the National College of Rural Reconstruction to train Chinese men and women as “reconstruction professionals.” In partnership with the Chinese-American Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction, he was instrumental in the development of Taiwan. After World War II, Dr. Yen convinced the United States to commit $27.5 million for rural reconstruction in China, introducing the wonders of education to more than 200 million Chinese people through President. Truman’s China Aid Act of 1948.

Dr. Yen served as president of the International Mass Education Movement formed in 1951 with William Douglas, Fowler McCormick, Eleanor Roosevelt and other influential leaders.

He moved to the Philippines in 1952 where he helped civic-minded leaders organize the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement (PRRM),–which exists to this day. His achievement in the Philippines and success at training other development workers inspired the formation of similar movements in Colombia, Guatemala, Ghana, India, and Thailand. In 1960, Dr. Yen established the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction (IIRR) to coordinate these efforts.
Dr. Yen passed away in 1990 in New York City. His ashes are interred in the Yen Memorial Garden in front of his former home (now a museum) on the IIRR campus in the Philippines. Dr. Yen was a pioneer of community-focused, participatory, integrated development and a man of enormous vision. His wisdom and deep commitment to the world’s poor lives on through IIRR’s work.

Today, IIRR has operated in more than 50 countries on 3 continents spreading mass awareness about our anti-poverty programs and training people on sustainable development practices. Dr. Yen’s teachings as the father of the mass education and rural reconstruction movement continue to guide our principles and philosophy today

More about Dr. Yen

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Marking the 400th anniversary of the death of Copernicus, a distinguished body of scholars and scientists, asked to pick “the ten greatest revolutionaries of our time” to receive Copernican Citations in 1943. Dr. Yen was listed along with Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, Orville Wright, Harvey Firestone and Thomas Edison.
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President Reagan awarded Dr. Yen the Eisenhower Medallion of People to People International in 1987 for his efforts towards world peace

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