Huang was born in Neishidi, Chuansha, Jiangsu (now part of Pudong, Shanghai) during the reign of the Guangxu Emperor in the late Qing dynasty. His mother died when he was 13 and his father died when he was 17, so he lived with his maternal grandfather, who gave him a traditional Chinese education. In his young age, he studied at Dongye School (東野學堂) and read the Four Books and Five Classics. Before he reached adulthood, he worked as an informal teacher in his hometown to support his family. In 1899, he topped the imperial examination in Songjiang Prefecture and obtained the position of a xiucai (秀才).
Huang's uncle sponsored him to read Western studies. In 1901, he was enrolled in Nanyang Public School (now Shanghai Jiao Tong University), where he met Cai Yuanpei, who was teaching the Chinese language there. A year later, Huang obtained a juren (舉人) position in the imperial examination in Jiangnan. Later, he left school with his mates in protest against the expulsion of some of his fellow students, who were expelled for allegedly showing disrespect towards a teacher by leaving an empty ink bottle on the teacher's desk — an act interpreted as mocking the teacher because it suggested that teacher was unlearned (ink metaphorically referred to knowledge). Huang returned to Chuansha, where he established a Chuansha Primary School (川沙小學) for children. During this time, he read Yan Fu's Tian Yan Lun (天演論) — a translation of Thomas Henry Huxley's Evolution and Ethics — and other books on Western ideas.
In 1903, while giving a talk in Nanhui District, Huang was accused of being an anti-government revolutionary and was arrested and imprisoned. He was released on bail with the help of William Burke, an American missionary, and left the prison just an hour before an order for his execution from the Jiangsu provincial government reached Nanhui. Huang fled to Japan and returned to Shanghai three months later, where he continued to help to set up and run schools. In 1905, Huang was introduced by Cai Yuanpei to join the Tongmenghui. At the same, Huang established, ran and taught in various schools, including the Pudong Middle School (浦東中學). He also helped to set up the Organisation for Education Affairs in Jiangsu (江蘇學務總會).
After the 1911 Xinhai Revolution which overthrew the Qing dynasty, Huang served as the Head of Civilian Affairs (民政司總務科長) and Head of Education (教育科長) in the Office of the Governor of Jiangsu (江蘇都督府). He later became the Secretary of Education (教育司長) and reformed education in the region, helping to plan and set up several schools. At the same time, he was also the Vice President of the Education Society (教育會) and a travelling reporter for the newspaper Shen Bao.
In 1908, Huang, Tong Shiheng (童世亨) and others founded Pudong Electric Co., Ltd. (浦東電氣股份有限公司) to provide electricity in Pudong. In 1913, Huang published an article, Discussion on schools adopting a practical stance towards education (學校教育採用實用主義之商榷), to express his thoughts on how education should be tailored towards pragmatism. Between February 1914 and early 1917, Huang, as a reporter for Shen Bao, visited and observed various schools throughout China. In April 1915, he followed an industrial organisation to the United States, where he visited 52 schools in 25 cities and saw that vocational education was very popular there. He visited Japan, the Philippines and Southeast Asia to observe education in those countries. He made notes from his observations, compiled them and had them published.
In 1917, Huang travelled to Britain to observe the British education system. On May 6 that year, with support from many people in the education sector and the business industry, Huang founded the National Association of Vocational Education of China (中華職業教育社) in Shanghai. A year later, he established the Chinese Vocational School (中華職業學校). Over the next ten years, Huang remained active in the education sector, using the Chinese Vocational School to expand his activities. During the May Fourth Movement in 1919, he used his position as the Secretary of Education to rally support from the schools in Shanghai to disrupt classes and stage demonstrations.
In 1921, Huang was appointed as the Education Minister by the Beiyang government but he refused to take up this post. In 1922, he drafted the educational system and helped to set up more schools. Five years later, he ran a Life Magazine (生活周刊) to further publish his thoughts and ideas. In 1927, when the ruling Nationalist Party was in conflict with the Communist Party, Huang was accused of being a "scholar-tyrant" (學閥) and became a wanted man, but he escaped to Dalian, Liaoning. He returned to Shanghai after Chiang Kai-shek withdrew the order for his arrest.
When the Mukden Incident occurred in 1931, Huang became worried about Japanese aggression towards China so he took part in anti-Japanese activities. He also set up a newsletter agency, Newsletter on Saving the Nation (救國通訊), to stir patriotic sentiments among his fellow Chinese. A year later, he sent a message throughout China, urging everyone to put aside their differences and unite to resist the Japanese. When the January 28 Incident occurred in 1932, Huang and other influential men in Shanghai formed the Shanghai Citizen Preservation Organisation (上海市民維持會) to raise funds to support the 19th Route Army and preserve Shanghai's economy and security. This continued until Shanghai fell to the Japanese in 1937.
Huang retreated to Chongqing following the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937, where he served as a representative in the National Defence Council. A year later, he became a member of the People's Political Council. In 1941, he founded the China Democratic League with Zhang Lan and others and served as its first Chairman. In 1945, Huang established the China Democratic National Construction Association with Hu Juewen (胡厥文) and others and served as its first Chairperson.
In July 1945, in an attempt to act as mediators for the conflict between the Nationalist and Communist parties, Huang, Zhang Bojun and others travelled to Yan'an to meet Mao Zedong and the Communists. When he returned to Chongqing, Huang wrote a book, Return from Yan'an, describing a conversation he had with Mao — widely known as the Zhou Qi Lü (周期率; literally "cycle rate") conversation. During the Chinese Civil War, Huang resigned from the People's Political Council in protest against the war and returned to Shanghai, where he continued to help to set up and run schools.
Following the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, Huang became a member of the Central People's Government, Vice Premier of the State Council, and Minister of Light Industry. He also consecutively served as the Vice Chairman in the second, third and fourth Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. Huang had differing views on some of the Communist government's policies and was especially opposed to state monopoly in purchasing and marketing. Mao Zedong even once called Huang "a spokesperson for capitalists". Huang managed to retain only his positions in the National People's Congress and Political Consultative Conference when the Communist Party started purging non-communist members from its government bodies.
Huang died on 21 December 1965 in Beijing. His body was cremated and the ashes buried in the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery.
- Wang Jiusi (王糾思; died 1940), Huang Yanpei's first wife. She died of illness in 1940.
- Yao Weijun (姚維鈞; 1909–1968), Huang Yanpei's second wife, who married him in 1942. She was a university graduate and she helped Huang in writing the book Return from Yan'an. She committed suicide on 20 January 1968 by overdosing on sleeping pills.
- Huang Fanggang (黃方剛; 1901–1944), graduated from Carleton University and obtained a PhD in philosophy from Harvard University.
- Huang Jingwu (黃競武; 1903–1949), graduated from Tsinghua University and obtained a master's degree in economics from Harvard University.
- Huang Wanli (1911–2001), a hydraulics professor.
- Huang Daneng (黃大能; 1916–2010), served as the Vice Director of the Chinese Society for Vocational Education. He was also a technical specialist in concrete.
- Huang Fangyi (黃方毅), obtained a master's degree from Duke University. He worked in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and participated in research on economics at Beijing University. He is also a visiting professor at the Johns Hopkins University and Columbia University. He is involved in Chinese politics.
- Richard Shih-chao Huang (黃施超; 1932–2004), Huang Fanggang's son, a prominent rocket scientist in the United States.
- Huang Mengfu, Huang Jingwu's son. He is the Vice Chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.
- Huang Guanhong (黃觀鴻), Huang Wanli's eldest son. He is a professor in Tianjin University.
- Other relatives:
- Huang Tzu (1904–1938), musician, son of Huang Hongpei (黃洪培), Huang Yanpei's elder cousin.
- Huang Peiying (黃培英), Huang Yanpei's younger cousin. Daughter of Huang Shihuan (黃士煥), a distant uncle of Huang Yanpei. She was a wool knitting specialist in China in the 1930s.
The "Cycle" conversation
In 1945, Huang travelled to Yan'an to meet Mao Zedong and they had a conversation. In this dialogue, Huang noted that history is a testament to an observation that no form of government — an empire, a kingdom, a republic, and so on — had ever been able to break out of a cycle of rise and fall.
I've lived for more than 60 years. Let's not talk about what I've heard. Whatever I saw with my own eyes, it fits the saying: "The rise of something may be fast, but its downfall is equally swift." Has any person, family, community, place, or even a nation, ever managed to break free out of this cycle? Usually in the initial stage, everyone stays fully focused and puts in his/her best efforts. Maybe conditions were bad at the time, and everyone has to struggle to survive. Once the times change for the better, everyone loses focus and becomes lazy. In certain cases, as it has been a long time, complacency breeds, spreads and becomes a social norm. As such, even if the people are very capable, they can neither reverse the situation nor salvage it. There are also cases where a nation progresses and prospers — its rise could be either natural or due to rapid industrialisation spurred by the yearning for progression. When all human resources have been exhausted and problems crop up in management, the environment becomes more complicated and they lose control of the situation. Throughout history, there are various examples: a ruler ignores state affairs and eunuchs use the opportunity to seize power; a good system of governance ceases to function after the person who initiated it dies; people who lust for glory but end up in humiliation. None has managed to break out of this cycle.
The people form the government; the government is the nation's body. A new path lies ahead and it belongs to the people. The people build their own nation; everyone has a role to play. The government should pay attention to the people and the political party should perform its duty to its utmost and govern with virtue. We will not follow in the footsteps of those before us who have failed. The problem of a good system of governance ceasing to function after its initiator's death can be avoided. We've already discovered a new path. We can break out of this cycle. This new path belongs to the people. The government will not become complacent only if it is under the supervision of the people. If everyone takes responsibility, a good system of governance will prevail.
Appearances in media