The Very First Chinese Students That Were Sent To Study In The United States

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Throughout the 1800s, China was plagued by a series of natural disasters. The unequal treaties resulting from the Opium Wars, as well as the loss of Hong Kong, had taken their toll on the empire. There was also the Taiping Rebellion, which resulted in the deaths of between 10 and 30 million Chinese people. Consequently, the Qing Dynasty started to lose control of the country to Western imperialism and internal turmoil.

Chinese authorities, Tseng Kuo-fan and Li Hung-chang, believed that in order to survive, China must learn from the “barbarian” West. The military and naval prowess of western countries was essential in helping them restore their empire.

He recommended sending young Chinese students to study western engineering and science, citing Peter the Great as a model for China, in order to achieve this goal. This program, which sent 120 Chinese students to study engineering and science in the U.S. in 1871, was authorized by the Chinese government. The Chinese Educational Mission would be the name given to this endeavor.

During their stay in the West, the kids would also study the Chinese language and education. A preparatory school was built in Shanghai before the pupils traveled to the United States, where they would learn some English. Chinese students in New England were also mentored by Yung Wing, who was the first Chinese person to graduate from an American college.

In 1872, the first students embarked for the United States, unsure of what lay ahead. Arriving in San Francisco for the first time were thirty Chinese students. When they arrived in New England, they would remain with their host family and attend school there.  However, along their journey, the pupils’ out-of-the-country looks drew the attention and wonder of Americans.  One example of this occurred in Springfield, where local youngsters would watch the Chinese at the railway station every day. In retaliation, the Chinese hurled coins at them.

The kids quickly felt at home with their host family in New England after their arrival. In addition, they started to imitate American culture and habits, such as partaking in school spirit activities and participating in sports like baseball and football.

The Chinese students were always towards the top of their class and often took home top honors in subjects like English writing, Greek, and so on. They were required to attend scientific high schools and universities.

As more Chinese students were absorbed, they began cutting off their customary queues and began converting to Christianity. To the Americans’ astonishment, they showed off their English compositions and technical creations during the United States’ centennial celebration in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1876. Additionally, the kids had the pleasure of meeting U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant, who shook their hands individually. It was just a matter of time until New England’s Chinese New Year festivities became a fusion of both cultures.

Yung Wing stated that the Chinese government had already planned more exchange programs to England, France, and Germany since the trip had been deemed such a success. However, despite the mission’s success, the students would soon have to return due to a developing breach between the Chinese and American administrations.  The Chinese Educational Mission was first made feasible as a result of the burgeoning favorable ties that existed between China and the United States as a result of the Burlingame Treaty.

At the same time, Americans failed to treat Chinese residents of the United States with respect while they were here. As riots against Chinese workers on the West Coast grew, the American authorities did nothing to support them.  Yung Wing was likewise seen by the Chinese authorities as a propagandist for American views. He ignored the pupils from their Chinese school and urged them to convert to Christianity instead of focusing on their academics. A consequence of this was the gradual loss of all traces of Chinese identity among the pupils. Also, the project was becoming quite costly, and Li was concerned about the government’s spending so much money on such a mission. Even though Grant urged the students to continue their studies, the Chinese authorities stopped the mission in 1881. It would be necessary for all Chinese educators and pupils to return immediately. Having lived in the United States for so long, the Chinese students were reluctant to leave their American friends and professors behind when they returned home. However, throughout the course of the summer of 1881, the students from Hartford set off for San Francisco, from whence they would fly back to China. One student wrote: I wish I could return to dear philanthropic New England, where teachers are better than mothers, where friends are better than sisters, and classmates more agreeable than brothers.

After the mission, China will only send kids who have a greater level of maturity and who have graduated from many technical institutions in China.


The following article is paraphrased from the following: The Chinese Educational Mission, Alexander Yung, Jul 10, 2020, https://historyofyesterday.com/the-chinese-educational-mission-2809873d511d

Sources include the following:

Chinese Educational Mission. (n.d.). http://chinacomestomit.org/chinese-educational-mission

Chinese Educational Mission 1872–1881. (2019, July 18). Retrieved August 09, 2020, from https://immigrationhistory.org/item/chinese-educational-mission-1872-1881/

Robyn, C. (n.d.). The Chinese Educational Mission to the United States: A Sino-American Historico-Cultural Synthesis, 1872–1881.

Society, E. (2011, September 20). Exeter and the Chinese Educational Mission. Retrieved August 09, 2020, from https://exeterhistory.blogspot.com/2011/09/exeter-and-chinese-educational-mission.html