Reviewed by Raymond Lum

Nineteenth-century Chinese in the United States often are depicted in histories and newspaper accounts as being unlettered, unskilled laborers, as many were. But there was a special group of educated Chinese youths who came here in the late 19th century precisely to be further educated in American ways. They were not, however, the first of their lot. In the early decades of the 19th century, five Chinese were students at a mission school in Connecticut. In 1854 Yung Wing, brought to this country by an American missionary to receive the perceived benefits of American life and education, became the first Chinese to graduate from an American college (Yale). After his return to China, Yung Wing became an interpreter and a servant of the Qing government. Among other activities, he was sent back to the United States in 1863 to acquire machinery to manufacture heavy armaments. He later convinced the Chinese government to send, in 1872, a very young group of 120 Chinese students (most were 10 to 14 years old) to study in New England with the purpose of acquiring skills that could be used to modernize China---and also reduce China’s reliance on foreigners---without compromising China’s traditional values. Thus was born the Chinese Educational Mission (CEM).

The students, all carefully selected, some related, were required while in the United States to study Chinese daily and on weekends, and to report to an overseer appointed by the Chinese government. Photographs reveal the evolution of the students. The earliest show them in long, padded gowns, but there are others of them in the uniforms of school baseball teams or in Western suits and ties.

Fearing that the students were becoming too American and thereby abandoning their Chinese values, the government recalled the CEM in 1881.  A few refused to go home, others later returned to the United States on their own. But even a mere nine years of American education led eventually to a number of the students assuming important roles in a China being thrust headlong into the 20th century and republicanism. Two of the students achieved particular prominence: Shouson Chow became a leader of Hong Kong’s Chinese and was knighted by King George in 1928. Liang Cheng became Minister (ambassador) to the United States in 1903 (and brought with him seven boys to study in Amherst, Mass.), and had been knighted by Queen Victoria, thereafter using the name Sir Chentung Liang Cheng.

The history of the Chinese Educational Mission and its implications for China and for Chinese-American relations is the focus of this important book.

Rhoades is very thorough in his research. With equal facility in both English and Chinese (one hears that he is half Chinese and grew up in Hong Kong), he has mined sources in both languages and has consulted numerous repositories.  We learn, for example, that the boys mostly came from educated families, attended a pre-Educational Mission preparatory school in Shanghai, traveled to the United States in first-class cabins, were accompanied by Chinese translators, and arrived on the same ships that carried many Cantonese laborers in steerage who were much less privileged than the boys were. Most of the CEM boys originated from the same areas of Guangdong Province from whence came the bulk of Chinese laborer immigrants, but their backgrounds were significantly different and their experiences did not overlap.

The boys were housed with American families, forcing them to learn English and American ways in their new homes as well as in their schools. By all accounts, the boys were warmly welcomed and were reciprocal in their responses. Young minds often are open minds.

The author has made a judicious choice of illustrations, both photographs and etchings from periodical publications, that show the milieu in which the CEM students were thrust. Indeed, the experiences of the students while in America are the primary focus of this work.

The chapter headings reveal the developing and chronological story of the Chinese Educational Mission: Origins; Recruitment; Preparatory Training; En Route to the New World; The American Host Families; The Chinese Educational Commission; Elementary and Secondary Schooling; The Students in College; Becoming Americanized? Recall and Return; and The Returned Students.

In some ways the story of the Mission is sad, if not tragic. What might have been different had the students been allowed to continue their education in the United States? Might the continuation of the Mission have significantly altered the development course of a China on the facing overwhelming and inevitable change? Rhoades thinks not:

“…even if the CEM had not been curtailed, the returned students would not have revolutionized Chinese society. The reason is that self-strengthening was never intended to transform China. Its aims were far more modest. They were to borrow the superior technology of the West in order to protect the cultural essence of the Confucian order. The circumscribed role that the CEM students played on their return to China was precisely what was expected of them.” (p. 217)

Yet, the returned CEM students became important players in the development and operation of the Telegraph Administration, the Kaiping Mines, the Tianjin Naval Academy, the Tianjin Medical School, and the Zongli Yamen (office of foreign affairs).

Rhoades also provides some information on other Chinese sent to study in Europe and on Japanese educational missions to the United States. He also records important differences, among which was the inclusion of female students in the Japanese groups.

There is a certain irony in the timing of the Chinese Educational Mission: the Mission was recalled to China by the Chinese government only the year before the U.S. government passed the first of several laws that curtailed the immigration of Chinese laborers for the next six decades.

Another irony is that one of the most strident voices calling for repeal of the U.S. government’s Chinese Exclusion laws was China’s ambassador to Washington, Sir Chentung Liang Chen, one of the CEM boys.

My only negative criticism of this very important and reliable work is that so much information is inserted into sentences as reference, asides, and alternate spellings of personal names that certain sections are difficult to read. For example, from p. 5: “…Tang Guoan was the first president of what became Tsinghua (Qinghua) University (which was founded to prepare the Boxer Indemnity scholars for their studies in the United States); and Zhou Shouchen (or Shouson Chow, originally Zhou Changling)…”

A particular delight of this book is that it has been published in Hong Kong and thus includes Chinese characters for names. That allows readers who know Chinese to make accurate associations and also to conduct their own further research.

Stepping Forth Into the World is a significant contribution to the history of late imperial China and to the interactions of Chinese and Americans in this country in a short-lived experiment that is largely forgotten in both countries.

Anyone wanting additional information can consult the book’s extensive bibliography and a website devoted to the Chinese Educational Mission: www.cemconnections.org.

 Edward J. M. Rhoades, Stepping Forth into the World: The Chinese Educational Mission to the United States, 1872 -81 (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2011), 320 pp. ISBN 978-988-8028-86-3

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