China's First Experiment in Education Abroad, 1872-1881
SHANGHAI—August 11, 1872: a striking scene unfolded on the waterfront. Dressed in fine silk garments, 30 teenage boys were bidding tearful goodbyes to their loved ones and boarding the intercoastal steamer bound for Japan. From there, they took a big paddle-wheeler to sail across the Pacific to America, where they would begin 15 years of schooling and vocational training. Over the next three summers, three more groups of 30 boys set out on the same journey. All expenses were paid by their government. What caused this self-contained and deeply conservative country, proud of its ancient traditions of learning and culture, to send its sons abroad to be educated?
After 1839, a series of military defeats by Britain, France and other Western powers forced China to pay heavy indemnities, open the country to foreign merchants and missionaries and concede numerous rights. The resulting loss of wealth and sovereignty eventually caused the government to recognize the foreigners’ technological superiority. In 1871, the Chinese Educational Mission (CEM) to the United States was set in motion—120 students would be sent to America to acquire Western expertise and on their return would help to direct China's efforts to strengthen itself and repel foreign aggression.
That was the original goal—but after only nine years, the experiment was terminated. Why did the Chinese authorities pull the plug? How did the "boy students" fare in their living and learning abroad? And how did they turn out after the Mission came to a premature end? What was their impact, if any, on China's modernization effort in the subsequent decades? Or, was the Mission largely a waste of money? Check out our site for some answers and opinions…
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