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Origins of the Chinese Educational Mission Print E-mail

Break with Tradition

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Yung Wing
Between 1872 and 1875, one hundred and twenty Chinese youths set sail for America to acquire a Western education and vocational training. They were sent there under a government-funded scheme known as the Chinese Educational Mission (CEM). Nothing like it had happened before in China's history.  In a broader sense, the CEM turned a new page in China's relations with the West as well as in its ideas about education.

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Zeng Guofan
Traditionally, China's relations with foreigners were driven by a deep-rooted belief in its own superiority. As Zhongguo 中国, "the Central Kingdom," and also the "Celestial Kingdom," whose Emperor claimed to be the Son of Heaven, China regarded itself as the center of civilization. Envoys from other nations were considered representatives of inferior barbarians who had to come kowtowing to the Emperor and bringing tribute to signify their submission. In past centuries, to acquire Chinese culture and learning, Japan, Korea and other countries sent thither their cohorts of scholars who were called liuxuesheng 留学生. The term roughly means "foreign-educated students," and previously only referred to foreign students coming to China. Thus, the CEM students represented the first liuxuesheng sent abroad by the Chinese Government. Because of their young age, they were known as liumei youtong 留美幼童, "the American-educated youngsters".

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Li Hongzhang
The CEM also marked a break with the traditional Chinese curriculum and with the method by which candidates were usually selected for government posts. For centuries, the syllabus never deviated from the Confucian Classics - memorizing them and writing formal essays on their texts and commentaries. The "standard route" of entry to a government career consisted in passing the public examinations based on this curriculum at the local, provincial and national levels. However, under the CEM scheme, after completing their training in America, the successful graduates would be given junior ranks in the civil service.

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Chen Lanbin
The origins of this radical scheme lay, firstly, in the conditions facing China, both externally and internally, and secondly, in the single-minded dedication of Yung Wing 容闳 (Rong Hong in Mandarin) - the man who conceived the scheme and brought it to fruition.

Country in Crisis

During the latter half of the 18th century, while the European powers were inventing new technologies and expanding their trade and empires abroad, China largely withdrew behind its walls and age-old traditions.  Yet, it still considered Westerners barbarians and permitted only limited trade with them in Canton, under highly restrictive regulations.  Its repeated refusal to open diplomatic relations with Britain and to recognize its Chief Superintendent of Trade caused increasing resentment.  By the early 1800s, the introduction of cheap opium from British plantations in India had created huge demand and a spike in addiction amongst the Chinese populace.  To get around the Chinese ban on importing opium, the merchants of the British East India Company, with the connivance of their government, resorted to smuggling the narcotic substance.  When the Imperial Commissioner dispatched to Canton to crack down on the illegal trade ordered the destruction of a shipment of opium, his action touched off the so-called Opium War.  Pressured by the powerful business lobby, agitated by the English press and spurred by unauthorized actions already taken by British agents on site, the U.K. Parliament dispatched a sizeable naval force to invade a country which only wanted to protect its own citizens and stamp out harmful contraband.

Predictably, China's first armed conflict with the West proved disastrous.  In the Treaty of Nanjing (1842), which ended the Opium War, followed by the Treaty of Tianjin (1858), which ended the Second Anglo-Chinese War, the victors imposed punishing terms.  Besides owing some 30 million Mexican dollars in reparation, China had to cede Hong Kong and Kowloon to Britain, and open up 16 Treaty Ports to British merchants.  British nationals and missionaries gained the right to live and work where they pleased, while enjoying the protection of British law on Chinese soil.  The United States,  France and other Western countries quickly followed and required China to sign bilateral treaties giving them similar privileges, thereby seriously eroding Chinese sovereignty.  In 1860, when a combined French and British force invaded Peking, the Royal Court fled in panic to safety in Manchu territory.  After trashing the Summer Palace and looting its priceless treasures with the intent of punishing the Court itself, the invaders burnt it to the ground.  This great calamity exposed the Qing Government to be weak and helpless in the face of the political, commercial and cultural imperialism of the "foreign devils."

At the same time, internally, China was being racked by severe social unrest which resulted in the Taiping Rebellion (1850 -1864) in the south, the Nian rebellion (1851-1868) in the northeast and the Muslim revolts (1855 -1873) in the northwest. Though they were eventually defeated, the resulting loss of life, property and security was enormous and the hold of the Qing regime was considerably weakened. Ironically, mercenaries led by Western officers and the use of steam gunboats and Western arms played a significant part in the final defeat of the Taiping rebels.

This double threat facing the country impelled the more progressive officials to advocate a program of "self-strengthening". They believed that only by adopting Western techniques for making modern armaments and institutional changes could China defend itself against Western aggressors. During the 1860s, under the leadership of Prince Gong, Zeng Guofan 曾国藩, the Governor-General of Liangjiang, Li Hongzhang 李鸿章, his protégé and others, reforms slowly gained ground. The new Zongli Yamen 总理衙门 (Bureau of Foreign Affairs), was opened in 1861, as well as the College of Foreign Languages in 1862 and a school of Western languages and science in 1863. Foreign works on science, mathematics, mechanics, geography, history and international law were translated to spread the knowledge of Western techniques. Zeng Guofan played a central role in these reforms, which included the creation of shipbuilding and armaments factories. In 1863, Zeng summoned the foreign-educated Yung Wing for an interview and this fateful meeting opened the way for Yung to eventually present his scheme of sending youths to be educated in America.