Text Size S M L
The CEM in Retrospect Print E-mail

Image
1919 Reunion
The Chinese Educational Mission to the United States was a government-financed experiment in overseas education unprecedented in the history of China.  Although it was undertaken as a tool for national renewal, the Government abandoned the project and recalled the students long before it had a chance to yield its intended benefits.  In the earlier chapter "Termination and Recall," some probable causes for its demise were examined.  What follows is a critical review of some key questions regarding the CEM's goals and their implementation, the effectiveness of the Mission as a whole and its larger historical implications.

Image
1936: Last CEM Reunion
The principal goal of the Educational Mission was to train youth of ability in Western technical and military expertise in order to lead China's efforts in repelling Western aggression.  Had the Mission not been prematurely terminated but allowed to run its full course of 15 years for each of the four Detachments, would it have achieved this goal?  Judging by the trends in college enrollment at the close of the CEM, this was by no means assured.  As noted in the chapter "College Years," by 1881 only about 25 of the 52 college students were enrolled in technical courses, while the greater majority entered the "academic" stream, taking liberal arts courses, including the Classics.  Whether this lopsided ratio would have continued in later years for the younger CEM students is beyond our reckoning since the project was abandoned prematurely.  Because few of them had acquired any practical skills in America by 1881, after the students were recalled to China, Li Hongzhang soon set about reversing this trend.  Keenly aware of the country's urgent needs, he assigned the majority of the returned students to naval shipyards, telegraphy schools, mining operations, arsenals and machine shops for practical training.  Soon after their arrival in Shanghai, Yung Wing tried to persuade the authorities to allow those whose college education had been cut short to return to America to finish their degree courses on government support.  That Yung's last-ditch appeal was rejected probably signalled the Government's view that China's immediate needs were best served by sending the youths to technical training and not to academic institutions.

Government's Aims

Image This gap between the stated goal of the Educational Mission and what the CEM had actually achieved by the time of its termination has seldom been discussed.  Much more attention has been paid to the personal and cultural conflicts between Yung Wing and his senior Commissioners Chen Lanbin and Wu Zideng, and also between these two cultural conservatives and the Americanized students.  Yet the two issues are related, for the common source of both disparities lay in the different philosophies and political goals of Yung Wing and the proponents of "Self-strengthening" (ziqiang 自强).  These officials, including Zeng Guofan, Li Hongzhang and Ding Richang 丁日昌, who promoted Yung's educational scheme, considered "barbarian learning" merely as a necessary tool that could enable the country to resist the "barbarians" and revive the traditional Confucian China, now brought to its knees by foreign domination.1 Convinced of China's inherent cultural superiority, they were interested only in mastering the technology of the West, not in studying or emulating its cultural and philosophical aspects.  Their efforts during the 1860s to hire foreign experts to teach Western languages, translation and technical subjects to small numbers of students at the Multilingual Institute, Tong Wen Guan 同文館 and other technical schools had little success.  When Yung Wing initially took employment under Zeng Guofan, he successfully purchased machinery for Zeng and convinced him to set up a machine shop near Shanghai to manufacture other machines, which greatly impressed the Governor-General and earned Yung his trust.  Hence, when presented with Yung's educational proposal, Zeng and Li readily endorsed it, on the assumption that as Yung was personally familiar with American education and technical experts, his plan would offer a more thorough and effective way of achieving their specific and practical purposes of "self-strengthening."

Yung Wing's Vision

Image However, Yung Wing himself had drunk deeply of Western culture.  His mentality was profoundly influenced by his childhood missionary schooling and later American education; he socialized with Westerners on an equal footing ― even to the extent of marrying an American woman in 1875.  From the outset Yung had clashed with Chen Lanbin over the issue of the students' cultural assimilation and had largely prevailed.  After Wu Zideng's appointment as Commissioner in late 1879, he faulted Yung for not ensuring that the students apply themselves to their Chinese studies.  Though denied by some of the students, Wu's charges appeared to be corroborated by his predecessor as Commissioner, Rong Zengxiang 容增祥, who in 1880 after his tour of duty called upon Li Hongzhang in person, alleging that the students had neglected their Chinese studies.  He ascribed this to Yung Wing's firm opinion that they should not "spend too much time on Chinese learning."2 Nonetheless, the validity of these accusations and rebuttals remains uncertain.

Image  Moreover, with regard to the educational goals of the CEM, Yung's own vision always seemed more broadly liberal than the official one.  This can be seen in the language he used to define his lifelong ambition: "I was determined that the rising generation of China should enjoy the same educational advantages that I had enjoyed; that through western education China might be regenerated, become enlightened and powerful."3 Read in the context of his whole life and career, there is little doubt that the terms "western education," "regenerated" and "enlightened" carried more profound meaning for him than simply learning and exploiting Western technology.  He undoubtedly saw the urgent need to acquire Western technology to build up China's capacity for self-defence and to develop its economy along modern lines, but Yung Wing cherished a larger dream, of which the Educational Mission appears to have been merely a first installment.  He longed for a greater intellectual transformation of the country which would come through embracing the West's scientific outlook and its egalitarian social values.  That is why even in his old age, he worked for a more progressive China by supporting the reform movement of 1898, and putting his life in danger when the movement was overturned by the Empress Dowager's coup d'état.

Image  As for military training, of course the failure of the CEM to gain admittance for its students to West Point and the Annapolis Naval Academy cannot be laid at Yung Wing's door.  But whether he actively encouraged sufficient numbers of them to enter technical institutes is a question impossible to answer based on currently available information.  Given his broader objective to expose the students to American culture and to instill in them a Western mentality, perhaps Yung Wing was not too concerned about the priority of technical over academic training.  However, in fairness to him, it was ultimately the responsibility of the Commissioner and the Government officials at home to ensure that the CEM was on track to fulfill its original mandate.