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Origins of the Chinese Educational Mission Print E-mail

First Foreign University Graduate

Yung Wing (1828 -1912) came from a poor Cantonese peasant family in Nanping, near the Portuguese outpost Macao. At the age of seven he was taken into a missionary-run boarding school in Macao, which he attended for four years. After the Opium War, he resumed studies in the newly-formed Morrison Education Society School (named after Dr. Robert Morrison, 1782-1834, the first Protestant missionary to China), which in 1842 relocated to Hong Kong, the freshly-acquired British colony. The School's principal and missionary teacher was Dr. Samuel Robbins Brown (1810-1880), a graduate (1832) of Yale College. Yung distinguished himself as a bright student with considerable initiative. In 1847 Dr. Brown brought Yung and two other Chinese students back with him to complete their secondary education in America. After graduating from Monson Academy in Massachusetts, Yung entered Yale College and graduated in 1854, being the first Chinese to do so from a foreign university.

At Monson and Yale, Yung Wing received the best liberal education that America could offer. Boarding with Brown's relations at first, Yung got involved in campus and church life; he became highly Americanized, being a devout Christian, as well as an ardent believer in Western liberal thought. Nevertheless, he keenly felt for "the lamentable condition of China". During his final year, he pledged: "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. To accomplish that object became the guiding star of my ambition."1

Following his interview with Zeng Guofan, Yung entered government service and in 1864 returned to the U.S. to purchase machinery for Zeng's new Jiangnan Arsenal. Soon after this endeavour, Yung's educational scheme for sending youths to America gained Zeng's strong support. Due to unforeseen setbacks, the memorial to recommend the scheme, jointly signed by Zeng and Li Hongzhang, could not be presented to the Throne until 1871. Unfortunately, Zeng died in March 1872, two months before official approval was secured, leaving Li Hongzhang to oversee its implementation.

Mission Approved

The Government's choice of the United States as the destination was largely due to the Burlingame-Seward Treaty of 1868. This was a pact signed by the American diplomat Anson Burlingame (1820-1870) serving as the plenipotentiary for China, and William Seward (1801-1872) for the USA. Unlike other treaties with the Western powers, this treaty put China and the U.S. on equal footing and thus assured the Qing Government of American goodwill. In particular, Article VII had a specific provision allowing the citizens of each country the reciprocal right to "enjoy all the privileges of the public educational institutions" in the other country.

The final plan of the CEM contained these main elements:

• 120 boys aged between 11 and 15 will be selected for aptitude and character to study in America, in batches of 30 per year, for 15 years, including training in military and technical arts;

• while in America, they will continue their Chinese studies, observe traditional rituals and pay homage to the Emperor;

• all educational and living expenses will be paid for by the Government;

• after training, candidates will enter government service, and will not be permitted to stay or seek naturalization in America, or seek other employment;

• the scheme will be administered by the Chinese Educational Mission (also known as Commission) 出洋肆业局―with an office in Shanghai to recruit students, and another in America to administer the scheme and serve as the center for Chinese lessons;

• the Mission will be headed by Commissioner Chen Lanbin 陈兰彬, a conservative Confucian scholar, and Deputy Commissioner Yung Wing, leading a staff of two Chinese teachers, one translator and support staff.2

The Response

Despite the generous terms of the Government's offer, the wealthier families in the major cities of China showed little interest.  This was probably owing to the entrenched prejudice against foreign countries and also to the 15-year commitment required.  Perhaps for this reason, Zeng Guofan appointed Xu Run 徐润 (1838-1911), a Cantonese entrepreneur born in Xiangshan, and an early developer of modern industries, to oversee the recruitment of youths from the southern coastal areas.3. The population there, having had some prolonged contact with Westerners, was more aware of the advantages of a Western education, and from those communities the Chinese had traditionally emigrated overseas.  Starting his career as an apprentice bookkeeper and comprador in the British firm, Dent and Company, and subsequently becoming a business magnate, Xu Run was a living exemplar of the benefits of Western training and work experience.

Given the initial lack of response from the public, Yung Wing himself toured Hong Kong, Macau and Guangdong towns and villages, looking for recruits.  With his many connections in the Pearl River Delta region, Xu Run would have done the same thing, even though Yung was strangely silent in his memoirs about Xu's recruitment effort.

To be eligible, candidates aged between 12 and 15 had to be from good families, must pass a medical examination and a test of their ability in reading and writing Chinese, andfor those who had studied Englisha test of attainment in that language as well.4  By one account, the boys were also given an interview, and a test of their manual and practical skills.5 The tests seemed to have been held in Hong Kong and other centres.  The final tally of the 120 students by province was:

Guangdong 广东
Jiangsu 江苏
Zhejiang 浙江
Anhui 安徽
Fujian 福建
Shangdong 山东

In summer 1871, the CEM set up a preparatory school in Shanghai. There the students were taught both English and Chinese, tested and screened, and only the best were selected to go abroad. Yung Wing travelled some weeks ahead of them to make preparations for their placement in New England schools. On August 11, 1872, the first detachment of 30 boys departed from Shanghai on their epoch-making voyage.



1. Yung Wing (1909) , 40- 41.

2.  For further details about the staff, click on RESOURCES, then on 'Additional Articles' for:"The CEM Staff: Three Notable Figures."

3.  Xu Run's Xu Yuzhai Zixu Nianpu 《徐愚斎自叙年谱》 (Autobiographical Chronicle of Xu Yuzhai); Documents of Recent Chinese History Series, No. 51, Taipei: Wenhai Publishing (1978) contained the earliest-known roster of the CEM's 120 recruits arranged in their four detachments.

4.  Yung Wing (1909), 184.

5.  As in the experience of Jeme Tien Yau related by Zhu Chuanyu 朱傳譽 in Zhan Tianyou Zhuan Ji Zi Liao 《詹天佑傳記資料》 (Biographical Materials of Zhan Tianyou). Taibei: Tianyi Publishing, 1979.