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After the CEM: Lives and Careers Print E-mail
Arrival and Reception

Young Shang Him
Accompanied by the Commissioners, staff and tutors, the Chinese students departed from Hartford in three groups in the Fall of 1881.  Other than Jeme Tien Yau (Zhan Tianyou 詹天佑I, 15) and Ouyang King (Ouyang Geng 欧阳庚I, 5), who had just obtained their bachelor (Ph.B.) degrees, most of them were still studying at colleges and polytechnics in the Eastern states. (Tseng Poo [Zeng Pu 曾溥 II, 46] was actually the earliest college graduate (Yale, 1877) but he had already been expelled from the CEM in 1875.) Their number now reduced to below 100, they arrived in Shanghai consecutively on September 7, 22 and November 10.1

Woo Kee Tsao
  Leaving America with much regret, these young men had little idea of the reception that awaited them in their own country.  Upon arrival, instead of being welcomed home, they were carted in wheelbarrows by coolies, under armed guard, to an abandoned school building, filthy, damp and pest-ridden — where they were confined for days and not allowed out to see their families.  Along the route, they were jeered at by onlookers and vilified as “foreign devils.” Treated like disgraced offenders, initially the returned students had no access to either their protector, Yung Wing, or the sympathetic official responsible for the CEM, Governor-General Li Hongzhang 李鸿章.  Under such conditions, some succumbed to illness and despair.  The maltreatment gave them a taste of the arrogance, callousness and inertia so prevalent among China’s government bureaucrats, against whom some vented their anger with scathing comments in letters to their friends.2  Nonetheless, for many of them, the experience amounted to a crash-course in maturity: it tested their patience and steeled their resolve to prove that they had the ability and strength of character to fulfill their country’s expectations.

First Assignments

1890 Reunion
  At first, Yung Wing tried to persuade the authorities to send at least the post-secondary students back to complete their studies, but to no avail.  In 1883 he returned to his young family in America and played no further part in guiding the fortunes of his protégés.  Having shut down the CEM, the Chinese Government now ignored the Mission’s original provision to confer on the returned students the rank of minor officials.  Instead, they were considered worthy only of low-level work and paid a coolie’s monthly wage of four taels, though a few were lucky enough to receive ten taels per month. Their early years back in China were marked by struggle, poverty and petty restrictions imposed by suspicious officials who disliked their independent spirit. They must often have felt culturally estranged from their countrymen, at least in the early years.

1905 Reunion
  Faced with the reality of their abrupt recall without having obtained the requisite technical expertise from America, the authorities assigned the returned students mostly to occupations of a technical or highly practical nature.  According to a memorial from Li Hongzhang written in 1885,3 the three groups of returnees were divided as follows:


1st Group

  21 assigned to Tianjin 天津 to be trained for telegraph service.

2nd Group

  3 sent to the Fuzhou 福州 Naval School and Shanghai Machinery Works;

The remainder

  50 tested and then assigned variously to Tianjin for training in operating torpedoes and naval mines, and in mechanical, telegraphic and medical fields. (Tianjin had a cluster of modern technical training facilities set up by Li Hongzhang.)

Tong Kwo On
  From the above, eight men were chosen for training at the Tangshan 唐山 Mining Company.  Another important sector was the Imperial Railway Service, where thirteen students later found employment from 1888 onward.  Three men trained at the Beiyang Hospital Medical School established by Governor Li, and one of the graduates, Lin Yuen Fai (Lin Lianhui 林聯輝IV, 109) later became its first Chinese director — also the first head of a Western hospital in China.  A small number entered the Imperial Maritime Customs, which was still being run by the British. The rest were hired as translators and interpreters by the Shanghai and Tianjin daotais 道台, or district officials. Six members made their way back to the U.S. to complete their college education, while a sprinkling of the returnees managed to slip out of their government obligations to pursue their own careers, either working for foreign firms or engaged in private business ventures.

By and large the CEM alumni took up careers in the following major sectors at an early stage of their development: industrial manufacturing and extraction of resources, infrastructure for communications and transportation, national security and foreign relations.

Tsai Shou Kee
  It is difficult to tell how much their dispersal and different work assignments affected the solidarity of the CEM boys as a group.  Some had the good fortune to work alongside their CEM peers as colleagues in the same sector, e.g. working under the same mandarin or in the same Chinese legation office.  But there were many who toiled alone in faraway places while still others changed occupations and locations more than once over their working life.  Some of the 21 who had attended Yale during the CEM years maintained links via the Yale Alumni Association of China (formed in November, 1903).  Some still kept in touch with their American host families by correspondence and a very few even invited their former friends to China for extended visits.  From time to time, around a dozen or more CEM men gathered for reunions; on such occasions, they delighted in addressing one another by their American nicknames and chatting happily in English.4