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The CEM in Retrospect Print E-mail

Cultural Impact on "Boy Students"

Image  The students' alleged neglect of their Chinese studies and their high degree of Westernization are generally agreed to be among the chief causes of the CEM's closure. However, it is possible to argue that the inherent contradictions between Yung's vision for the students and the Government's own expectations would sooner or later have undermined the ambitious experiment.  In a way, both parties used the CEM as a vehicle for advancing their own objectives and this divergence of vision was bound to result in general frustration.  The students, who had been flourishing under Yung's agenda of freer personal development but smarted from the heavy hand of the authoritarian Commissioner Wu, thus found themselves the innocent pawns in the middle, caught up in the clash of cultures.  For their part, the Chinese officials had failed to anticipate the cultural impact that a foreign education would have upon the impressionable minds and personalities of youths sent abroad at such a young age.  Furthermore the impact of their schooling was greatly reinforced through Yung's scheme of lodging them in American homes, where the boys effortlessly absorbed American customs and values in all facets of their daily lives.  Admittedly, the officials sought to counteract the effect of Western influence by requiring the boys to study Chinese classical texts, to observe Confucian etiquette and to learn certain Court protocols, but these requirements were clearly inadequate and, indeed, provoked negative reactions among the youths.  As for Yung Wing, his attitude towards maintaining the boys' training in the Chinese language and culture is a contentious issue about which it is difficult to have a clear picture.  Yet in the end, since the returned students were expected to serve in government posts where proficiency in Chinese language and culture was essential, the CEM's provision for Chinese instruction proved to be of great value to those who later entered government departments or worked under various Mandarins.

Image  Besides the CEM, several other educational missions were sent to Europe by the Qing Government between the 1870s and 1890s.  It is instructive to compare the CEM model with these other models for acquiring Western technological skills.  In 1877 the first group of the top thirty students from the Fuzhou Naval Academy was sent to Europe with government support for a minimum of three years of advanced study.  They were variously allocated to England and France where some students majored in naval science and technology while others branched out into chemistry, mining and even law and politics.  Later contingents of Fuzhou cadets went to Europe in 1882, 1886 and 1897 under this arrangement for three-year or six-year terms of study.  With an average age of around 20, these cadets already possessed a good grasp of their fields of study and some knowledge of a foreign language.  Their greater maturity, coupled with much shorter periods abroad, freed them from the kinds of cultural problems that afflicted the CEM students.4 Nevertheless it is worth noting that upon their return to China, many of them were undervalued and underemployed by the Government ― a fate similar to that encountered by the CEM alumni in their early careers.5

Cross-cultural Interaction

Image Apart from its educational aspects the Mission is equally significant as a highly successful experiment in intercultural encounter which was unparalleled for both countries up to that point in time.  Through their daily interactions with Americans in their schools, towns and adoptive homes and churches, Yung Wing's "boys" were quickly transformed by their experiences and most of them became integrated with their local communities.  A great number formed lasting friendships with their classmates and host families, maintaining those relationships via letters and exchanges of gifts and greetings across the miles that separated them after their recall to China.  This perhaps represented the first time that such numbers of ordinary Chinese and Westerners had formed close personal relationships of this kind.  On the other side, as Chris Robyn has documented extensively,6 the New England towns and villages embraced their Chinese guests with remarkable openness and generosity, bridging the vast gulf between the two races and cultures.  These Americans undoubtedly gained a new understanding and respect for Chinese culture as a result of interacting with the bright, courteous and industrious young men living among them.  Even long after their school days, the local press periodically followed their careers and reported about their return visits to New England with much pride and proprietary interest.  Although this was never one of its aims, the Chinese Educational Mission had in fact set a precedent in cultural exchange between China and the United States.

Mission Accomplished?

Image The Government's initial half-hearted utilization of the foreign-educated students brings up the question often asked: "Was the Chinese Educational Mission a failure?"  The answer depends of course on how success and failure are measured.  Technically, the Mission failed to complete its term of 15 years and ended on a sour note; the students returned home in disgrace with their government and under a cloud of reproach from their critics.  However, the picture looks very different when the students' overall academic performance while in the U.S. and also their accomplishments some years after the termination of the CEM are taken into account.  Judging by the large number of those who gained admittance to the best colleges in America, these young scholars were highly successful ― albeit in ways often diverging from the Government's original aims.  As for their career achievements, no fewer than 89 alumni entered government service and served with credit in most appointments and with distinction in many positions.  From their midst came the pioneers in China's foreign diplomatic corps and in the telegraph and mining industries, China's first railway engineer and builder, the first principal of its earliest Western-style college, the first Chinese licensed to practise law in America, and the Chinese Republic's first Premier… just to cite several salient examples of the students' contributions to their country.  Given the extremely broad scope of these achievements, it is questionable if the narrow focus on technical training, as originally conceived by Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang, could have nurtured the abilities required to meet such diverse challenges.  The irony is that, despite the untimely end of the CEM, when viewed from the standpoint of its alumni's accomplishments, Yung Wing's faith in the value of an excellent Western liberal education seems to have been vindicated.  To be sure, the students underwent further technical training in different fields after their return but, arguably, it was their solid grounding in American secondary and higher education that gave them the capacity to quickly acquire new skills and solve new problems in the specialized vocations that they were called upon by their government to follow.  Their overall success in later years could partly be attributed to their exposure to other languages and perspectives during the formative period of their lives.

There are still further historical ironies at play.  The Government that had relegated the discredited students to low-level jobs upon their recall in 1881 later came to rely heavily on their services in a great variety of ways, when China's sovereignty came under the gravest threat from foreign powers.  When their country needed men with acumen, initiative and a capacity to deal with the modern world, they rose to the challenge.  In hindsight it could be argued that the CEM proved to be one of the wisest ventures undertaken by the Qing regime in terms of the return on its investment of resources in sustaining the Mission while it lasted.  The CEM was of course only one of many piecemeal attempts at modernization in late 19th century China; yet the returned alumni who effectively filled many important government positions for the next thirty years probably made a significant difference.  Admittedly, Yung Wing's original dream that it might prove to be a key instrument by which "China might be regenerated, become enlightened and powerful" fell short of becoming a reality.  Indeed, it is poignantly ironic that, while most of his "spiritual children" faithfully kept their part of the CEM bargain in serving their Emperor until the end of the dynasty, Yung himself gave up further hope in the possibility of the regime's true regeneration and threw his support behind Sun Yat-sen's revolutionary cause.  From this perspective it is tempting to speculate whether the regime could have lingered on as long as it did until its final demise in 1911, had it not been for the capable and loyal support of Yung Wing's American-educated "boys."



1.  Cf. Leung (1988a), 399-400.

2.  Letter from Li Hongzhang to Chen Lanbin, 10 May, 1880, quoted in Hung (1955), 67.

3.  Yung Wing (1909; 2000), 41.

4.  Kuo & Liu (1978), 541.

5.  Shi (2000), 177-179.

6.  Robyn (1996), passim.