Origins of the Chinese Educational Mission

Break with Tradition

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.

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".

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.

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.


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.