After the CEM: Lives and Careers
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


Proving Their Worth         

Tong Shao Yi
  Before very long, the ex-CEM students began to earn the respect of senior officials by virtue of their honesty, ability and dedication to duty.  Building up a modern navy for self-defense was China’s most urgent priority.  As many as 43 men had initially been sent to the naval schools in Fuzhou and Tianjin.  Among those who remained in the Navy, 16 fought for their country; four of them perished in the Sino-French War in 1884 and three died in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5. Yung Wing’s “Chinese foreign devils” had now proved their loyalty by putting their lives at risk and dying for China.

Young Yew Huan
  They also played a notable role in developing a modern infrastructure for their country.  A high national priority was telegraph communications, which were seen as a strategic necessity. The return of the CEM fraternity coincided with the first stages of laying cables to connect major Chinese cities.  Of the 20 individuals who worked in the telegraph service, nine rose to senior management and several were promoted to high-ranking mandarins after the turn of the century. To arm itself against foreign domination, China also needed iron and coal mines to build and power its warships and trains to quickly transport men and materiel to its seaports, not to mention the need for their peaceful uses.  Eight CEM alumni were numbered among China’s first generation of mining engineers and operatives.

Won Bin Chung
  After its humiliating defeat in 1895 by Japan, and later by the eight-nation coalition that suppressed the Boxer uprising of 1900, China became a virtual colony.  Each of the foreign powers extorted concessions, and some used railway projects as a tool for penetrating the country and gaining control of its hard assets.  To help stem this imperialist tide, the Government relied on the American-educated students, who greatly contributed to the railways sector as well as to foreign affairs.  As many as 30 CEM men at one time or another worked for the railways, and a dozen of them became managing directors of various lines across the country.  Foremost among them was the Yale graduate, Jeme Tien Yau (Zhan Tianyou 詹天佑 I, 15), China’s pioneer railway builder and designer, who gave 31 years of his busy life to the nation.  His construction of the Beijing-Zhangjiakou Railway 京张铁路 across the most challenging terrain, solely with Chinese funding, manpower and resources and in record time, has earned him the status of a national hero whose name is a household word among Chinese people.

Yung Kwai
  Members of the CEM fraternity also proved adept in foreign policy and diplomacy.  Soon after their return home, they were sought out as secretaries or aides by reformist leaders like Li Hongzhang, Zhang Zhidong 张之洞, Sheng Xuanhuai 盛宣懷 and Yuan Shikai 袁世凯. These officials were shrewd enough to value their modern outlook and knowledge of foreign languages and cultures.  No less than 21 CEM alumni were sent abroad to form a significant part of China’s Consular Service.  The most capable and highest-ranking among this former CEM band of government emissaries and senior administrators was Tong Shao Yi (Tang Shaoyi 唐绍仪 III, 61).  They were instrumental in defending China’s interests against Russia and Japan in Manchuria and Korea and against Britain in Tibet.  They were active in protecting the rights of the overseas Chinese in USA, South American countries, the Philippines and elsewhere.   It was Liang Pe Yuk (Liang Pixu 梁丕旭 IV, 118), a.k.a. Liang Cheng 梁诚, known abroad as Sir Chentung Liang Cheng, who, as the Chinese Minister to the United States, 1903-1907, initiated the process of recovering the overpayments of the Boxer Indemnity funds 庚子赔款 paid to that country.  Liang also helped to persuade the Chinese Government to spend the rebates on opening new schools, and on funding overseas study in America. Sir Chentung's acuity in uncovering the excess amount together with his personal skills in diplomacy contributed to saving for China some 27 million U.S. Dollars, inclusive of interest over the payment period.

Liang Pe Yuk
  Given their relevant experience and deep interest, members of the CEM fraternity became key players in advancing modern higher education in China.  Tsai Shou Kee (Cai Shaoji 蔡紹基 I, 1) had a hand in establishing the Zhong Xi School 中西学堂 in Tianjin, which in 1903 was reorganized as Beiyang University 北洋大学, and eventually he became its first Director.  When the Qing Government replaced the old imperial examination system with a modern one in 1906, Tang Shaoyi was appointed by the Ministry of Education as Chief Examination Officer, while Zhan Tianyou and the British-educated Yan Fu 严复 were appointed as Deputy Examiners of the returned foreign-educated students.5   To select and prepare students for study in America under the Boxer Indemnity scheme, another CEM alumnus, Liang Tun Yen (Liang Dunyan 梁敦彦 I, 11) established the Qinghua School 清华学堂 in Beijing, which eventually became Qinghua University 清华大学.  As Minister of Foreign Affairs (1908), and then President of the Board of Foreign Affairs (1909), Liang negotiated with the United States Minister at Beijing for about $12,000,000 of the Boxer Indemnity funds to be set aside for the purpose of sending Chinese students to America.  In 1910, he placed his CEM colleague Tong Kwo On (Tang Guoan 唐国安 II, 49) in charge of the School and of the selection of students to America.  The first Principal of Qinghua University was therefore a CEM alumnus.  At the other end of the scheme, Yung Kwai (Rong Kui 容揆 II, 34), Secretary and Councillor at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, was appointed to manage the disbursement of the scholarship funds and put in charge of student affairs.6 In 1909, yet another CEM alumnus, Tong Yuen Chan (Tang Yuanzhan 唐元湛 II, 53) was appointed by the Office for Selection of Students for America (on Boxer Indemnity scholarships) as its Commissioner in Shanghai.7 It is peculiarly apt that this pioneer group of Government-funded students played such a crucial role in facilitating the next generation of Government-sponsored youth to study in America.


Twilight Years and Revolution

The surviving members of the CEM community had reached their middle age during the most turbulent years of the political scene, both before and after the Revolution.  Although Yung Wing himself supported the short-lived “Hundred Days’ Reforms” and continued to work for a republican regime, it is a curious fact that only one of his “boys,” Young Yew Huan (Rong Yaoyuan 容耀垣 III, 66), better known as Yung Hoy (Rong Kai 容開) or Yung Sing Kew (Rong Xingqiao 容星橋), joined the revolutionary cause.  Early on he had abandoned a government career to become a merchant, and much later became an aide and advisor to Sun Yat-sen and introduced Sun to his distant cousin Yung Wing. As for his peers, it would be fair to ask why none of the other American-educated men showed active support for Sun and his movement. The reason could hardly be that the returned CEM students preferred an autocratic monarchy to a constitutional democracy.  It is more likely because of the central role that they played in the Government — whose sovereignty they endeavored to defend against foreign powers, and whose administration they tried equally hard to render as honest and benevolent to their countrymen as possible under the circumstances.  However, in 1911, when Tong Shao Yi realized that the Qing regime was beyond repair, he cut his queue and, as the Government’s representative, signed an agreement with Sun’s negotiators to recommend the abolition of the Qing monarchy.  In fact after the Republic of China was established, he was appointed its first Prime Minister.

Making History

By the turn of the century, when a significant number of the CEM alumni had died from various causes, several of them made efforts to publicize the history of the CEM and to preserve biographical records for all 120 students.  Prior to these efforts, the first published, brief account of the voyage to America, “Chinaland, Across the Sea,” was written by New Shan Chow (Niu Shangzhou 牛尚周 I, 12) for his school magazine, The Exonian, issued May 29, 1880.  About 1884-1885, Yung Kwai (Rong Kui 容揆 II, 34) composed his “Recollections of the Chinese Educational Mission,” dedicated to his future American wife, and probably intended only for private circulation.  Adopting a third-person perspective, Yung’s extended essay about the entire Mission nevertheless drew upon his personal experiences and opinions, and included some trenchant criticism of the Mission’s conservative administration.  His reminiscence was not so much a record of events as an evaluation of the CEM’s accomplishment.  In his personal memoir, When I Was a Boy in China (1887; reissued 2003 as a print-on-demand publication), Lee Yen Fu (Li Enfu 李恩富 II, 40) briefly recalled his impressions of the CEM prep school in Shanghai, of the journey and of the boys’ initial experiences upon arrival in America.  However, none of these can be considered comprehensive histories in any real sense.

Possibly the earliest synoptic account of the CEM to be published was provided by Tong Kwo On (Tang Guoan 唐国安 II, 49) in two articles in English.  Because of the difficulty in locating copies of these articles, they have been almost completely overlooked by earlier CEM studies.  The long essay, "History and Outcome of the Chinese Educational Mission to the United States," appeared in The Chinese Times of Tianjin in two instalments on February 11th and 18th, 1888.  None of the students were named in this early account, though quite a number were identified in the second article written 17 years later.  Since it was reprinted as an anonymous pamphlet, it is reasonable to infer that the original two parts had also appeared incognito.  Given the backlash in the Government against foreign education after the closing of the CEM, and given that most of the alumni were still in low-level jobs, working under suspicions about their loyalty, Tong's decision to conceal both his name and theirs is understandable.  His narrative moves from the early education of Yung Wing, through the Mission's inception and closure, to a brief survey of the post-CEM conditions of the students to date.  This account is valuable for its many inside glimpses into the workings of the Mission and for its reflection of the students' perspectives.8

Much later, using his alias "Tong Kai-son", Tong Kwo On penned a second essay entitled, "The Christian Experiences of the Students of the Chinese Educational Mission to the U.S.", which appeared in two parts in the Chinese YMCA's periodical, China's Young Men, vol. 8, No. 3 and No. 4 (1905).9  Narrower in focus, this article offers a unique view of the CEM as seen through the impact of Christianity on the students' spiritual formation and on their daily lives.  As a prominent leader among them, Tong revealed many fascinating details about the experiences and mindset of these Christian converts and activists.  Both articles suggested that the religious aspect of the students' development while in America was a significant factor in the CEM's evolution and ultimate fate.

Possibly the earliest roster of the returned students giving their Detachment number, date and year of birth, with notes detailing later job positions for some, was compiled in Chinese by Tong Yuen Chan (Tang Yuanzhan 唐元湛 II, 53) sometime after 1904.  In 1923, Won Bing Chung (Wen Bingzhong 温秉忠 II, 36) gave a lecture in English on his CEM experiences to students of the Customs College, Beijing, and in 1924, compiled in Chinese a new students’ list giving further details.  Among those still active after the Qing era, Young Shang Him (Rong Shangqian 容尚谦 I, 6), was especially diligent in maintaining contact with the survivors and in collecting papers, photographs and other memorabilia connected with the Mission.  He gave a talk in English at the Shanghai American School in 1937 where he recounted the story of Yung Wing and the CEM in outline.  In 1939 Captain Yung produced a long article titled “The Chinese Educational Mission and its Influence,” first published in the T’ien Hsia Monthly and later issued together with his autobiography as a separate pamphlet.  The most detailed account of Yung Wing and the CEM then available, it included brief biographical notes on all 120 students arranged by Detachment.

Beyond their circle, the past exploits of the pioneer students were gaining the attention of the Rev. Arthur G. Robinson (1884-1964), an American missionary associated with the YMCA who had been working among students both in Hartford and in Tianjin.  Having gathered a sizeable amount of material about the CEM and having cultivated the friendship of several surviving alumni, on May 31, 1932 Robinson gave a long talk on the CEM at the North China Union Language School at Beijing.  The event was written up and published with his speech under the headline, "Pilgrims to Western Seats of Learning. China's First Educational Mission to U.S." by the Peking and Tientsin Times on June 24, 1932.  Reissued as a pamphlet on July 12, 1932 with the title, “The Senior Returned Students: A Brief Account of the Chinese Educational Commission (1872-1881) under Dr. Yung Wing,” it was intended as a dry run for a complete history by Rev. Robinson in both English and Chinese.  However, his heavy workload at the YMCA compelled Robinson to withdraw and to transfer all his materials to Dr. Thomas E. LaFargue, an American historian of China, who agreed to take over the project.  In 1940, LaFargue visited the aged survivors and interviewed them.  Thanks to their joint efforts, a great deal of information, including photographs and personal papers, was assembled and passed on for Dr. LaFargue to use in writing China’s First Hundred, the first book-length history in English of the Chinese Educational Mission, originally published in 1942, reissued in 1987.



1.  Shi (2000), 174.

2.  Cf. LaFargue (1987), 55-59.

3.  Shi (2000), 174.

4.  LaFargue (1987), 160.

5.  Qian & Hu (2003), 211; Qian & Hu (2004), 224.

6.  Boundless Learning (2003), 116 (item 101).

7.  Boundless Learning (2003), 115 (item 99).

8.  Our copy of the pamphlet was kindly provided by Reed Tang, great grandson of Wong Yau Chang (Huang Youzhang 黄有章 II, 41).  Tong’s authorship is referenced in Directory (1905), 3, and also in Daggett (1914), 419-421.

9.  Digital copy kindly supplied by Tang Shaoming, grand-nephew of Tong Kwo On.