Cem Students

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SHANGHAI—August 11, 1872: a striking scene unfolded on the waterfront. Dressed in fine silk garments, 30 teenage boys were bidding tearful goodbyes to their loved ones and boarding the intercoastal steamer bound for Japan. From there, they took a big paddle-wheeler to sail across the Pacific to America, where they would begin 15 years of schooling and vocational training. Over the next three summers, three more groups of 30 boys set out on the same journey. All expenses were paid by their government. What caused this self-contained and deeply conservative country, proud of its ancient traditions of learning and culture, to send its sons abroad to be educated? -------------------------------------------------

After 1839, a series of military defeats by Britain, France and other Western powers forced China to pay heavy indemnities, open the country to foreign merchants and missionaries and concede numerous rights. The resulting loss of wealth and sovereignty eventually caused the government to recognize the foreigners’ technological superiority. In 1871, the Chinese Educational Mission (CEM) to the United States was set in motion—120 students would be sent to America to acquire Western expertise and on their return would help to direct China's efforts to strengthen itself and repel foreign aggression.

That was the original goal—but after only nine years, the experiment was terminated. Why did the Chinese authorities pull the plug? How did the "boy students" fare in their living and learning abroad? And how did they turn out after the Mission came to a premature end? What was their impact, if any, on China's modernization effort in the subsequent decades? Or, was the Mission largely a waste of money? Check out our site for some answers and opinions… IMPERIAL STUDENTS

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More than a century ago, the Imperial Government of China sent the very first delegation of students abroad. Between 1872 and 1875, the Qing government dispatched 4 groups, in total 120 students, to America. Their average age was only 12. Hence history remembers them by a common title-the Chinese Boy Students. These young Chinese students were sent to the other side of Pacific 130 years ago, to a young republic founded less than 100 years earlier, to embark on their expected 15-year long overseas study. In the shortest time possible, they overcame the language barriers and soon prevailed in academic achievement. Meanwhile, they rapidly adjusted themselves to the foreign culture and soon took off their long, Chinese gowns and were often seen on sports fields. They were students accepted into Harvard, Yale, Columbia, MIT; they were neighbors to Mark Twain; and they were once cordially received by the American President Grant. As the world saw dramatic changes, they were sent to the very front of the Industrial Revolution. However, as nearly half of the students were beginning their tertiary education, the Qing Empire abruptly terminated this project. These students later became the precursors of China's modern mining, transportation, and communications industries. They were the first presidents of Tsinghua University and Tianjin University, the first diplomats, and the first premier of the Republic of China. After they returned home, they went through the ups and downs of late Qing Dynasty and witnessed the vicissitudes of modern China. Stories of the boy students sent to America are like fragments of a precious piece of porcelain, scattered over America and China, almost lost for more than a century. They were left in the cities where the students used to live, in the high schools and colleges they attended; and the local historical societies and public libraries; they persisted in the blood of the students' descendants and in the memories of the host American families. We have collected the debris of history-pictures, letters, diaries, report cards, clothes, press clippings, to patch together a bygone period of Sino-American history from more than 100...
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