Desperate to modernize in the final days of empire, China launches a bold educational experiment.
By the second half of the 19th century, the Qing dynasty ruled half-a-billion Chinese, with 40,000 civilian and military officials administering the government. The imperial system’s calcified bureaucracy, resistant to change, wedded to Confucianism and wary of foreign intercourse, struggled with a tottering economy, domestic rebellions and repeated humiliations at the hands of Western powers. One powerful statesman, Li Hongzhang, sought to reform the educational system by sending students to America to learn the new ways of thinking and returning them to China as a core group of future leaders. Under the direction of the Yale-educated Yung Wing, over a period of nearly a decade, 120 boys attended high schools and colleges, mostly in New England, as a part of the Chinese Educational Mission. Under assault from court critics who feared Western corruption of the young men, Li recalled the mission in 1880. Although a remarkably large number of the boys eventually rose to power and influence in China, Leibovitz and Miller (Lili Marlene: The Soldiers’ Song of World War II, 2008) wisely focus on only a dozen or so, tracking their journey to Hartford, Conn., the Mission’s base of operations, their acculturation to Gilded Age American society and their troubled reentry to a China tumultuously passing from corrupt empire to shaky republic. The authors’ effective, quick-stroke treatment of momentous historical events, their sensitive portraits of schoolboys who became technological, military, industrial and commercial reformers and their deft juxtaposition of two cultures, one on the rise, the other coming apart, make for a rich, multilayered tale. Today, China and America warily circle each other, and China is once again furiously attempting to modernize, busy recapitulating many of the same struggles and absorbing many of the same lessons that the Mission boys learned so many years ago.
A curious, little-known episode of Sino-American history vividly told.