Shanghai Diary

In 1872, thirty Chinese schoolboys sailed to the United States to commence university education.

This first organized foray into international education on the part of China was the fulfilment of a long and hard-fought dream on the part of Yung Wing, a southern Chinese official who had been educated at Yale through the support of an American missionary teacher. Yung's motives were more or less "liberal"; a convert to Christianity as well as to other aspects of western culture, Yung saw the prospect of a more open and modern China depending on the experience and knowledge that such a group might gain in the USA.

Others who supported or acquiesced to the mission were more suspicious or at least circumspect, hoping that the boys would acquire knowledge that might help guard China against the West. Their concerns were not unreasonable; this was in the immediate aftermath of the Opium Wars, when western engagement was an obviously malign force in China, not unreasonably feared and rejected.

The experiment was relatively short-lived, and the mission that had sent these "China Boys" (as they were known among their associates in Connecticut) was recalled in 1881, after it was perceived that its participants were adopting western customs and losing their Chinese identity and loyalty.

This piece of history has a variety of sequels, as successive groups of Chinese students have travelled to the West. In each period there has been an inevitable relationship between the policies and hopes on the part of the state that have allowed, impeded or driven students, and the realities of China's relationships with the rest of the world.

There have been other instances of withdrawal, such as the Cultural Revolution, when those who has studied overseas, or otherwise participated in higher education, were stigmatized and often severely punished.

There have also been other instances of state-driven engagement, as at present. Today many students from China are traveling abroad - including to Melbourne, in increasing numbers - carrying ambitions fostered by recent decades of liberalization and economic development. Such projects are again viewed with hope, but also imbued with a new confidence, given China's emergence as an unquestioned world power.

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