Exeter and the Chinese Educational Mission

by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, September 16, 2011.

See caption below. Photo courtesy of Phillips Exeter Academy.
The rolls of Phillips Exeter Academy students for the 1880s include the names of seven students from China. Their presence here was a unique experiment of the Qing government called the Chinese Educational Mission, which turned out to be both a great success and a great failure.

The original idea behind the mission was to send Chinese students to educational institutions in the United States to learn about Western technology and military arts. It was hoped that the boys would eventually attend such venerated military institutions as West Point and the Naval Academy, but before they would be eligible for college-level study, the boys had to attend prep schools.

Led by Yung Wing, who had himself studied in the United States, the program was headquartered in Connecticut. The boys were the brightest students in China. Schooled for a time in Shanghai to acquire enough skills in English, the first group of 30 boys set sail for the United States in late 1872. They attended many of New England’s finest prep schools and, in 1879, five boys arrived in Exeter. Two more would come the next year.

The boys boarded in local homes, the largest number staying with retired minister, Jacob Chapman at his house on Middle Street. They were required to return to Connecticut several times each year to continue their Chinese studies, but the remainder of their time was spent in Exeter. Even with the preparation they had received in Shanghai, the boys found life in New England to be very different from that of China, an empire traditionally suspicious of all things foreign. They had been instructed to maintain their Chinese identity and habits. Commissioner Woo Tsze Tun, in a letter to the boys in 1880, reminded them, “since your stay here is brief, as compared with the time you have to spend in China, foreign habits should not become so rooted as that you cannot change them.” They were not to violate Chinese tradition by cutting off their long braided queue. They were not to become U.S. Citizens. They were not to take an American bride. They were not to become Christian. And they were not to succumb to “western” frivolities – especially the playing of sports.

But not all of their time was taken up in study. It was true that they attended to their schoolwork – these were scholarly boys by their very nature – but they also went to baseball games, attended dances and went to church with their host families. Living with a retired minister and attending a school that began each day with prayer, it would have been impossible for them to ignore the importance of the central messages of nineteenth century Protestant theology; that of redemption, personal responsibility and individual saving grace.

Iris Chang, in her book The Chinese in America, noted, “what the Qing government did not recognize until much later was that these American-educated students would be internally transformed.” By 1881, it had become apparent that the boys, although doing well academically, were picking up American customs and habits. It was also becoming obvious that the United States government, far from extending goodwill to China by allowing students to attend public schools, was not going to allow any of them to study at West Point. The United States was on the brink of passing the Chinese Exclusion Act, which forbade Chinese immigration into the country. Bad feelings on both sides led to the end of the program. All the boys, regardless of how far they had come in their studies, were recalled to China in 1881.

The Exeter News-Letter sadly announced in early August, “It seems that the cause of the action was report by a dignitary sent to inspect the schools, which stated that the boys were forgetting the customs of their country and becoming rapidly Americanized. No amount of subsequent explanation was able to correct the erroneous impression thus conveyed, and the order to return is preemptory.”

The return to China was difficult for most of the boys. They had been promised a full education and had been looking forward to returning to their country as respectable men. Instead, they were treated as failures – boys who had forsaken their great nation. Kin Ta Ting, who attended Phillips Exeter Academy from 1879 to 1881, wrote to Reverend Chapman, “The Chinese consider denationalization a great crime. This is the chief reason for our recall.” He was bitter and it shows in his early letters.

Most of the Chinese Educational Missionary students went on to do well for themselves in China. A few managed to make it back to the United States, but most did not. Those who remained in China were assigned to military positions or further education. Kin Ta Ting was assigned to the Beiyang Medical School and became a medical officer in the Imperial Army. He was killed in action during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion. Of his time in Exeter, he fondly recalled:

“I think the P.E.A. Professors ought to be proud of their pupils in China when they hear of their good standing in various schools. That shows the good instructions have been given by them. Their names will never be forgotten by us so long as we live. We often talk of them. How we would like to see their faces again in classrooms! We all want very much to be present at the hundredth anniversary of the Academy. It make us homesick to think of it.”

Photo: One of the boys from the Chinese Educational Mission joined the Phillips Exeter Academy baseball team and posed for this 1881 photo. Baseball was seen by the Chinese government as a particularly insidious expression of "westernization". The team had a particularly bad year in 1881 - losing to Andover 5 - 13. Courtesy of Phillips Exeter Academy.


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