Chinese Students in the United States from 19th Century to 21st Century
International students have become a very steady group in US schools and colleges now. It has been recorded that currently there are more than 1 million international students studying in the U.S. (Farrugia) Chinese students weigh a high percentage of the total number of international students. As early as the Qing Dynasty, after China was defeated in the Opium War, Chinese students have been sent to the United States. Actually, it is very interesting that some of the first Chinese students who were brought to study in the States were studying right here in the New England states. The study–abroad wave had been cut by the end of the 19th Century since China has been involved in World War One, World War Two and Chinese Civil war. After re-establishing the diplomatic connection with the U.S. government in 1976, in the past few decades, international students from China studying in the States has dramatically increased. Some of them are government-sponsored scholars while most of the students paid their tuition with their own family funds. It has become a trend for an upper-middle-class Chinese family to send their children to study in the States to receive a better education. In this essay, we address the reasons and motivations for Chinese students to study in the United States change from the 1800s, late 1900 to 21st Century.
When the first group of Chinese boys were sent to study in the early-to-mid 1800s, they were expected to contribute to their motherland after learning western technology. Since at that time, China society and government were tremendously impacted by the development of the western world, and the government believed that these boys were able to help China strengthen its force in military, economy and technology. During the last two decades of last century, Chinese students started to come to study in the States again, specifically after 1976, when President Nixon visited China to re-establish the diplomatic relationship. Some Chinese students were on scholarship from the government and the government hoped to catch up with the western world for stagnancy in economy and technology during the cultural revolution. Chinese was the top place of origin among international students from 1988/89 to 1993/94 and again from 1998/99 through 2000/01. (Chow) After 1989, a lot of the students were driven by the incident of Tiananmen Square Protest of 1989 and decided to come to study in the U.S and stay here for a political protection especially when the States passed the law for allowing Chinese citizens in the States to obtain permanent residency. Nowadays, Internet access has become available for the majority Chinese families and they have had access to get to know more about US education. Not only scholars and professionals sent their children to study in the States, but also a normal middle-class family who is able to afford the tuition want their children to study in the United States. College credentials from U.S universities and colleges are seen as a more valuable degree than their local counterparts. Thus, young generations are seeking advanced degrees in the U.S so that they are able to lay a better career foundation for their future. I argue that the motivation of Chinese students to come to study in the U.S changes over time. In the 1800s, it is more of group mission, then in the late 1900s, it becomes the pursuit of freedom of speech and more advanced academic knowledge. But in the current 21st century, the motivation is to set a better foundation for their career and more varieties of educational programs.
It was Rev. Samuel Robbins Brown, a minister from Windsor, Connecticut who first brought Chinese students to the U.S. After serving in Macau for 8 years, Mr Brown came back to America for health reason, but he also brought three young Chinese with him. Yung Wing was one of them. (Cedrone) He attended Monson Academy in Massachusetts and graduated from Yale University in 1854. (Austen) Yung Wing’s dream always provides Chinese students with an opportunity to have an education that he had and he stated that “I might be obliged to create new conditions if I found old ones were not favourable to any plan I might have.” (Railton) Thus, since that there had not been any formal connection in education between two countries at that time, he established Hartford’s Chinese Educational Mission after turning down a few offers from his alma mater. Later, Chinese government got in touch with Wing and began to sponsor some boys from the (royal? local?) families to study in the U.S. The government believed that with the aid of western education, those boys were able to learn western knowledge and would come back to China to enforce in military, economy and also technology and repel foreign aggression. (CEM)
Approximately 120 Chinese boys were sent to the States. They arrived in San Francisco first and then travelled throughout the country by train until they finally got to New England. They lived in host families and went to school across small towns in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Most of the boys adapted to the western culture very well despite the fact that they spoke little to none English before their arrival. (Cedrone) But the mission did not last very long. In 1881, West Point rejected the entrance for several Chinese boys, meanwhile, the violence against Chinese in America increased rapidly and the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed the year after. The Chinese government decided to call back the boys despite the fact that most of them had not finished their education. While, after these boys returned home, they did become huge assets for the Chinese government. Most of them entered diplomatic services, including railroad, telegraph operation and diplomats. (Cedrone) Liang Cheng, one of the 120 boys finished his high school in Phillips Academy returned to China before finishing his college, but he came back to the States as the Chinese Ambassador to the United States. (New York Historical Society) (photo 1) Thus, the earlier Chinese students came to study in the United States, not for personal achievement. It was not an individual motivation, but a group mission to fulfil a bigger task.
It took a very long time for the Chinese students to come to study in the States again. After World War One, World War Two, Chinese Civil War and also the Chinese cultural revolution, the United States finally welcomed their first group of Chinese students again. When President Nixon visited China in 1976, the door opened eventually. In 1979, the Chinese government sent the first group of students to the States, aiming to catch up with the western technology, as for the past decade, due to the Cultural Revolution, almost everything from the western world was repulsed and abandoned in China, for ideological reasons. (Wei 8) The first groups of students that were sent to the States at that time of period were mature scholars with families and connections back home because Chinese government wanted to make sure that they would return home after their study. Their motivation to study in the States was the research opportunities and advanced curriculums that U.S colleges and universities were able to offer. Since it was not until the 1980s that Chinese Universities were integrated with international education again, they had very limited access to advanced technology back home. (Wei 14) Then the Tiananmen Square Protest of 1989 changed the mind of a lot of Chinese students. In 1989, about a million Chinese, among them were mostly college students and young scholars gathered in downtown Beijing protesting for more freedom of voice. They wanted the leader of the ruling Party, which has always been the Chinese Communist Party, to resign. On July 4th, the leader of the Party ordered the troops to storm through the protest and fired to the protesters. The detailed casualty number was never revealed to the public but the estimation was over 300 killed and 10,000 arrested. (History.com) A lot of students at that time were terrified and worried about similar things could happen to them as well. So a lot of them chose to go abroad to avoid being caught and to pursue freedom of speech. In a 1989 survey among Chinese students in America, only 6.9% of Chinese students prefer Chinese government over Western while about 40% before the incident happened. 72.6% respondents replied that they were concerned about the political situation back in China. (Chang&Deng) Compare with students in the 70s and early 80s, Chinese students wanted to study in the States because with a U.S education, it was easier for them to stay in the States and found a job to remain their status in the country. In 1991, U.S government decided to allow Chinese students in the States at that time to apply for permanent residency, thus the majority of the Chinese students decided to stay in the States instead of returning to China. (U.S Congress) However, around 70% of the Chinese students in the 20th Century came to study in the States on government or public fund. From 1978 to 2000, there were over 220 thousand Chinese came to study in the States. 57 thousand were funded by government and another 102 thousand were funded by government organizations and companies. (Ma&Zhang) Although in the 20th century, there were only 23 years of official diplomatic relations between the two governments, the motivation and reason for Chinese students to come to study in the States changed from studying more modern knowledge to a political asylum due to political incidents happened in mainland China.
For the past decade, with the increasing number of international students studying in the United States, the number of Chinese students increases as well. 41.5% of Chinese students choose the United States as their first preferred study abroad destination, and another 31.6% of them state the U.S as their alternative choice. (Chow 11-12) In contrast to the previous two centuries, most of the Chinese students now are studying in the States with their family funds. In 2013, 384 out of 414 thousand Chinese students paid their U.S tuition with the aid from their parents. (Ma&Zhang) It is well-known that college tuition is not cheap, but Chinese families are willing to pay for it because of the high-quality education in America. Chinese families care about ranking because higher ranking would bring higher quality credential, which might result in (or secure?)a better job. According to 2017 U.S. NEWS best global universities ranking, 47 U.S colleges and universities are ranked at top 100 around the world while only 2 Chinese universities join the top 100 list. ( U.S NEWS) Meanwhile, in 2017, there were about 9.4 million students who took the Gaokao exam in China. ( XINHUA NET) In the same year, only 3.2 million high school seniors graduated from their schools in the United States. (Seltzer) It is not reasonable to determine whether an institution is good or not simply by a ranking report from an organization’s report. But statistically, it is for sure much easier for Chinese students to get into a worldwide well-known elite university if they choose to study in the States.
Besides the ranking, Chinese students also prefer the wider selection of curriculum and freedom of choosing courses in the States. In China, which college a student is going to attend and what major a student is going to study are both determined by one single exam at the end of senior year in high school. (Svoboda) Gaokao, a similar exam like SAT/ACT in the states determine the path of the next four years for all high school seniors. But unlike the U.S standard test, which can be taken multiple times and is definitely not the only factor to be considered by the admissions team, Gaokao is held nationwide at the same weekend in June and can be only taken once for each student. Once the score is determined, it becomes the only factor to place students into different colleges. At the same time, the major for each student is also set once they are enrolled. No matter how hard they are willing to change their major or transfer to another school, it is very unlikely for the school to grant the application. Thus, families who are able to pay the U.S tuition often send their kids to study abroad to create a more variety of choices for their offsprings.
In conclusion, Chinese students have been in the United States since the late 1800s. The reasons and motivation for them to pursue their education across the world have changed in different periods of times. The first group of Chinese students were sent to the New England area to fulfil a group mission so that China was able to learn western technology. While the motivation initially started as a passive decision, when the door was opened again in 1976, mature Chinese scholars came to States to catch up with the modern technology while Chinese higher education institutions remained in an isolated status. After 1988 Tiananmen Square Massacre, young Chinese students wanted to study in the U.S for the freedom of speech and democratic atmosphere. Currently, among the international students in the U.S, China ranks as No.1 regarding the number of students. Chinese students choose to study in the States for a higher quality of education and wider selections of academic programs.
Photo1: Liang Cheng arriving at Chicago as Chinese Ambassador to the United States. ( New York Historical Society)
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