An edited version appeared in Asia Times.
“China Comes to MIT” is an exhibit celebrating the 140-year history of students from China that attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology. On display at the Maihaugen Gallery in the MIT Library until November, the exhibit contains an amazing collection of personal stories of students from China that attended MIT from 1877 to 1931. Along with individual profiles, the exhibit also explains the circumstances and developments that led to the special relationship between China and MIT.
Eight of the first nine to enter MIT from China were members of the Chinese Education Mission, sent by the Qing government to receive an American college education. The CEM was the result of Yung Wing’s tireless effort with the imperial court promoting the idea of exposing China’s youth to western education.
Yung, under the generous sponsorship of American missionaries, was the first Chinese to graduate from an American university—Yale, class of 1854. He recognized the value of a western education in helping China modernize and convinced the government to send young boys, ages 12 to 15 to live with missionary families in New England and begin their American education.
The first Chinese student to matriculate MIT was Mon Cham Cheong in 1877 just ahead of the young men from CEM. Cheong’s father was a progressive minded, wealthy merchant who sent him to the US under the guardianship of a similarly wealthy merchant in Boston. Thus Cheong was also the first self-funded student from China.
In all, stories of 38 individuals were profiled in the exhibit including the bio of the first Chinese woman to enter MIT. She was Li Fu Lee; she married Kuan Tung (MIT ’27) and followed him to MIT. She entered as a junior and received an electrical engineering degree in 1929. There were only 25 women in her class and she was made chairman of the social committee of the MIT Chinese Students’ Club—already enough attending to have a club.
The Wong Tsoo story was my personal favorite. Also known as Wong Tsu, he was among the first batch of students to graduate from the newly formed department of Aeronautical Engineering in 1916. Upon recommendations of others at MIT, William Boeing hired him sight unseen to be his first chief engineer.
In less than a year, Wong had designed a seaplane that Boeing sold 50 copies to the US Navy and that was how the Boeing Company got its start as an airplane manufacturing enterprise. (Maybe this is why as a MIT undergrad, I could always get a summer job at Boeing when I went home for the summers.)
Wong did not stay in Seattle very long but went back to China in the latter half of 1917. For services rendered, Boeing gave him a check for $50.77 as payment in full. The MIT exhibit picked up the rest of his story.
Upon arrival in China, Wong began to design and build many more planes while moving his factory several times to the interior to keep out of the grasp of invading Japanese troops. Because of the shortage of strategic materials during wartime, he even designed and built gliders out of bamboo for use as troop carriers.
Wong had a MIT classmate who shared his passion for aviation and was his partner in operating the first airplane factory in China. Japanese spies assassinated him and Wong took over managing the plant and adopted his friend’s son
He shared his enthusiasm for aeronautics by teaching in Tsinghua’s engineering college where he actively encouraged promising aeronautical engineers to pursue additional training at MIT. One of his students was Qian Xuesen, who would later become the father of China’s rocket science.
The MIT exhibit isn’t just about individual stories; it’s a comprehensive portrayal of China’s fascination with practical education available in the west at the turn of the 20th century. After a century of humiliation at the hands of the western powers in the 19th century, every aspiring student in China dreamed of additional training in the west so that they could acquire the skills needed to modernize China and catch up with the rest of the world.
As pointed out in the exhibit, “by 1914, engineering had become the favorite field for government students (i.e., funded by the Chinese government). In the eyes of many, engineering was not simply a practical skill, but a means of serving the nation.”
In 1914, MIT had 33 students from China, more than any other school in America. This tradition continues today. With a total enrollment of nearly 13,000 undergrad and graduate students, 30% are international students from over 140 countries. Nearly one out of every four comes from China; at a total of 888, China has more than twice the number from second place India.
Professor Emma Teng, head of MIT Global Studies and Languages, curated this exhibit. It’s obvious that she has put a lot of thought and energy in assembling the different parts of the display. The exhibit is a treasure trove of historical information and personal stories. Not everyone will be able to visit the display but all will be fascinated by the content of the companion website, www.chinacomestomit.org.