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Full referenceMeng, Chih [Meng, Zhi], The American Returned Students of China (1931)
TypeJournal article
Author(s)Meng, Chih [Meng, Zhi]
TitleThe American Returned Students of China
JournalPacific Affairs
Start page1
End page16
Date publication1931
Keywordsreturned student; United States; journal; sample; survey; women; discipline; university; generation; Japan; position; degree; association; sports; student life; democracy;

An investigation of the American returned students of China, conducted by Chih Meng [Paul Meng Zhi] (co-founder and director of the China Institute in 1944) based on a sample group of about 238 students. Zhi focused more specifically on the students who studied in America during 1847-1920 and those who pursued their life's work in China during the period 1924-30. His rsearch relied on questionnaires sent to the students individually. 

In his article, Zhi addressed more specifically the following questions: 

  • Had the AMerican returned students of China been a helpful influence? Is so, in what ways? 
  • What were this group of students like? 
  • Why did they go to the US and what they did while they were there? 
  • What they had done and what they were doing in China (at the time the investigation was conducted/article was written)? 
  • In what ways had their stay in America affected them and through them China? 

As most of them were nationally and internationally known elites who achieved success in their respective fields and professions, the author reconized that he presented mainly the profitable side of the story.  He called for extending the analysis to a larger sample of students so as to make possible a more critical study. He also acknowledged that it is difficult to gather complete information regarding individual students. 

Historical sketch 

Chinese students did not pay any seirous attention to Western cultures until the late 19th century (after the Opium wars). Identifies three phases and directions in the study-abroad movement:  

Late Qing dynasty : first flows of students in Europe (England, Germany) and Japan to study military techonology and political/educational reforms 

  • England (modern navy and arsenal) and Germany (army) 
  • Japan (army, navy,  education and political studies) 

Three major periods in the history of American-returned students, more specifically : 

  • 1872-1881 : first mission in America (Yung Ming's Chinese Educational Mission) in New England
  • 1881-1906 : anti-Chinese feeling and propaganda (Exclusion Act) led the Chinese government ti discourage studying in America
  • 1908- : Boxer Indemnity Program, Open Door Policy and reestablishement of the Chinese Educational Mission (1909); also relied on long-established networks of missionaries and mission schools. Main fields of study : education and pedagogy, ; engineering, industry and business;  Christian and social welfare; army and aviation (later)

This rough periodization partly overlapped with three major phases : 

  1. 1872-1916 : an experimental period: students were not (well) prepared, most of them did undergratuated studies (few of them did graduate and postgraduate work), they had little understanding of their own culture and society; they went at a very early or 'plastic' age (adolescence) and then they were more easily Americanized and received their training "uncritically", they also found their readjstement difficult upon returning to China -> a period characterized by unpreparedness, unawareness/non-self-consciousness, immaturity 
  2. 1916-1924 : a period of apprenticeship : better preparation through three main channels : Tsing Hu College established in 1911, American-supported missionary schols in China, government technical colleges ; yet they were not mature enough to receive their American training critically
  3. Since 1924 : a period of critical consciousness : based on cumulated experience, more complete information avaialble, nationalism and New Culture movement (or New Thought Tide or Chinese Renaissance)

Data concernning a group of nationally know returned students 

  1. Time Periods
  2. Chinese Preparation (mainly Tsing Hua, St John and Beiyang, but also smaller provincial or sectional preparatory schools)
  3. Length of Stay (since the late 19th, they tended to leave later but also to stay longer;  the idea that it was more profitable for Chinese students to take their undergraduate study in China and they to go in America for grad and postgraduate studies made consensus among teachers in 1931 ; more and more students were able to complete graduate and postgraduate studies, particularly since 1924) ;
  4. Distribution in America (first in New England, and to a lesser degree, California, increasingly scattered throughout America, but also concentrated in the most prestigious institutions: Columbia, Harvard, Cornell, Yale, Chicago, and large state universities)
  5. Studies Pursued (early trend toward education, law and political science in early Republican China, and later agriculture and engineering, economics, professional and practical courses (including medicine and business)
  6. Degrees and Academic Honors (mainly MA, BA, BS, PhD, MS, LLD, PhD, MD, Doctor of Engineering), also prizes in oratory, medals in essay contests, research fellowships, and acceptance into prestigious scholars fraternities (Phi Beta Kappa) and professional associations. Zhi denid their "bookborm" reputation and emphasized their active involvement in extracurriculum activities, including associational life (Chinese Students' Alliance of America, Chinese Students( Christian Association, and other societies or social fraternities)
  7. Spheres of Influence in China (scattered over china, but mostly in major cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Guangdong, Nanjing, etc ; dependeing on the political, educational and commercial position of the cities, and the recent redistribution of power in Republican China (from Beijing to Nanjing/Shanghai) ; also a good proportion of students returned to their own provinces). Most of them became professors or presidents of leading universities in China, government service (ministers) and new professions (banks, factories, law, medicine, press, religious activities and social welfare) 
  8. Outstanding Achievements 

Until 1905, they experienced difficulties in securing emplyment when they returned to China. They still suffered from the competition of those who held high degrees from classifcal examinations. But major changes were brought by : 

  • the creation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Customs 
  • The demand exceedind the supply 
  • The Sino-Japanese war (1904-5) led to pay more attention to preparedness and transportation (railway, mining)

-> The establishment of the Chinese Republic in 1911 marked the ascendency of American returned students (over their predecessors in Europe and Japan) (ideals of democracy, particularly democratizing education and institutions, new interest in engineering, economics and business)

Observations, Opinions and Conclusions

Through American returned students, America played a significant influence in the cultural transformation of China. These students served as interpreters of America to China and of China to America (cultural intermediaries/mediators). To sum up the attraction to America in cultural terms, America exemplifies youth, curiosity, optimism and energy.

Offers a summary of statistics concerning Chinese students in America during 1929-30 (men/women, states, institutions)/ Concludes that this study of cultural relationship between China and US sheds light on the interation of diverse cultures. 


Published January 1931

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