Fong Pah Liang was 13 years old on June 12, 1873, the day he left his school in Shanghai and boarded a steamship for the first leg of the journey that would take him to America. Traveling alongside 27 schoolmates—all housed in first-class cabins paid for by the Chinese government—Liang didn’t know exactly how much was riding on his trip.
Liang, who would become a member of the MIT Class of 1884, was one of 120 boys in the Chinese Educational Mission, an effort to train a new breed of diplomats and technical advisors armed with cultural knowledge, engineering skills, and military training from the West. In 1871, after a series of military defeats at the hands of Western powers, the Chinese government financed a program to send boys between the ages of 11 and 15 to the United States, all expenses paid, to study for 15 years. Overseen by Yung Wing, a Yale alumnus who was the first Chinese student to graduate from an American college, the boys would learn English, live with American families, and then attend American colleges, soaking up Western science and technology while also studying Chinese history, culture, and Confucian texts. Upon returning to China, they would lead the next generation of scientists and engineers and, it was hoped, improve relations with Western nations.
After landing in San Francisco, the Mission boys traveled by train to Springfield, Massachusetts, where they were placed with about 60 host families, most in the Connecticut River Valley.
Despite the anti-Chinese sentiment that was common in late-19th-century America, many Mission students developed deep, affectionate relationships with their host families, some going so far as to incorporate their American host’s name into the names of their own children years later. But while home life was warm for many students, their education was exceptionally rigorous. In addition to attending American schools, students were required to study Chinese for one hour every day and to spend at least two weeks as often as once a quarter at Mission headquarters (nicknamed the “Hell House”) in Hartford, Connecticut, studying Chinese culture, Confucian texts, and language and writing skills.
When Fong Pah Liang and six other Mission students enrolled at MIT in 1880 (another student had started at the Institute the previous year), all of them had spent between five and seven of their formative teen years in the United States. Many had joined sports teams, adopted Christianity, and traded their traditional dress gowns for American shirts and trousers, though they were required to keep their hair in a long, thin braid called a queue. By then, Woo Tsze Tung had assumed oversight of the Mission from Yung Wing, and when he visited the boys, he was astounded by how Americanized they had become. Tung immediately tripled the amount of summer intensive study, required students to submit 30 pages of Chinese translations or English transcriptions each month, and dismissed eight students from the program. Alarmed by increasing program costs and growing anti-Chinese sentiment—both West Point and the Naval Academy in Annapolis had refused to admit Mission students—Tung sent a series of increasingly troubling reports back to China. In 1881, the government officially terminated the mission. When word reached Hartford a month later, students were shocked; one described it as “a bolt from the blue.”
The MIT students, like nearly all their Mission compatriots enrolled at other colleges, were forced to withdraw and go back to China. (At least two defected and stayed in the United States.) Those who returned to China were then taken by wheelbarrow—a symbol of disgrace—to temporary housing in an abandoned school before finally being returned to their families and assigned to technical jobs. Although none of the eight Mission students who studied at MIT earned a degree, the Institute had a lasting impact on them. Fong Pah Liang, who wrote that his MIT education “proved a training of mental powers—memory, judgment, the reason, and will,” went on to become head of the telegraph department for the Beijing-Zhangjiakan and Hankow-Canton railways. Kwong King Yang attended Tangshan Kaiping Mining School and later served as engineer in chief of the Hankow-Canton Railway and president of the Association of Chinese and American Engineers. Song Mon Wai commanded the Ching Ch’ing warship during the 1911 Chinese Revolution and rose to rear admiral in the navy. Other Mission students became leaders in education, law, and diplomacy. Though the Chinese Educational Mission ended after just nine years, the boys brave enough to take a steamship to a largely unknown land were forever changed by their experiences in America.