Some Historical Perspective by Dori Jones Yang
How much does it matter whether you live in a high-tech nation? We Americans don’t often think about this question. After all, we do live in such a nation. We can take photos from our phones, drive cars that don’t need gas, access cutting-edge medical treatment, and wear computers on our wrists. So can people from other countries, if they can afford it.
But people in China see the importance of technology with different eyes. In the 19th century, China viewed itself as the most advanced country in the world, with a long history of literature, art, and strong central governance. But when European warships arrived, it was unprepared. China lost war after war, and European nations forced it to give up rights to its own territory—and to legalize imports of highly addictive opium. Humiliated, China’s leaders realized there was a lot more to superiority than refined culture.
Several centuries ago, China was more powerful than Europe. It invented paper, block printing, the mariner’s compass, and gunpowder, which helped Europeans advance into the Renaissance and the Age of Exploration. But the game changed with the Industrial Revolution, which began in Britain around 1800 and quickly spread to the United States. The use of coal for steam power and the invention of machine tools led to modern manufacturing, railroads, rifles, and engine-powered naval ships.
After Britain and France routed China in the Second Opium war in 1860, China’s rulers realized they needed to catch up. Until then, China had been an inward-looking nation with a large population, confident that the rest of the world had nothing that China wanted or needed. After two humiliating military defeats, some in Beijing realized that modern technology was essential to defend their country.
Ironically, at the same time, young workers from the southern China began to arrive in California to seek jobs, and a group of them built the western portion of the first Continental Railroad, laying track across the treacherous Sierra Nevada Mountains. At the time, this 2,000-mile railroad was a wonder of the modern world, yet China itself did not have a single mile of railroad track.
A bold young man named Yung Wing, the first Chinese to graduate from Yale University, convinced China’s rulers that they should organize a large-scale mission to learn technology from the West. He proposed the Chinese government should select a large group of boys and send them to the United States to study for fifteen years and return home to teach. Although many at the emperor’s court resisted the idea, a visionary statesman named Zeng Guofan gained official approval in 1871.
In 1872, the Chinese Educational Mission to the United States began sending students to the United States. Over four years, China sent 120 boys, most age 11 to 16, after training them in English in Shanghai. Yung Wing located American families who welcomed the boys to live in their homes in their pre-college years, teaching them English to prepare them for high school and college. The host families all lived in Connecticut and Massachusetts.
The most exciting moment came in August 1876, when all the Chinese boys went together to the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. The world’s most advanced technology was on display there, including a huge steam engine that powered almost all the other machines in “Machinery Hall.” It produced as much power as 1,400 horses. Also on display were sewing machines, typewriters, wobbly bicycles, machine guns, a monorail, an early elevator, a mechanized icebox, and even Alexander Graham Bell’s first telephone.
Many of the boys were excellent students. As they grew up and finished high school, some were accepted at Yale, Columbia, Rensselaer, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and other universities. However, the U.S. Congress refused to allow them to attend West Point or the Naval Academy to study military technology and techniques.
In 1881, the Chinese government cut short the mission and ordered all the students to return to China. Only one had finished college. In China, they were treated badly, as if they had somehow betrayed their homeland by becoming “too American.” Still, many found ways to work in rail or naval technology. One of the returned students, Zhan Tianyou, led the team that built the first Chinese-built railroad in China. He is revered today as the “Father of China’s Railroads.”
Unlike Japan, which undertook a concerted effort to adopt modern technology starting in the late 1800s, China languished as a weak nation, beset by revolution, civil wars, invasion, and Maoist radicalism. Although the Communist government began to industrialize in the 1950s, it wasn’t until after Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms in the 1980s that China truly embraced modern technology.
China’s leaders today believe that technology is key to defending their country and ensuring a good life for their people. Much of their economic policy is centered on acquiring advanced technology—by buying it, pirating it, or convincing foreign companies to share it. Today, more than 300,000 Chinese students are studying in the United States; while many settle in the United States, increasing numbers of them are deciding to return to their homeland.
After thirty years of modernization—in a twist of irony—China now has the world’s largest high-speed rail network, while the United States has no high-speed rail at all. China also has the world’s fastest supercomputers, the world’s largest radio telescope, a space station, and a satellite that can beam quantum particles into space to transmit secure information.
China’s President Xi Jinping continues the push for technical achievement. In March 2017, he told the National People’s Congress, “We must have a greater sense of urgency to push for science and technology innovation and advancement with greater determination and efforts.”
To Americans, the 1800s seem like far-off history. To Chinese, they seem like yesterday.