By the end of the 19th century, Chinese officials were beginning to realize that their country’s educational infrastructure was becoming increasingly anachronistic. Traditional education largely ignored technology—considered it low class, even—and students instead focused on cultivating a sense of moral righteousness. Yet, the Confucian-centered examination system was beginning to prove ineffective in a world where modern militaries predominated in international relations. China learned this painful lesson during a succession of lost wars, eventually entering a long period of introspection, quite notably, by first looking outward. Foreign education systems were of particular interest to this nation in transition. Foreign universities, especially in Japan and the United States, attracted students of politics and economics, engineering and technology. Perhaps more important, though, many of these students later returned to China and became involved in the groundbreaking political and cultural developments of the era as well as the heated debates surrounding this change. “Brain drain,” therefore, works in both directions. For the late Qing and early Republican governments, interaction with foreign ideas not only helped revive China, but also helped the nation transition from a multinational empire to a modern nation state. Ironically, however, in the course of their contact with foreign ideas, these students of Western culture eventually helped topple the very regime they originally sought to strengthen. New ideas and revolutionary change after all, frequently go hand in hand.
The Historical Backdrop
Beginning with the First Opium War (1839-1842), China was forced out of its long period of isolation and shocked into an encounter with Western civilization (Bary 661). The transnational character of China’s development from the late 19th century to the present day owes much to this “clash of civilizations.” Change, however, was neither all positive nor without opposition. In fact, the late Qing Empire’s encounter with Western civilization was necessarily heralded by guns, warships, and other new instruments of Western military might. The narrative of China’s dynastic glory was replaced with a newer, less flattering image of China as the “sick man of Asia” (Holcombe 193). Fears of the encroaching imperial powers were only heightened after China lost in the 1865-60 Opium War, as were fears of increasing internal disorder, as evinced by the 1851-64 Taiping Rebellion (Bary 661; Rhoads 1-2). China would later suffer yet another humiliating defeat in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5, but they first instituted a series of reforms in an attempt to curtail foreign dominance, particularly in the military sphere.
China thus entered a period of so-called “self-strengthening,” a government-led “restoration” that spanned the years between 1961 and 1895. This movement was largely a response to these early military defeats and the nation’s...