Dr. Edward Rhoads

Some 130,000 students from China now study a variety of fields in colleges and universities around the United States. What about the first Chinese students in this country? In a lecture and discussion at the Luce Foundation offices in New York, Edward Rhoads shared stories and research from his new book Stepping Forth into the World: The Chinese Educational Mission to the United States, 1872-81, which examines the individual and collective histories of the first 120 Chinese students in the United States.

A project of the self-strengthening movement during the late Qing dynasty, the Chinese Education Mission dispatched these students – some as young as 11 years old – to gain technological expertise in the American education system. They served as early ambassadors to the United States, lived with host families throughout New England, and many attended college at some of the nation’s most elite universities. The program was abruptly ended in 1881, sending most of the scholars into positions in the Chinese civil service. Though some of the “CEM boys” had difficulty reintegrating into Chinese society and earning professional advancement, they remain pioneers that paved the way for the many Chinese students in the United States today.

This fascinating tale of one of the first meetings between East and West presents not only Chinese history, but also the history of U.S.-China relations and of Chinese in America. It documents the struggle the students faced to preserve their culture, heritage, values and beliefs while attempting to integrate into their adoptive homeland.

Until his retirement in 2003, Dr. Rhoads was a professor of Chinese history at the University of Texas at Austin. His research interests include the late Qing and early Republican eras, and the history of the Chinese in the United States. His book, Manchus and Han: Ethnic Relations and Political Power in Late Qing and Early Republican China, 1861-1928, was awarded the Joseph Levenson Prize in 2002 as the best book on twentieth-century China by the Association for Asian Studies. His current project is a history of the bicycle in China. Dr. Rhodes is a longtime member of the National Committee.

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