China Comes to ‘Tech’: 1877–1931

Maihaugen Gallery exhibit tells the story of pioneering international students at MIT

Li Fu Lee

Li Fu Lee, Technology
Review, 1926

MIT News’ Peter Dizikes spoke with Emma Teng, T.T. and Wei Fong Chao Professor of Asian Civilizations, curator of the exhibit.*

Q: When did Chinese students start coming to MIT, and why? 

A: A lot of people don’t know that Chinese students were here this early, but in 1877 one student [Mon Cham Cheong] from Guangdong, China, matriculated at MIT’s School of Mechanic Arts. Then, beginning in 1879, a batch of eight students on the Chinese Educational Mission came here under the sponsorship of the Chinese government. The students at that time were mainly focused on learning railroad engineering, mining engineering, mechanical engineering, and naval architecture. Soon, MIT became one of the favorite destinations for Chinese science and engineering students.

Q: What was the overall experience like for these students? 

A: The early students faced a number of challenges. Not only were they learning a rigorous science and engineering curriculum, but they also had to master English and adjust to a new culture. One of the things I learned was how immersed the early students were, especially those who came in the 1910s and 1920s, in all aspects of MIT student life. They participated in athletics, debate, theater, the professional societies, the Institute Committee; they were really involved in virtually every aspect of student life.

Q: What kinds of things would you like people to consider when they view the exhibit?

A: I’m hoping the exhibit will really inspire people to reflect on what international students contribute to MIT and to America at large. I think one of the most powerful lessons that I learned myself is that not only did many Chinese leaders in science and technology in China get their educations here at MIT, but they also contributed a lot to the MIT community during their years here.

They really worked as cultural ambassadors to let the MIT and greater Boston communities learn more about Chinese culture and history and current events. And they inspired some of our professors to learn more about the history of science in China. They were also an important bridge in bringing MIT alumni and faculty to China in the 1910s and 1920s to lecture, teach, or practice engineering. It’s this two-way exchange that international students bring to our communities.

*This is an excerpted version of an article that originally appeared on MIT News.