Chinese students have attended MIT since the 1800s

By HONG XIAO in New York | | Updated: 2017-04-01 00:25

Chinese students have attended MIT since the 1800s

China Comes to Tech: 1877-1931 gathers materials from this chapter in Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) history for the first time. The exhibit will run through November at MIT’s Maihaugen Gallery in Cambridge. Photos provided to China Daily

The presence of Chinese students at US universities is well known. But would anyone guess that the first Chinese student to attend the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology did so in 1877?

That student was Zhang Wenzhan, who went by the name of Mon Cham Cheong. He was a member of the Class of 1883, and a native of Guhe village in Xiangshan (now Zhongshan) county, Guangdong province.

According to an early report, he was the son of a rich man whose studies were financed by his father in order that he might acquire "a thorough knowledge of mechanics, with a view to its practical use when he goes back".

By 1910, China was sending more students to MIT than any other foreign country. According to school records, about 400 Chinese students studied at the school in Cambridge between 1877 and 1931.

A current exhibition, China Comes to Tech: 1877-1931 is commemorating the 140th anniversary of Chinese students at MIT and can be viewed at MIT Libraries Exhibits' Maihaugen Gallery.

Harboring a dream of saving China through science and technology, the students who returned after graduation made vital contributions to China's modernization through engineering, science commerce and education.

"The institute is justly proud of the splendid part which her graduates have played in the New China and is happy to be of service in the further training of the young men to whom will come the opportunity and responsibility to organize the resources of this great sister republic, especially in science, engineering and business administration," Karl T. Compton, the MIT president, said in 1930.

"The idea (for the exhibition) was a joint proposal by me and an MIT librarian who was also interested in this history," Emma Teng, a professor of history and global studies at MIT, wrote in an email to China Daily.

"It grew out of a workshop that we had done for several years for my class on Chinese migration (which studies periods back to 1567). We invited the students to come to the archive to look at materials related to the history of the earliest Chinese students at MIT," said Teng, who helped develop and curate the exhibition.

"The students really enjoyed learning about this history and saw connections with their own lives. We noticed that this history was not broadly known at MIT, so we decided to launch the exhibit as a diversity initiative," she wrote.

Teng delved into the archives at MIT and also from the greater Boston area to look at materials related to the history of the earliest Chinese students at MIT. She said it was a laborious process for her and a team of archivists and librarians.

The exhibition not only features the earliest Chinese alumni, but also addresses historical topics, such as the Chinese Educational Mission and the Chinese Exclusion Act.

"I'm hoping the exhibit will really inspire people to reflect on what international students contribute to their universities and to America at large," Teng wrote.

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