BEHIND the front lines of combat in China looms another struggle which, though not sanguine nor even spectacular, may prove epoch-making in Far Eastern history.

China's coastal cities, beginning as centers of trade and shipping, have been her points of contact with the West. Gradually and inevitably modern schools and industries were established in those localities, and these played a great rôle in China's progress towards modernization. Nanking, and ports like Shanghai, Canton and Tientsin, became the heart and nerve centers whence radiated the impulses and directives that shaped the country's political, economic and educational systems. If years ago China had anticipated that she would ever be the object of a large-scale Japanese attack she might have planned differently. As it is, most of her administrative, economic and educational centers are on the front line of warfare.

Just how important the rôle of higher education is in the development of China's nationalism may be partly gauged by Japan's determination to destroy it. In 1931-33 when the Japanese attacked China they no sooner occupied a Chinese city than they immediately took over the schools and saw to it that all "disturbing" elements were cleared out and "friendly" instruction given. In the present war, Japanese planes have been going out of their way to destroy Chinese higher educational institutions. The most flagrant examples have been the destruction of Nankai University, the Woman's Normal College and the Hopei Technical Institute at Tientsin, and the Central University at Nanking. In Shanghai three universities, Tung Chi, Che Chih, Fu Tan, and the Commercial College, were destroyed. The University of Shanghai, an American-supported institution, has been partly wrecked. In Southern China, Amoy University in Amoy and Chung Shan University in Canton have been bombed from the air.

In resisting Japan's undeclared war against her, China is prepared, if necessary, to sacrifice her coastal cities. In consequence, she has already taken steps to move her centers of higher education. Temporary university districts have been set up at Sian in the Northwest and at Changsha in Central China. The faculties and students from Japanese occupied areas have pooled their resources and begun instruction there. The Sian district is administered jointly by the authorities of National Peiping, and National Normal Universities and Peiyang Technical Institute. The Changsha district is in the hands of the authorities of Nankai, National Peking and National Tsing Hua Universities. Students and faculties from other danger zones have been allocated to institutions in West and Southwest China.

Because of the traditional Chinese reverence for education and for the scholar, the colleges and universities have had great influence on public opinion and action ever since the advent of the Republic. Among scholars there is no North or South. They have argued and fought against dictatorship, civil war, and foreign aggression. Because of the esteem in which they are held and their idealism and disinterestedness, they have been able to mould public opinion and have even been persuasive with those in power. The Chinese Student Movement has already made history and will help to make the nation's future. Dynasties and governments have come and gone; but educators and students have kept alive the nation's fundamental unity and democratic traditions.

Out of a total of some 499 higher educational and cultural institutions in China, 423 -- or over 84 percent -- are located on the east coast. This includes 16 out of 20 American-supported colleges and universities. At the time of this writing eleven universities in Tientsin, Nanking and Shanghai have already been wholly or partly destroyed. Peiping, Tientsin and Tangshan, which together contain 108 institutions, are under Japanese military occupation. In Shanghai, center of most severe fighting, there are 136 institutions, 30 of them colleges and universities.

As in America, the colleges and universities of China are centers for training. In them the students develop their ideals of life and their physical and mental powers. Here they also broaden their outlook by coming into contact with men of other countries. But unlike the United States, China does not produce more college men than she needs. On the contrary, there are not enough trained men to go around. Also there is not so much "college life." There is more active participation in social and national affairs. In this the professors and students work together.

Probably it is not too much to claim for Chinese higher education that it has helped largely to make the blueprint which China has followed in her reconstruction. Most Americans are able to read this blueprint because it is so much on the American pattern and reveals such distinctly American influences. The goal is democracy; the process is education; the underlying philosophy is to live and let live.

The development of modern education in China constitutes a romantic chapter in the history of Chinese-American relations. American-trained leaders and American-supported schools have much to do with the accomplishments of Chinese modern education and the development of its general aims. Modern medical education was introduced into China over 100 years ago by an American physician. The first Chinese who studied abroad graduated from Yale in 1854. Since then, 20 American supported colleges and universities have been established in different parts of China. They served to stimulate the growth of Chinese institutions in the early years and have now become an integral part of the Chinese educational system. In some fields of study they continue to make distinctive contributions, such as in medicine, the Peiping Union Medical College; in agriculture, the University of Nanking; and in women's education, Ginling College.

During the last 30 years the Chinese themselves have established 105 colleges and universities, with about 50,000 students. With these must be mentioned 374 research institutes, academic societies, museums, libraries, and observatories. The majority of this total of 499 institutions are administered by American-trained leaders or professors, equipped with American apparatus and run more or less according to American curricula or routine. One might ask how it has been possible for the youngest educational system to modify and rejuvenate so amazingly the oldest continuous educational system in the world in such a short time?

In 1847 a New England missionary brought to America three Chinese boys to be educated in the American manner. One of them, Yung Wing, succeeded in graduating from Yale in the class of 1854. Upon returning to his homeland this first Chinese-American Bachelor of Arts noted an interesting observation in his diary: "My country needs modern guns and modern educated men." It developed later that he was more enthusiastic over modern education than modern guns. After years of "lobbying" he finally convinced two high officials of the Empire to risk the lives of a few boys on the other side of the world. He was commissioned in 1872 to establish the first Chinese Educational Mission to the United States and 30 boys were brought to America each year for four years to be educated in American schools. That first experiment was short-lived. In 1876 a conservative commissioner was appointed. He was alarmed at the spread of democratic ideas and habits among the 120 Chinese boys who were then studying in the public schools in Springfield, Massachusetts, and Hartford, Connecticut, and he brought about the recall of the Mission in 1878.

Although a few of these first Chinese students stayed on in America, the main stream of Chinese students to the United States did not begin again until the first remission to China in 1908 of the surplus of the American Boxer Indemnity. In that year Congress authorized President Roosevelt and Secretary of State John Hay to return to China the unclaimed portion of the indemnity fund paid to the United States by China for damages to American life and property during the Boxer Rebellion. The Chinese Government used this fund, amounting to $10,785,286.12, for the purpose of preparing and sending Chinese youths to the United States to obtain modern education. The Educational Mission was reëstablished, and its work is now being carried on by the China Institute in America. From 25 to 80 Chinese students have been enabled to come each year to study in different American institutions.

Ever since China became a republic in 1911 there have been increasing demands for modern trained men to run schools, to build roads, to fly airplanes, and to do many other things to make an old nation new. So the government and parents have sent more and more of China's young men and women across the Pacific to be trained for new careers. The number of Chinese students in the United States increased from a handful in 1908 to the peak number of over two thousand in 1924. Today they number about 1,700. In China there are several thousands of the so-called American Returned Students -- the name given to those who have studied in America and have returned to their homeland with collegiate or professional training and usually with one or more academic degrees. A large number of them have contributed toward their country's modernization, including the inventor of the Chinese typewriter, the founder of the Woman Suffrage Party, four participants in the 1911 republican revolution, founders of eight colleges and universities and the Father of the Chinese Renaissance.

Although during recent years American Returned Students in China have been active in engineering, diplomatic and government service, their greatest contribution has been and still is in the field of higher education. They have been teachers of teachers and moulders of China's modern educational system for a quarter of a century. They have deservedly won world-wide recognition for their feat of making steady progress in education from the kindergarten to research in spite of seemingly insurmountable difficulties during China's recent years of internal and foreign troubles.

The reader now sees to what degree American philosophy and educational technique have played a rôle in China. Despite attempts by politicians, the universities have successfully resisted regimentation and many of them have been towers of strength in defending academic freedom. Certain individuals even risked their lives by exercising the privilege of being critics and mentors of the government. It is among the university professors and students that those who would like to militarize China under a Fascist régime find their most deadly enemies.

China and Japan came into contact with Western influences at about the same time. The doors of both were battered open by Western guns. But they learned different lessons and chose different masters. Japan chose Germany as her teacher and has made herself into one of the world's great military powers. China, on the other hand, preferred America and has persisted in the effort to establish a modern democracy.

Japan's present undeclared war has made it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for 84 percent of the higher educational institutions in China to reopen or to function normally. In Japanese-occupied territory, the leaders of both Chinese and American institutions are confronted with the choice of closing entirely or reopening under Japanese direction. Japanese military authorities are determined to stamp out all "anti-Japanese" influences wherever they can. Perhaps Japan will not go so far as to destroy American-supported schools. But she has already issued repeated warnings that she would not tolerate any professor or student who is "unfriendly" to Japan in the schools. What happened to Chinese schools in Manchuria is now being repeated in North China. All schools must teach history from textbooks edited and printed in Japan, which give the "correct" story of Chinese-Japanese relations. Already thousands of these textbooks have been shipped to Peiping and Tientsin.

The desperate situation makes it possible that the students will search for what seems a short cut to national salvation. They might be converted by Fascists and militarists, who seem the men of destiny when a country is forced to fight for its very existence. In other words, alongside the war itself two opposing world currents emanating from Occidental civilization are engaged in mortal combat today in the Far East. The West in the nineteenth century taught Japan imperialism. It failed later to convince her of the desirability of a new international order based on conciliation and justice. In all the world today we see nations which are willing to pay for war acting with practically a free hand against nations which want peace but are not willing to pay its price. Does this mean that China will be compelled to make a new blueprint for her future course?

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  • CHIH MENG, Director of the China Institute in America; author of "China Speaks."
  • More By Chih Meng