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The Burlingame Mission

How an 1867 Embassy Prefigured Chinese and American Power

An 1868 portrait of diplomats from China. Burlingame stands at center. library of congress

In November 1867, China credentialed its first diplomatic mission to the West. Although it was only authorized to stay abroad for one year, the mission took nearly three. It visited San Francisco, New York, Washington, London, Paris, Stockholm, Copenhagen, The Hague, Berlin, St. Petersburg, Brussels, Florence, Madrid, and Suez, concluding a treaty revision with the United States, receiving an official declaration of policy from the United Kingdom, and dazzling its audiences everywhere.

That the first Chinese mission to the West visited the United States before moving on to Europe was no coincidence. The man commissioned to lead the mission had been educated at the University of Michigan and Harvard Law School. But he was not an early haigui, or “sea turtle”—the name given today to Chinese students who study abroad and then return to China to build their careers. He was an American.

His name was Anson Burlingame. A three-term

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