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American Documents the Country’s First Exchange Students from China

Liel Leibovitz
Liel Leibovitz

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This the VOA Special English Education Report.

Many thousands of Chinese are studying at schools in the United States. And writer Liel Leibovitz says the students are following an example that began in the eighteen seventies.

Mr. Leibovitz and writer Matthew Miller joined forces to tell the story of the students in their book, “Fortunate Sons.” The book says China sent one hundred twenty boys to America to learn about developments that could help modernize their country.

Mr. Leibovitz got the idea for the book about the boys a few years ago when he was traveling with his wife in China.

LIEL LEIBOVITZ: “One afternoon it was raining in Beijing, and so we decided to stay in our hotel room and flip through television stations. And we came across this very arresting photograph of a young Chinese boy dressed in what appeared to be traditional Chinese dress. And he was standing next to a building that was very clearly Yale University.”

Mr. Leibovitz learned that the Qing government sent a whole delegation of boys to learn the ways of the West. The goal was for them to return to China and help their country.

LIEL LEIBOVITZ: ”A little bit later on, I was delighted and amazed to discover that these boys, who later turned out to be very, very remarkable men, had left behind an archive of letters, of diaries, of clothing articles detailing their entire journey and also what happened to them once they finally returned to China.”

The book says the boys received their American training in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. It must have been a very good education. Mr. Leibovitz says the first prime minister of the Chinese Republic completed this program. And so did the first engineer to build a large-scale railroad without foreign help. The same was true of the fathers of Chinese education, diplomacy and the Navy.

The book-writers had only to open some boxes containing the writings of these men to learn about them. Their notebooks, journals, letters and postcards were in English. Mr. Leibovitz said he was lucky to have so much information from events that took place long ago.

LIEL LEIBOVITZ: “It was an unbelievable gift. I was expecting a lot of piecing together. And instead, we were amazed to find how meticulous these men had been about documenting their lives.”

The students returned to China after about nine years. They no longer spoke Mandarin well enough to answer questions. Police welcomed them home by putting them in jail. The young men were released after about a week. But they were given low-level jobs.

Mister Leibovitz says it took about ten years for them to rise to higher positions. He said their story continues today with large numbers of Chinese studying in the United States. And that’s the Special English Education Report. I’m Christopher Cruise.


Contributing: Jim Stevenson