Reshaping the Chinese Ladder of Success
After three years of pandemic, we were finally able to set foot on Taiwan soil to join the international workshop “Elites and Social Networks in China and Taiwan” 「近代中國城市菁英的形成及其社會網絡」which had been postponed since 2020. The event was co-organized by the Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica, and the ERC-funded ENP-China Project. A detailed review of the workshop can be found on the blog of the ENP-China project.
My contribution titled “Reshaping the ladder of success in the era of globalization: A network approach to family strategies among American-educated elites in China around 1917″ is the first in-depth investigation of family strategies among American educated Chinese in the late imperial-early Republican period.
Between the Opium wars (1839-) and the early years of the People’s Republic of China (1950s), more than 40,000 Chinese went to study in the United States and returned to their country to apply the knowledge they had acquired abroad. What is unique about this intellectual migration is that it can be seen as the continuation of a long tradition since the Song dynasty (960-1279) centered on education and the competitive civil service examination system as a privileged venue for ensuring social reproduction and promotion among elite families. After the abolition of the examination system in 1905 and the first remission of the Boxer Indemnity in 1908, foreign studies and foreign academic degrees, particularly from American universities, became an attractive alternative to the examination system and careers in officialdom.
Drawing on the first biographical dictionary of American returned students (liumei 留美) published by Qinghua university in 1917 – Who’s Who of American Returned Students 遊美同學錄 (Youmei tongxue lu) – this research applies natural language processing techniques to extract the relevant biographical information from the 401 biographies (date and place of birth, gender, marital status, parents’ occupations, source of funding, educational curricula, professional affiliations, club membership). Based on this newly constructed data, we rely on a combination of statistical and network analyses and visualizations to draw a collective portrait of this pioneering group of liumei and to reveal hidden connections between biographies based on kinship and shared affiliations. More specifically, this paper focuses on the under-studied question of family strategies regarding education abroad and addresses three fundamental questions: (1) From a social-economic perspective, to what extent did the liumei rely on their families to support their studies abroad? Did government scholarships help to reduce differences between family resources? (2) To what extent did families influence the liumei’s educational choices and professional opportunities after graduation? (3) Do we observe differences between men and women (female and male students) in terms of educational and professional aspirations and opportunities?
Our preliminary findings reveal clear differences between families based on geographical origins and more importantly, parents’ occupations and social connections, which government scholarships only partially helped to reduce. It appears that during this founding period, families had a limited influence on the educational and professional choices of the students. Although some families were obviously geared toward technical studies (especially engineering), individual students apparently retained a large degree of free choice. From an inter-generational perspective, this research suggests that uncles, not just fathers, played a crucial role in the liumei’s educational and professional trajectories. Further research should therefore expand the scope of analysis to include horizontal ties and extended families. Within the same generation, this paper also indicates possible yet limited influence among siblings and frequent inter-marriages between liumei. Finally, although the 1917 directory reveals strong gender biases, education abroad still represented an improvement for women compared to the imperial examination system. Methodologically, this research demonstrates the value of a data-rich approach to complement and expand previous scholarship based on biographical accounts or group-based approaches to the returned students.
This research will be published late 2023-early 2024 in an edited volume co-edited by Christian Henriot (Aix-Marseille University) and Prof. Wu Jen-shu 巫仁恕 (Academia Sinica) along with the other papers presented at the workshop.