- The First Century of the U.S.–China Philanthropic Partnership:Impetuses, Obstacles, Strategies, and Contributions
The U.S.–China philanthropic partnership dates from 1913, the year that the net worth of oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller (JDR Sr.) reached an unprecedented $900 million, dwarfing the mere $715 million in the U.S. annual national budget. It was also the year in which his only son, John D. Rockefeller Jr. (JDR Jr.), formally launched the Rockefeller Foundation. JDR Jr., also known as the “Oil Prince,” envisaged this new enterprise as embodying the passionate mission of bringing Rockefeller-style philanthropy to China and other foreign shores.
This marked not only the starting point for a modern U.S.–China philanthropic partnership, but, to a large extent, signaled the genesis of international philanthropy by modern foundations as well. In the century since then, [End Page 513] Rockefeller family members have also transformed themselves into the first family of modern international philanthropy and have become important trailblazers in Sino-American relations.
Mary Brown Bullock traces a clear trajectory for multidisciplinary and multi-institutional Rockefeller philanthropic activities in China across the twentieth century in The Oil Prince’s Legacy: Rockefeller Philanthropy in China. This volume may be considered as an in-depth elaboration of her first book, An American Transplant: The Rockefeller Foundation and Peking Union Medical College (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980). This earlier work concentrated on the history of Peking Union Medical College (PUMC) prior to 1951. Her new narrative chronicles the relationship between Rockefeller family members and their philanthropy in China, as well as recounting personal stories of the Rockefeller staff, faculty members, graduates, and associates. It is based on exhaustive research, taking advantage of recently opened archives, supplemented by comprehensive interviews. Furthermore, the author moderates her earlier skepticism about the Rockefeller mission in China and identifies the core thesis of this book: the “Rockefellers’ sustained philanthropic emphasis on elite science and medicine in China legitimated a secular American scientific presence and nurtured a tradition of professional relationship that survived even the upheavals of Mao Zedong’s era” (p. 2). At the same time, the author recognizes the great contributions of the Rockefeller philanthropic network in promoting the American understanding of China and other Asian cultures over the past century.
In the book under review, Bullock also adopts a more neutral and nuanced perspective, drawn from Akira Iriye’s concept of cultural internationalism, to view Rockefeller’s efforts at China philanthropy. Unlike the two prevailing but timebound and one-dimensional tropes for Rockefeller international philanthropy — as “robber baron” and “cultural imperialist” — this cultural internationalism-based lens not only focuses on nonstate actors that influence the character of U.S.–China relations, but also takes into account the continuous and mutual shaping process between Rockefeller philanthropy and the Chinese people and their culture, science, and politics. From this perspective, the impetuses, obstacles, strategies, and contributions of Rockefeller philanthropy in China, which survived four wars (World War I, World War II, the Chinese Civil War, and the Korean War) and three revolutions (the Nationalist Revolution, the Communist Revolution, and the Cultural Revolution), can be reexamined within four periods: the Republican era (1913–1951), the Maoist era (1951–1979), the reform era (1979–2008), and the transformative era (2008 and beyond).
Although the original connection between the Rockefeller family and China through the oil business and Christian missionary activity dates to 1863, when JDR Sr. first sold kerosene to China and made his first gift to the China missions, Bullock attributes the major impetuses for the Rockefeller family to initiate its [End Page 514] China philanthropy in the Republican era to its belief in scientific internationalism, its progressive movement mentality, and its interest in China’s arts, culture, history, and people. Through a clear understanding of the limitations of missionary work in China, Rockefeller philanthropy in China emphasized the “secular rather than the spiritual, science rather than theology” (p. 40). The upshot was that, although willing to cooperate with missionary organizations, Rockefeller...