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Across the Pacific The University of Illinois and China Poshek Fu the university ranks first in public institutions nationwide for the number of international students from China.1 The “University of China at Illinois” can conjure up another dimension of meaning that Inside Higher Education might not have understood. It actually brings to mind of those who are familiar with the university’s long history of connection and engagement with China (or to be more precise, Greater China—a term that includes mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan). This history started in 1908–09, when U.S.-China relations existed as an insignificant aspect of an age of global politics dominated by the imperialist rivalry of European powers and their struggle with Japan over dominance in the Pacific. Since China’s loss in the Opium War to the British in 1842–43, a comInarecentissue ,InsideHigherEducationreportedthatthe University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign should be labeled the “University of China at Illinois.” This eye-catching sobriquet was no doubt triggered by the enormous increaseofChinesestudentsinrecent yearsattheflagship campus of the state university. Just as a rapidly growing number of students from China have come to study in the United States since the turn of the twenty-first century, making them the largest group of international students in the nation, so the Urbana-Champaign campus has witnessed a massive expansion of its Chinese student population. They grew from thirty-seven undergraduates in 2000 to 2,898 in 2014, a 7,000 percent increase. Adding to this number the 1,973 graduate students on campus, 188 Poshek Fu bination of imperialist assaults and internal turmoil had pushed imperial China from one crisis to another. In a matter of less than half a century, particularly after its humiliating defeat by Japan in 1895 and the subsequent “scramble for concessions” by various European forces, the “Middle Kingdom” fell from the apex of world politics to become the victim of contesting imperialist powers. Struggling to preserve China’s sovereignty in the new world order, defined by the Western system of “wealth and power” rather than by the Confucian civilization of “All under Heaven,” Chinese political and intellectual elites debated incessantly about how to navigate the conflicts between the values and principles that made China unique and the imperative to acquire modern technology and industry and thereby insure China ’s security. From these debates, which were often intertwined with violent political struggles, emerged the dominant discourse of China’s early efforts to modernize, as memorialized in 1898 by Qing Governor Zhang Zhidong’s phrases: “Chinese learning for essence (ti), Western learning for practical use (yong).” This ti-yong vision of modernity conceded the superiority of Western science and technology without questioning the supremacy of China’s cultural tradition. While the question of what constituted Chinese “essence” has been an enduring and bitterly contested theme in modern Chinese cultural and intellectual history, the instrumental emphasis on acquiring knowledge of modern machinery, technology, and commerce played a powerful role in shaping China’s cultural relations with the United States. By 1899, after its victory over Spain and subsequent acquisition of the Philippines, the United States joined the ranks of the world’s imperialist powers. With its economic and military focus on Latin America, however, the U.S. presence and influences in Asia were limited. In response to the European powers’ “Scramble for Concessions” after Japan’s defeat of China in 1895 (which had the effect of reducing China into a semi-colony), American Secretary of State John Hay proposed an “Open Door” policy so that all powers, whether or not they had acquired spheres of influence (like Japan in the northeast or England in central China), enjoyed equal access to the China market. With this policy, the United States sought to extend its economic interests in China, even though it did not control any sphere. The acquiescence of imperialist powers to Hay’s policy (especially on the part of Japan—widely perceived as the dominant force in the western Pacific) amplified demands within the United States for stronger relations with China. It was in this national and global context that the University of Illinois began to build connections across the Pacific. The Pioneer: Edmund James’s Innovative Engagement with China In the first years of the twentieth century the University of Illinois was beginning to transform itself into a national research institution. Leading this transformation was President Edmund James, who served from 1904 to 1920. By the time he came to Urbana...


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