East Meets Midwest: The Dawn of the China-Illinois Educational Exchange overview photo

East Meets Midwest: The Dawn of the China-Illinois Educational Exchange

  • Type:Temporary
  • Duration:Hundley Central Core

(date) 1/20/2015–6/21/2015

For over a century, the University of Illinois has played a critical role in the promotion of educational exchange with China. UI President Edmund James (1904–1920) was a leader in the movement to open US universities to Chinese students in 1905–06, when US had significant anti-Chinese policies. While the anti-Chinese laws were generally popular in the United States, a number of leaders in government, education, and business were strongly opposed to them. James saw the rising international importance of China and believed that bringing Chinese students to the United States could improve conditions in China while also creating a positive relationship between the two nations. He brought the first Chinese students to the University campus in 1907.

Through the 1910s, Illinois continued to be one of the most popular destinations for Chinese students. In 1908, Dr. Wu Tingfang, the Chinese minister to the United States, delivered the commencement address at Illinois. Wu spoke to the graduating class on the subject "Why China and America Should Be Friends." The visit was an extraordinary event for both the University and the community, and the speech itself was very well received, emphasizing the importance of the two nations gaining a respect for each other.

Chinese students arriving at the University of Illinois during the James era entered an isolated American world. Unlike the larger cities where Chinese communities could cushion the culture shock for new immigrants, Champaign-Urbana had very few Chinese inhabitants (only 16 in the 1910 census). The students coped in several ways, including living in close proximity to one another and forming a student club. The University was supportive; James appointed the first Advisor for Foreign Students anywhere in the United States.

By the time James retired in 1920, the University’s program with China was well established. Between 1907 and 1954, the University hosted 963 Chinese students, fourth in number among all U.S. colleges and universities, and between 1911 and 1960, Illinois produced over 200 Chinese PhDs, more than any other American university. By the early 2010s, over 4,500 Chinese students were studying here, constituting almost half of the University’s foreign student population.