Dating back more than a century, the connection between the University of Illinois and China continues to deepen and grow.
By Mary Timmins
A century ago, the journey from China to Illinois cost at least a month’s travel by ship and rail. Today, sleek jets make the main jump in 13 hours, arcing poleward – up out of Beijing, across Mongolia, along the Beaufort Sea, over Canada and down into Chicago, the far-below terrain ticking by, remote as the past. Once buried in its vastness and obscured by its language, China has exploded into a present of access and opportunity, becoming a global powerhouse of manufacturing and upward mobility – a transformation in which the University of Illinois has been engaged since opening doors to students from the Middle Kingdom more than a hundred years ago.
What’s changing about the relationship is what’s changing about everything in the new millennium – the speed with which technology makes communication and collaboration possible. Yet China remains, in the depth of its history, the distinction of its culture and the huge promises and challenges of its future, an enigma to the West and perhaps even to itself. What follows is not so much an overview of the relationship between the U of I and China as a series of stories that have emerged from that relationship.
For, East or West, stories are how we understand.
‘My Risk-Taking Venture’
The remarkable tale of Bo Zhang, ms ’92 eng, phd ’99 eng, is not just about one individual’s amazing rise but the profound changes that have come to China in the past half-century. Separated from his parents at the age of 8 by the cruel logic of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution – which decreed that the educated must change places with the peasantry – he and his sister were transported to the chilly, remote province of Qinghai and essentially left to fend for themselves.
Four decades later, Zhang is an international businessman whose past and present manufacturing ventures include electronic motors, medical imaging, motor shafts and hydraulic rescue equipment (used after the devastating 2009 earthquake in Sichuan). One component of this stupendous success is the sheer perseverance that got him into school, then university, then a government post, then – and this move was exceptionally courageous because he had to leave his secure job – graduate school in agricultural engineering at the U of I.
But also singular to Zhang’s story has been his ability to bend and move with the changing global times. He came to Illinois and earned his doctorate. He returned to China and built his business. He then relocated to Chicago to raise his family and continue his ventures (a move possible only after the opening of trade between China and the West). Most remarkable of all, he has since returned to China and now divides his time between the two countries, pursuing business interests that span the globe.
In 2009, the University honored Zhang with the Madhuri and Jagdesh N. Sheth International Alumni Award for Exceptional Achievement. The following year he was voted a member of the University of Illinois Alumni Association Board of Directors. He returned the compliment recently when he helped host a state trade delegation to China led by Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn.
“My risk-taking venture at the University of Illinois,” Zhang has said, “rewarded me many times over.”
A Century of Connections
In 1906, Edmund Janes James, president of the University of Illinois, composed a letter.
“China is upon the verge of a revolution,” James wrote. “The nation which succeeds in educating the young Chinese of the present generation will be the nation which for a given expenditure of effort will reap the largest possible returns in moral, intellectual and commercial influence.” He then sent the letter to President Theodore Roosevelt.
The federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 had made it essentially impossible for working-class Chinese to come to the U.S. James, who led the University from 1904-1920, held a very different view of the Middle Kingdom. He sought out Ting-Feng Wu, Chinese minister to the U.S., creating a direct connection between China and the Urbana campus. He set up the first office for foreign students at any university in the United States. He secured housing for Chinese students – local landlords being reluctant to rent rooms to non-Americans – and encouraged young Chinese women as well as men to come to Illinois to study. Between 1911 and 1920, the U of I was educating a third of all of the Chinese students in the U.S. By the ’40s, the roster of Chinese people holding degrees from Illinois shone with influential names: H.Y. Moh, Class of 1913, cotton manufacturer and government minister; Tao Xingzhi, an Illinois student from 1915-16 who become a great populist educator in China; Co-Ching Chu, Class of 1912, known as the “Father of Chinese Meteorology”; architectural engineer Edward Y. Ying, ms ’39 faa, influential in the planning of modern Shanghai.
Through the stories of such individuals, the name of the University of Illinois has become embedded in modern Chinese history. Like that of Wang Ching-Chung, an interpreter who became the first Chinese doctoral student in American higher education; after completing a doctorate at Illinois in railway management in 1911, he transformed China’s train system. And Lin Qiao Zi, Class of 1915, a female doctor who received her medical degree from Illinois, becoming the first Chinese citizen to be educated in Western medicine. And Loh-Kwan Chen ’24 eng, a civil engineer who built most of the airports in China before World War II – and later spearheaded the destruction of many of them as part of efforts to thwart the Japanese invasion.
The Illini connections to China have only grown through the succeeding decades. The Urbana campus alone claims at least 7,433 alumni in China today. (The actual number may be much greater because of the difficulty of tracking graduates at such a distance.) Shanghai resident Ding Zeng Wang ’37 faa, ms ’38 faa, who studied architectural engineering at Illinois, sent a letter recently to UI President Michael Hogan, in which he wrote of the campus and environs, saying that “these places will always be in my dreams.
“I am firmly convinced that the collaborations of our two great nations will continue to make a difference to the world.”
Change as Old as China
Stroll through Chicago’s Grant Park and the structures glitter and climb, proclaiming a city’s pride in architecture and the rebuilding upon black ground cleared by a Great Fire of 140 years ago. Walk along Shanghai’s riverfront (known as the Bund), and soaring office towers telegraph in neon and sci-fi shapes the wild news of the sky-high future over the world’s most populous nation.
Chris Lu ’80 bus, mas ’81, works in one of those skyscrapers – the Bund Center, a 50-story granite tower crowned in gold like an empress. As CEO for the international accounting firm Deloitte & Touche LLP China, he is one in a vigorous new generation of Chinese citizens who grew up in the capitalism-friendly times beyond the Cultural Revolution. The company, which leases 10 floors of the tower for its Asian headquarters, employs 11,500 people in China and Taiwan. When Yu took over the office in 1994, the staff numbered 35.
“It’s been a fabulous ride,” he said during a visit to campus in October.
Lu, who travels to the States on business several times a year, was back at Illinois to give a talk to students in the College of Business about his country’s massive economic shift and its implications for the U.S. and the world. Hundreds of millions of citizens have streamed into China’s cities, where factories and facilities produce cheap and plentiful goods and offer workers more prosperous lives. China’s middle class has swelled to an estimated 161 million – the equivalent of almost half the entire population of the U.S. – and a whole new tier of multimillionaires has materialized.
For Lu, such limitless growth carries with it huge challenges, which include a changing social structure, demand for limited resources and questions of sustainability. “This is uncharted territory,” he said. He believes that major opportunities await the University, particularly in setting new international accounting standards that can be used in China and worldwide. “This is really the institution when it comes to the science of accounting,” he says of Illinois. “And you need to assume that leadership. Since you’re already there, you need to assume that global role.
“Because no one else has come, in my mind, even close to the U of I.”
The Enchanted Circle
Intellectual leadership in China – and, for that matter, around the world – is, of course, a long tradition for the University. Illinois presently has more than 50 partnerships and collaborations in place with Chinese institutions in locations from Macau to Inner Mongolia. These programs range from agriculture, engineering and architecture to the humanities, business and even firefighting. Through an increasingly popular “three-plus-two” arrangement, Chinese undergraduates spend three years at a university in their homeland, followed by two years of graduate study at Illinois, leading to a master’s degree.
Thus the number of Chinese students drawn into the enchanted circle of Alma Mater has burgeoned, growing to more than 3,000 in the fall of 2011. Sun Wen ’05, an international women’s soccer star who took English courses at Illinois, recalls how the beauty of the campus when she arrived formed “the most splendid and unforgettable scene in my life.” Now head coach of the Shanghai women’s soccer team, she credits her studies at the U of I with helping her recently pass a coaching course administered by Fédération Internationale de Football Association in Malaysia.
And where once Chinese students at Illinois found housing through the grace of Edmund James, they now receive support in the form of University services and clubs and interest groups. The most popular is the Chinese Students and Scholars Association: the Illinois chapter of this international organization was founded in 1910.
When the students return to China, continuing connections back to the Urbana campus await them in the alumni chapters and other UI connection points of Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
“The extent to which China values education is a very powerful force in their future,” says Bob Easter, phd ’76 aces, who has been visiting China on the U of I’s behalf for more than 20 years, first as a professor and dean of the College of ACES and more recently as interim chancellor. “The Chinese are in a very sweet spot where they could well become the innovators of the world.”
‘Such a Long Time Ago’
While many students return to China, many others will endeavor to stay. Consider the story of Lu Wan Zhen, ms ’48 las, and her granddaughter, Mellisa Yu.
Lu came to study chemistry at Illinois in 1946, arriving on “a clear day in fall,” as she describes it in an email, when “I saw a university sitting in the middle of a wild corn field.
“The campus, the classes, the professors and regular people on the street in Urbana-Champaign were very important to me because they were my first look and interaction [with] the Western world and culture,” Lu recalls. “The humble personalities and the hardworking work ethic of the people there gave me a very nice impression.”
Having received her master’s degree in a year and a half – during which she spent most of her time studying and also improving her English – she joined her husband at Ohio State, earned her doctorate and worked Stateside for several years. Returning to China in 1955, she went on to a highly distinguished career with the Research Institute of Petroleum Processing, winning fellowship in the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 1991.
And, each time she achieved success, “I [could] feel that the solid training I obtained in Urbana-Champaign had helped me to achieve [this progress],” Lu writes in her email.
Today, Lu’s granddaughter, Mellisa Yu, is a thoroughly American sophomore majoring in dietetics at Illinois. She belongs to a sorority, performs with Legend Dance Company and has a leadership position in Volunteer Illini Projects (VIP). Yu, who grew up in the U.S., has been back to China several times on family visits and also stays in touch with her grandmother by video chat. When Lu found out her granddaughter would be attending Illinois, Yu recalls her saying in delight: “It’s such a small world that this would happen!”
While Yu hopes to find an internship in China over the coming summer, she has no expectation of ever living there permanently. “It’s so different over there than the way I grew up, the way the U.S. is,” she says during an interview in the Illini Union. “I’m here now.”
But, she concludes: “It’s cool that I’m here where my grandma was 60 years ago. … It’s very special to know that I’ve created a life for myself in Champaign. … And this is where my grandma was such a long time ago.”