China Institute and Columbia University
Yong Ho, Ph.D.
Presented at the Columbia’s China Connection Conference at Columbia
Founded in 1926 in New
York City, China Institute is the oldest and most
comprehensive educational and cultural organization in the United States
devoted to teaching the public about China and Chinese culture. Since its
conception, it has been bound up with another premier educational institution
of New York—Columbia University,
which was one of the first prominent educational institutions with an oriental
department and large Chinese student attendance. It is the purpose of this
paper to discuss the interwoven connections between China Institute and Columbia University
by highlighting major figures that have played important roles in both of these
China Institute owes its inception to three celebrated
Columbians: the New Culture Movement leader Hu Shih (胡適), the
world-renowned philosopher John Dewey and the international educational leader
Hu Shih was a student of Dewey in
the Department of Philosophy at Columbia
completing his Ph.D. program in 1917, he returned to China
to teach at Peking University. In 1919, Hu
initiated a program to invite prominent American and British scholars to
lecture on western intellectual trends and thoughts. One of the first scholars Hu invited was Dewey, whom he so admired that he later even
named his second son “Sidu” (思杜). Dewey accepted the invitation and an intended short stay
turned into a two-year lecture tour in China. While giving lectures in China, Dewey was
surprised to find that many faculty members and students were well acquainted
with the history and culture of the United States and most could
understand his lectures without translation. He was dismayed at the same time
to realize that the reverse was not true back home at Columbia, where few had a substantial knowledge
much less speaking its language. Upon returning to the U.S., Dewey brought
the issue up with Paul Monroe, a professor of comparative education and
Director of the School
of Education at Columbia’s Teachers’ College
who was also interested in China.
Shortly after Dewey returned to New York,
Monroe was invited
by Hu Shih and others to go to China to lecture
and conduct surveys. Both Dewey and Monroe felt a need to create a cultural and
educational institution in the U.S.
to disseminate authentic, basic and reliable information on China in the
academic communities in America.
The idea was well received, but funds were needed to support it. It was not
until the establishment of the China Foundation endowed by the Boxer Indemnity
this dream became a reality.
The Boxer Indemnity was
compensation, forced on the Chinese government in 1901, to eight countries,
including the United States, for their loss of lives and properties in the Boxer
rebellion in 1900. In 1908, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution remitting to China much of the U.S. share of the Boxer indemnity. The indemnity to the U.S. came in a
number of remissions and each was used with a focus. The first remission was
used to create a Tsinghua scholarship to enable a large number of Chinese
students to come to study in the U.S. (Hu Shih, Kuo Pingwen 郭秉文, Meng Chih 孟治 and Chang Pengchun
張彭春, to be mentioned below, were all recipients of the
scholarship). Because of the success in the application of the first remission,
friends of China
in the U.S.
were able to obtain congressional approval for establishing a foundation for
the promotion of education in China
using the funds from the second remission in 1924. Through consultation between
the Chinese and American governments, both sides agreed to appoint a board of
fifteen trustees (ten Chinese and five Americans) to oversee the establishment
of the proposed organization. The five American trustees included Dewey and
Monroe and the foundation that came into being as a result was called China
Although the funds of the Foundation were intended for use in China, Dewey and
Monroe succeeded in persuading the other trustees to appropriate part of the
funds in the amount of $25,000 to establish a bureau in New York City. The resulting bureau was named
China Institute in America,
which formally commenced its operation on May 25, 1926.
The newly founded China Institute was placed under the
directorship of Kuo Pingwen
and the first board of advisors included John Dewey and Hu
came to study at Teachers College, Columbia
University in 1908 and
received his Ph.D. in 1914. While studying at Columbia, he served as the chairman of the
Association of the Chinese Students in America. Kuo
returned to China
in 1915 to first become the acting president of Nanjing Normal School (南京高等師範學校) and subsequently the first
president of Nanjing
In 1924, he was appointed by the Chinese Government as one of the Chinese trustees
at the board overseeing the appropriation of the Boxer Indemnity funds and then
one of the ten Chinese trustees on the board for creating the China Foundation.
The trustees set the following as the missions of China
Institute: disseminating information about Chinese and American education,
promoting closer relationships between Chinese and American educational
institutions through the exchange of professors and students, stimulating
general American interest in the study of Chinese culture, and assisting
Chinese students in America in their educational pursuit.
China Institute was a quick success. Upon its establishment,
the infant organization immediately began to act as a clearinghouse for
inquiries from Chinese students about American education and inquiries from
Americans interested in Chinese education. The Institute helped the Chinese
students in the U.S.
by facilitating their admission to American colleges and universities with
letters of introduction and testimonials, securing opportunities for them to
gain practical experience, helping them with immigration procedures and
administering an emergency loan fund.
In 1926, the same year of its founding, the Institute
installed an exhibition on Chinese education at the Sesqui-Centennial
International Exposition in Philadelphia.
Demonstrating the continuity of China’s
culture, its progress in modern education and the evolution of the Chinese
civilization, the show attracted many visitors who were amazed by a China heretofore
unknown to them. As a result, the judges awarded China the grand prize “for the
development of a comprehensive system of public education and China Institute a
medal of honor for “unique and original presentation.”
To carry out its mission to promote closer relationships between
Chinese and American institutions, the Institute arranged visits to China by American
professors and Chinese professors to give lectures in the U.S. Two of the
Chinese professors invited were Y.C. James Yen, Director of the National
Association for the Mass Education Movement and Professor William Hung of Yenching
University. To educate the
American public about China,
Kuo and his staff as well as speakers recommended by
China Institute conducted many speaking tours across the United States.
Due to increased demand on its funds, the China Foundation
was not able to support the operation of China Institute beyond 1929. Kuo was asked by the foundation to reorganize China
Institute into a membership organization to seek support from the public. At
that junction, Kuo was invited to return to China to take up a
government post as the chief of the Bureau of International Trade in the
Ministry of Industry and Commerce. A search committee was formed to seek a new
director. Committee members included Dewey and Monroe.
The new director chosen was Meng Chih, who assumed the position in 1930. The board of
trustees included two members who were on Columbia
faculty at the time. They were Paul Monroe, director, International Institute
and Edwin R. A. Seligman, Professor of Political Economy. Monroe served at the President of the Board. It
is possible that some of the remaining 12 board members attended Columbia at one time or
For close to half a century since then, Meng
Chih’s name had been identified with China Institute.
He served as the Director of the Institute from 1930 to 1967, spanning 37
years. A direct descendant of Mencius (孟子), Meng Chih attended the renowned Nankai
Middle School and later was
among the fifty of all the twenty thousand applicants admitted to the
University through a
In 1919, Meng was awarded a
coveted five-year scholarship to study in the United States. Initially, he went to Davidson College
in North Carolina.
Two years later, he was transferred to Columbia
for graduate study in sociology. Fortunately for him, he had Hu Shih and John Dewey as his academic advisors. This,
however, was not the first time Meng met Dewey. They
had already become good friends back in Beijing
when Meng served as Dewey’s private guide and
interpreter during his lecture tour in China.
While at Columbia,
Meng served as the spokesman for the Chinese Student
Government and was heavily involved in Chinese and American activities and
organizations. In 1923, Meng was elected President of
the Chinese Students’ Christian Association in North America,
a national organization with 2500 members. He had also been elected President
of the Tsinghua and Nankai
Meng was offered the position as
the China Institute’s director because of his name recognition. Following his
appointment, Meng reorganized China Institute into an
independent, self-supporting corporation. Meng made
monumental contributions on many fronts, but none was more significant than his
work in two areas.
First, he made China Institute a home away from home for the
Chinese students in the U.S.
In the early part of the 20th century, sending more students to
pursue graduate studies in the U.S.
was a matter of national urgency for China and so was the work to assist
the students after their arrival. In 1933, Meng was
appointed by Mei Yi-chi (梅貽琦), President of Nankai
University to be the honorary Director of the Chinese Educational Mission in
to look after Tsinghua scholarship students and help
deal with the problems that they faced in the U.S. This responsibility led him to
visit 288 colleges and universities in 46 states. He met 1,700 Chinese students
on these visits. To better acquaint him with the situation at home, the
Ministry of Education in China
invited him to conduct a survey visit to evaluate in person the performance of
American-trained men and women who had returned to work in China. On his
extensive visits to various localities in 14 provinces in China
in 1936-7, he met 2,400 returned Chinese students from the U.S.,
most of whom were playing powerful and influential
roles in various spheres of life in China,
including government, finance, industry, commerce and education.
was on the brink of launching an all around attack on China in 1937, the
China Foundation decided to transfer some of its funds to the U.S. for
safekeeping and Meng was charged with administering
scholarships in the U.S.
through China Institute to provide relief funds for the Chinese students
stranded there. It soon became clear that the funds provided by the China
Foundation were too little for the more than 2000 Chinese students who needed
help. Meng went all out to secure additional funding,
including seeking the assistance of Eleanor Roosevelt, who was sympathetic with
the plight of the Chinese students in the U.S. At the invitation of Meng, Mrs. Roosevelt addressed the Chinese students at the
International House on Riverside Drive
near Columbia in
By the 1940s, China Institute had been well established and
recognized by both the American and Chinese Governments. It had become the
channel for educational institutions in both countries to administer
scholarships and exchange scholars. The amount of scholarships administered by
China Institute by 1943 reached over $2,500,000.
The second area in which Meng made
outstanding contributions was his work on explaining China to America through many projects,
programs and workshop he initiated. To a large extent, Americans’ knowledge of China at the
beginning of the 20th century was limited to Chinatown,
which often presented a seamy front to the visitors. Meng
was instrumental in reshaping the perception of the Americans about China and
correcting the prevalent cliché attitudes of the public about Chinese culture.
He did this via a host of educational programs or campaigns. Immediately after
he took the helm at China Institute in 1930, he and Chang Peng-chun,
another Columbia Ph.D. recipient under John Dewey, were able to invite and
arrange a visit and performance by Mei Lanfang in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles
that gave a fresh look on Chinese culture.
Mei’s superb performance was a triumphant
sensation. New York Times commented, “It is beautiful as an old Chinese vase of
tapestry. You can appreciate something of exquisite loveliness in pantomime and
costume, and you may feel for yourself vaguely in contact, not with the
sensation of the moment, but with the strange ripeness of centuries. Perhaps
you may even have a few bitter moments of reflection that although our own
theatrical form is enormously vivid it is rigid, and never lives so freely in terms of the imagination as this one does. The
chief impression is one of grace and beauty, stateliness and sobriety, of
Meng’s work in motivating Americans to study Chinese culture and language
was not just confined to New York City. In the early 1940s, China Institute was
already coordinating 40 information and hospitality centers throughout the United States. Between 1948 and 1961, Meng
organized major programs of Chinese studies outside China Institute in places
such as the University of Washington (Seattle), Mills College (Stockton, California), Cortland State Teachers College (Cortland, New York), Central College (New Britain, Connecticut), and the State College of San Francisco. In
the 1950s, Meng was able to develop a sister China
Institute of New Jersey and then organized a China Institute of the Midwest. Another successful program was launched in
cooperation with the University of Maryland in 1955 to hold annual conferences on
Chinese-American cultural relations for teachers of Chinese studies. These
conferences continued for ten years and evolved in 1966 into an independent
professional organization called the American Association for Chinese Studies.
Meng designed a number of basic introductory courses
in Chinese history and culture for public school teachers in New York City. He was
able to do something that even John Dewey couldn’t do. That is, he persuaded
Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in 1933 to grant China
Institute the privilege of offering in-service credit courses for public school
teachers in New York
City. This allowed the Institute to expand its
educational programs for Americans and gain recognition as the first and
largest school of Chinese studies
for nonspecialist teachers in the U.S.
In 1955, Meng installed at China Institute a series of public
lectures by renowned scholars, both Chinese and Americans. Prominent Columbians
who lectured at the series included Hu Shi on “Three
Founders of Chinese Thought”, L. Carrington Goodrich on “China’s Contribution in Science”, Chang Peng-chun on “Chinese Theater: Development and Technique”,
and Chou Wen-chung on “Chinese Music and Its
To reciprocate the generosity of the American government to
aid Chinese students at the time of the war, the Chinese Ministry of Education
set up a program in the late 1940s to offer scholarships for Americans who
served in China during the war to study Chinese culture either in America or
China for up to three years. China Institute was entrusted by the Ministry to
administer the program. Meng Chih
served on the selection committee. Fellow Columbians who served on the same
committee included Hu Shih, who had become President
of Peking University and Prof. L. Carrington Goodrich.
retired in 1967 and his work was taken up by successors, many of whom had a Columbia connection. From the
early 1980’s on, the people directing educational programs at China Institute
have all been connected to Columbia.
These included Marsha Wagner (1982-85), Morris Rossabi (1986-7) and Nancy Jervis (1988-present).
Marsha Wagner received her Ph.D. in Chinese and comparative
literature. She taught at Columbia
as Assistant Professor of Chinese literature. Wagner joined China Institute in
1982 as Vice President and Director of the School of Chinese Studies.
She returned to Columbia
in 1985 to serve first as Director of the C. V. Starr East Asian Library and
then Ombuds Officer, a position she still holds
Morris Rossabi received his Ph.D.
from Columbia in
Chinese history in 1970. He became Director of the School of Chinese Studies
at China Institute in 1986. He is currently an adjunct professor of history at Columbia. Even though he
returned to Columbia,
he has been involved in many projects of the Teach China program at China Institute, writing curriculum and
providing resources for secondary school teachers. China Institute will
organize a summer institute next year (2005) at Columbia on China and the Islamic World and Prof.
Rossabi will be a key speaker.
Nancy Jervis received her Ph.D. in anthropology from Columbia in 1987. While at Columbia, she studied with
Morton Fried, a China
specialist and also the last American to do fieldwork in China before 1949.
Interestingly, Jervis was one of the first American anthropologists to do
fieldwork in China
after 1949. She did her fieldwork in Henan for a number of years
starting from 1972. Since joining China Institute in 1988, Jervis has been Vice
President and Director of Programs. Her responsibilities largely involve
running China Institute’s School
of Chinese Studies. The
School, founded in 1933, is the oldest educational center of its kind in the United States, with
more than 70,000 alumni. In its early years, the School was primarily attended
by public school teachers for in-service training. While it continues to
conduct courses and workshops for teachers, it also offers the general public
courses on Chinese language, history, culture, and cuisine, studio courses in
painting, calligraphy, music, and taijiquan, as well
as lectures, symposia, operas and films about art, literature, business,
travel, and contemporary Chinese society. Over the years, the School has expanded
to include a public program, a language program and an educational program,
each serving a different constituency.
For many years since 1998, China Institute had been offering a free China Survey lecture series to introduce the general public to China and Chinese culture. The series, consisting of four introductory lectures on the history, philosophical traditions and literature of China, is a continuation of a long tradition established since the very beginning of China Institute when survey courses on China and Chinese culture were first developed. In 1999-2000 alone, over 500 people attended the lectures. The series frequently had celebrated Columbia professors as speakers, including Myron Cohen (Anthropology Department), Madeleine Zelin (East Asian Department) and David Derwei Wang (also East Asian Department). Prof. David Wang, then Chairman of Columbia’s East Asian Department, also helped moderate a major China Institute event in 2000—a discussion with Gao Xingjian, the only Chinese who received a Nobel prize in literature. Other Columbia luminaries who spoke at China Institute’s public programs and lectures include Wm. Theodore de Bary, John Mitchell Mason Professor, Andrew Nathan, Professor of Political Science, R. Randle Edwards, Professor of Chinese law, Steve Ross, Professor of Journalism, James D. Seymour, Associate Research Scholar at Columbia’s East Asian Institute. Over the years, a number of prominent Columbians have received awards and honors from China Institute, including Dr. Wu Chien-hsiung (吴健雄), Professor Emeritus of Physics, Prof. Chou Wen-chung (周文中), Vice Dean of the School of the Arts, and Tan Dun (谭盾), Columbia graduate and famed composer.
China’s role in world history and in contemporary affairs is now the concern of teachers at all levels. To meet the demand, China Institute has significantly expanded its professional development program for educators with Teach China, a program that offers in-service courses, summer teachers’ institute, China study tours in addition to developing curricula and training school teachers. In 2001, China Institute organized an NEH summer Institute at Columbia University on China and the World and the next summer institute will be in 2005, again at Columbia.
Institute’s language program is one of the largest outside the universities in
It has grown from a few classes in the 1930s to a full fledged program of 400
students today. It boasts of a strong and dedicated faculty. Many faculty
members are either former teachers at Columbia
or people who are currently teaching and working at Columbia. China Institute’s 1999-2000 annual
report had the following:
Institute has a Chinese cultural star in its midst and his name is Ben Wang.
Wang teaches Chinese language, calligraphy, classical Chinese literature and
drama, as well as much less highbrow cultural skills like mahjong and Chinese
Wang is China Institute’s most popular teacher and perhaps its
most demanding. His entertaining style, intense manner, and interactive method
keep students on the edges of their seats, not only hanging onto his every
word, but awaiting the certain moment when they will be put on the spot.”
his profound knowledge of Chinese language and literature, Ben Wang (汪班) is an institution himself. In
his 18 years teaching at China Institute and speaking at various universities
and museums throughout the United
States on behalf of China Institute, he has
captivated thousands of listeners and exposed them to a splendid China and Chinese
culture. Not surprisingly, Ben Wang is from Columbia,
where he taught Chinese in the East Asian Department from 1974-75 and then from
1987-1991. Besides teaching at China Institute as Senior Lecturer in Language
& Humanities, Wang is also a frequent guest lecturer at Columbia. In recent years, he has lectured at Columbia on the classical
theater and calligraphy among other topics. His lectures regularly see a
teachers at China Institute with a Columbia
connection include Zhang Xiaodan (張曉丹), Wang Hailong (王海龍), and Zhao Ruixue (趙瑞雪).
Columbians from China Institute
personnel flow between China Institute and Columbia
is not just a one-way traffic. Over the years, a number of people have moved
from China Institute to work for Columbia
in the pursuit of the same goal of promoting Chinese studies. Two recent
examples are Torrey Whitman and Heidi Johnson.
Torrey Whitman served as President of China Institute from 1997 to 2002. He received his B.A. in Chinese from Stanford University. Subsequently he studied Chinese and Chinese literature at Oxford University with the famed David Hawkes and others. In the 1970s, Whitman did graduate work at Teachers College and received his law degree from Columbia Law School. Since 2003, he has been the Executive Director of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia. He is a principal organizer of this conference.
his tenure at China Institute, Whitman oversaw the construction at China
Institute of an exquisite Suzhou Scholar’s Garden,
which unites rock, water, plants and man-made structures to recreate an ideal
Chinese world. The garden is the first authentic outdoor classical Chinese
garden built in Manhattan.
Like a Chinese landscape painting, the garden draws the visitors into nature
and slowly reveals its complexity.
2000, Whitman led a group of education officials in the social studies and
humanities involved in China-related curriculum development on the district,
city, state, and national levels on a study tour of China. For two weeks in May of that
year, seventeen education policy-makers, from organizations as diverse as the
New York State Education Department and the textbook publisher, Prentice Hall,
traveled to urban and rural China
to learn about modern and traditional China through lectures and
observation. The results were encouraging, as attested to by Jo Ann Larson of
New York State Education Department when she says, “we had made some hard decisions
about what to cut and what to include in the social studies core curriculum,
but this trip reinforced our changed emphasis, to teach less about Western
civilization and more about other culture.”
Heidi Johnson is another recent Columbian from China Institute. She worked at China Institute from 1997-2002, first as Assistant to the President and then was promoted to Manager of Government and Foundation Support. In that capacity, she was instrumental in obtaining for China Institute a number of major grants, including those from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Blakemore Foundation, Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, Fidelity Foundation, and the New York State Council on the Arts. Presently at Columbia, she is the Program Officer for the Expanding East Asian Studies
(ExEAS) initiative at Columbia, overseeing all aspects of the ExEAS program, which is supported by the Freeman Foundation and designed to create innovative courses and teaching materials that incorporate the study of East Asia in broad thematic, transnational, and interdisciplinary contexts. She also coordinates workshops and curriculum development of the ExEAS Teaching Collaborative, a group of over 20
postdoctoral fellows and professors from Columbia and other New York
area institutions. Additionally Heidi Johnson manages the ExEAS postdoctoral fellowship and undergraduate internship programs. At Columbia, she is Program Coordinator for the Expanding East Asian Studies (ExEAS) program, which develops curricula for teaching undergraduates about Asia.
Reworking a tradition
would be remiss for me not to mention my Columbia
and China Institute connections.
Nancy Jervis, I also studied in the Anthropology Department at Columbia, first with Morton Fried and then,
upon his death a year into my program, with Myron Cohen. While there, I
assisted Prof. Cohen on a three-year research project on the Chinese family.
The project involved a number of scholars from China and some of my fellow graduate
students focused on China.
I received my Ph.D. in 1992. Interestingly, I did my dissertation in the former
office of John Dewey in the Philosophy Hall, having no inking whatsoever that I
would be later associated with an institution he helped create some sixty years
a number of career pursuits, I came to teach at China Institute in 1997 and
subsequently became the Director of Language and Curriculum in 2000. During my
tenure, our language program saw an appreciable growth with the enrollment of
students reaching 400 per term. This was attributable to the upsurge of
interest in learning Chinese in the general public and a most dedicated
teaching faculty that attracted students far and wide.
its establishment in 1926, China Institute has been a magnate for Chinese
intellectuals in the New York
area. Distinguished Chinese scholars living in the U.S. such as Hu Shih often lectured
at China Institute in the past, and writers and others from China traveling to this country, including Lao She, often
stopped off in New York to lecture at China Institute, sometimes in English
but mostly in Chinese. This tradition, which was maintained until several
years ago through the Institute’s summer program at Silver Bay on Lake George, has now been revived and reinvigorated in
the form of Saturday Chinese lecture series that started in January 2001. The
weekly lectures are given in Chinese (and sometimes bilingually) by prominent
writers, actors, art collectors, and other leaders in their fields. Many of the
speakers have a Columbia connection, including N.T. Wang (王念祖), C.T. Hsia (夏志清), Shirley Mow and Zhou Hongyu (周洪宇). The lectures attract a disparate
audience of native speakers and others fluent in Mandarin
Chinese. Counting among our audience are many Columbia students. In the course of over three years, we have
conducted over 100 lectures on a range of topics including poetry, novels, art,
theater, history, language, archaeology, cinema, opera and religion.
The lecture series serves three important functions in New
York’s rapidly expanding Chinese émigré community: it keeps educated students
and immigrants in touch with their home country; it provides a free forum for
Chinese speakers to discuss their ideas with compatriots.; and it offers
both the Chinese immigrant community and students interested in China
opportunities to hear about the latest scholarship and modern culture, in
Chinese, directly from the experts. I have been chairing the lectures since the
series started in 2001. In response to the increased demand following
the influx of thousands of Chinese students and immigrants from mainland China,
Taiwan, Hong Kong and other parts of the world, China Institute launched a Renwen Society (人文學會) in 2003 as a new tier of the Institute’s membership primarily to
support the Chinese lectures and events. The Renwen
Society is now co-chaired by me and Ben Wang.
Institute will soon celebrate its 80th anniversary. In tracing its
history, we see the strong connection and extensive interaction between Columbia University
and China Institute since the early days of the 20th century. The
very concept of China Institute originated with two distinguished Columbia University
professors John Dewey and Paul Monroe and facilitated by two of their students,
Kuo Pingwen and Hu Shih. The subsequent organization and administration of
the Institute were steered mostly by people with Columbia background. Over the year, China
Institute’s mission has changed quite a bit with the current focus on education
about China, but recently the goals seem to be coming a full circle with more
educational exchanges like study abroad being planned and the Renwen Society focusing on Chinese scholars and lectures.
With the rich resources of Columbia
University and the
dedication of China Institute, it is expected that the tradition of
collaboration between these two institutions will continue in the future in
their pursuit of a common goal of promoting a mutual understanding between China and America.