International Workshop: Rethinking the study abroad movement and its impact on modern China (1850-1950s)

We are happy to announce the international workshop “Rethinking the study abroad movement and its impact on modern China (1850-1950s)” that will take place on Thursday 12 October 2023 at Aix-Marseille University.

French version


In a century of tremendous political and social disruption in China (mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century) characterized by a series of wars, changes of regimes, economic crises, and the country’s forced entry into the world order through the system of treaty ports and foreign settlements, Chinese elites came to see “learning from the West” as a “self-strengthening” means of reversing China’s perceived decline. The abolition of the civil service examinations in 1905, which had perpetuated the tradition of a Confucian ruling elite of scholar-officials and preserved a stable imperial system since the tenth century (Elman, 2013; Ho, 1962), gave a decisive impetus to the study abroad movement. The founding of the Republic (1912) with its multifarious modernizing projects created new career opportunities for the foreign-trained elites.

Between the first Opium War (1839-1842) and the early People’s Republic of China, some 200,000 young Chinese went to study in Japan, North America, and to a lesser extent, Europe, intending to return after their studies to apply the knowledge they had acquired abroad to rebuild their country (Wang, 1966; Levine, 1993; Liang, 2023). This vast migration of minds, which happened at a defining moment in Chinese history, became in turn one of the most transformative forces of modern China. This tremendous knowledge gain not only changed the fate of the students’ native country, but also of their host countries, in particular Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong, Europe, and the United States, where some students emigrated or settled after 1949. This first partaking of Chinese in intellectual globalization set the precedent for the post-1978 waves of Chinese students abroad.

The foreign-educated elites in China have been the object of conflicting interpretations. Either celebrated as heroes of modernization, or denigrated as agents of foreign imperialism, they have long been blamed for their inability to adapt their foreign training to the local conditions in China (Wang, 1966). Despite their recent rehabilitation in post-Mao China, the “modernization” paradigm and the failure/success way of framing their action remain powerful in current scholarship (Jiang, 2022).

Objectives. This workshop seeks to provide a more nuanced interpretation of the students’ contribution to Chinese history and that of their host countries, in the light of new sources and data (archives, students’ journals and directories, periodicals, diaries), and new approaches (e.g., transnational studies, network analysis).

Scope. While previous studies have focused on specific groups, separate countries and strictly limited timeframes, this workshop aims to embrace different geographical areas, academic specializations, and professional fields (engineering, business, scholars…) from a comparative and long-term perspective. All types of sources and methods are welcome (qualitative/quantitative, digital, or not), provided the papers place the emphasis on human and social actors, rather than nation states and abstract geopolitical entities with a view to nuance the body of scholarship which emphasizes nationalism, imperialism, and the “clash of civilizations”.

Research questions

The questions we wish to address include, but are not limited to:

  • The students as agents of China’s “modernization” and foreign policies vs individual agencies and family strategies.
  • The role of the states in supporting or obstructing the students’ aspirations and achievements (educational missions, government scholarships, national policies regarding education, immigration laws…).
  • Other sponsors (missionary institutions, private foundations, university-based exchange programs, families, mentors).
  • The question of social and geographical inequalities towards education abroad – a factor of social reproduction or diversification?
  • Continuation/rupture with the imperial examination system.
  • Gender biases regarding education abroad.
  • The impact of wars and political events on the students’ trajectories, before, during or after their studies.
  • Reframing the “study from / in the West” paradigm.


  • Cécile Armand (Aix-Marseille University)
  • Christian Henriot (Aix-Marseille University)
  • Sally Chengji Xing (Columbia University, New York)
  • Fang Ruobing (University of Goettingen)
  • Peter Hamilton (Lingnan University, Hong Kong)
  • James Lee (Hong Kong University of Science and Technology)
  • Thorben Pelzer (University of Leipzig)
  • Wu Lin-Chun (National Taiwan Normal University)

The detailed program will be published soon.

Practical information

  • Date: Thursday 12 October (9 am – 6 pm)
  • Location: Aix-Marseille University, Aix-en-Provence, Schuman campus, salle des colloques 1
  • Free entrance (registration recommended)

Contact: Cécile Armand (


This event has received the support of the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange (CCKF), the Faculté des Arts, Lettres et Sciences Humaines (ALLSH), the Institute of Asian Studies (Irasia), and the “Elites, Networks, and Power in modern China” (ENP-China) project at Aix-Marseille University.


Elman, Benjamin A. Civil Examinations and Meritocracy in Late Imperial China. Harvard University Press, 2013.

Hamilton, Peter. “The American-Returned Students: Educational Networks and New Forms of Business in Early Republican China.” In Knowledge, Power, and Networks: Elites in Transition in Modern China, edited by Cécile Armand, Christian Henriot, and Huei-min Sun, 258–88. Leiden: Brill, 2022.

Hamilton, Peter E. Made in Hong Kong: Transpacific Networks and a New History of Globalization. New York: Columbia University Press, 2021.

Harrell, Paula. Sowing the Seeds of Change: Chinese Students, Japanese Teachers, 1895-1905. Studies of the East Asian Institute. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1992.

Ho, Ping-ti. The Ladder of Success in Imperial China: Aspects of Social Mobility, 1368-1911. New York: Science Editions, 1962.

Huang Fuching. Qingmo LiuRi Xuesheng 清末留日學生 [Students Studying in Japan in the Late Qing]. Taipei: Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica, 1975.

Huang, Fuqing. Chinese Students in Japan in the Late Chʼing Period. East Asian Cultural Studies Series. Tokyo: The Centre for East Asian Cultural Studies, 1982.

Jiang Yongzhen 江勇振. Chu cai jin yu: Zhongguo liumei xuesheng 楚材晉育: 中國留美學生 [Chinese students in the United States], 1872-1931. Xinbei Shi 新北市: Lianjing chuban shiye gufen youxian gongsi 聯經出版事業股份有限公司, 2022.

Levine, Marilyn A. The Found Generation: Chinese Communists in Europe during the Twenties. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1993.

Liang Chen 梁晨, Ren Yunzhu 任韵竹, and Li Zhongqing 李中清. Qi Shanlin Zhe: Zhongguo Xiandai Zhishi Jieceng de Xingcheng 启山林者:中国现代知识阶层的形成 [Our Forefathers: Chinese University Graduates and the Chinese Academe], 1912-1952. Beijing 北京: Beijing shehuikexue wenxian chubanshe 北京社会科学文献出版社, 2023.

Lin, Yi-Tang. “Navigating between Political Authorities: Chinese Rockefeller Fellows in Biology and Chemistry and Their Career Trajectories from 1949 to 1966.” In Knowledge, Power, and Networks: Elites in Transition in Modern China, edited by Cécile Armand, Christian Henriot, and Huei-min Sun, 289–321. Leiden: Brill, 2022.

Saneto Keishu 実藤恵秀. Chugokujin Nihon Ryugakushi 中国人日本留学史 [A History of the Chinese Students in Japan]. Tokyo: Kuroshio shuppan, 1960.

Wang, Y.C. Chinese Intellectuals and the West, 1872-1949. The University of North Carolina Press, 1974.

Wu, Lin-chun. “China and the United States: Business, Technology, and Networks, 1914–1941.” Journal of American-East Asian Relations 27, no. 2 (July 15, 2020): 119–41.

Wu Lin-chun 吳翎君. Meiguoren weijing de Zhongguo meng : Qiye, jishu yu guanxi wang 美國人未竟的中國夢: 企業,技術與關係網 [The Unfulfilled American Dream in China: business, technology and networks]. Taipei: Lianjing chuban shiye gufen youxian gongsi 聯經出版事業股份有限公司, 2020.

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Cécile Armand (June 14, 2023). International Workshop: Rethinking the study abroad movement and its impact on modern China (1850-1950s). Elites, Networks and Power in modern China. Retrieved July 21, 2024 from

Cécile Armand

Ancienne élève de l'Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon (2006), agrégée d'histoire (2009), docteure en histoire (2017), mes travaux portent sur la publicité, l'histoire urbaine, les migrations intellectuelles entre la Chine et les Etats-Unis et les méthodes computationnelles appliquées à la recherche historique. Mes recherches ont reçu le soutien des fondations Chiang Ching-kuo, Coca-Cola, Andrew Mellon (Program DHAsia, Stanford), de l'Agence Nationale de la Recherche (Access ERC, ENS-Lyon) et du Conseil Européen de la Recherche (projet ENP-China, Aix-Marseille).

You may also like...

3 Responses

  1. 18/05/2023

    […] English version […]

  2. 14/08/2023

    […] of Göttingen)、海德堡大学(Heidelberg University)、法国马赛大学(Aix-Marseille University […]

  3. 27/08/2023

    […] presentation in English. Original presentation in […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search