Cultural Ambassadors

The students had been sent from China with the mission of learning Western science and technology, but in Cambridge they found themselves taking on a role that was perhaps equally important for China's future: that of cultural ambassador. This was an era of pervasive anti-Chinese sentiment, especially in California and other Western states, but also a time when Oriental art and culture were coming into vogue, led by "Boston Orientalists" like Ernest Fenollosa and William Sturgis Bigelow. Against this backdrop, the Chinese students attempted to promote understanding of China and its people, often drawing on its great heritage of arts, culture, and philosophy to assert the equality of Chinese civilization with Western civilization despite the latter's rapid advances in science and technology from the industrial revolution onward. Appealing to the community’s curiosity about China, as well as emerging ideals of cosmopolitanism, the students organized various public events and also worked through person-to-person contacts on to achieve this goal.

On March 1, 1910, a group of forty students at MIT formed the Cosmopolitan Club, with the aim of promoting world citizenship and offering support to international students. Eight Chinese students joined this club, and Heenan Tinching Shen of Fuzhou, China (Class of 1909, Naval Architecture) was elected Second Vice-President, serving alongside officers representing Norway, Ecuador, the US, France, and the Canal Zone.[1] In April, the Chinese members of the Cosmopolitan Club hosted an entertainment at the Club rooms at 480 Boylston Street, with thirty-six members in attendance, including faculty. The program opened with two speeches: the first on Chinese intercourse with the West, and the second on the traditional Chinese educational system. This was followed by a performance of Chinese music by two students, lantern slides, stories, phonograph music, and a trivia quiz on China. Several faculty won prizes for correctly answering questions such as: "what is total area of China in square miles?" The prizes were Chinese ornaments.[2] This launched what would become the annual "Chinese Night," which by 1912 attracted an audience of more than 300 for an event jointly hosted with Harvard. With HK Chow presiding, the Chinese students not only entertained the audience of students and faculty with performances of music, pantomimes, card tricks, and demonstrations of the Chinese game of shuttlecock, but also discussed current political conditions in China with the founding of the new Republic.[3] In subsequent years, a wide variety of topics were discussed, and Chinese Night became an important venue for educating the MIT community about Chinese customs, history, philosophy, and current events. Chinese food was also served, to the delight of the participants.[4]

Chinese Night was only one of the collaborative endeavors undertaken by the Chinese students with their counterparts at other local universities. On April 24, 1914, Chinese students at MIT, Harvard, Wellesley and other Boston-area schools put on a "Chinese Fete” at the Copley Society of Boston. With hundreds of Bostonians in attendance, the students performed a dramatic interpretation of the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West under the title of "A Pilgrim's Progress." MIT students were prominent in this production, with MC Hou playing the lead role of The Monkey and Turpin Hsi in the supporting role of The Monk of the Desert. Hou Kun Chow played The Ox Demon, CC Tseng the Demon of Darkness, WG Loo the Emperor, FT Yeh the Leopard, and T Yuan the Tiger. MIT students also served as musicians and on the production crew. Miss Mayling Soong of Wellesley (the future wife of Chiang Kai-shek and First Lady of the Republic of China) was an assistant producer.[5] Livingston Platt designed the stage set. Indicative of the vogue for Orientalism among upper-class Bostonians of the time – not only the players, but also the spectators wore Chinese costumes to the Fete. The Boston Globe called the event "one of the most charming pictures in costuming and scenery imaginable."[6]  The play was so successful that it was repeated the following year, with essentially the same cast.[7]

In 1925, the Chinese Students of Greater Boston put on another major production, an English spoken-drama version of the popular Ming dynasty Chinese theatrical work, "Pi Pa Chi" (The Story of the Lute) written by MIT student Ku Yu Hsiu (Class of 1925, Electrical Engineering, MS 1926, DSc, 1928) and translated by Liang Shiqiu.[8] The play was performed at the Fine Arts Theater in Boston on March 28 and 29, 1925, with Grace Zia of Wellesley College playing the heroine. As advertised in the Harvard Crimson:

"The Chinese students attending institutions in greater Boston will produce a play entitled ‘Pi Pa Chi’ at the Fine Arts Theatre next Saturday night. The play will be in English. It was written by Kou Ming, a prominent Chinese scholar of the fourteenth century."[9]

According to Liang's memoirs, over 1000 people attended the play, and the "roof was almost shaken off by the stormy applause."[10]

LT Chen (Class of 1918, Chemistry) took a very different approach to cross-cultural understanding in an essay on “The American College Man," as seen from the perspective of Chinese student, which was published in the January 1918 issue of The Technology Monthly as the winning entry in the magazine’s prize contest. In this essay, Chen critiqued the "naïve pride of the greatness of country" characteristic of the typical American college man, and the attitude of American exceptionalism that he believed was fostered by the American educational system. This led many of the students whom he encountered to pity, and even condescend to, their Chinese classmates. As he wrote:

And China – he turns a sympathetic smile on his Chinese friend, quietly commiserating him for the hard lot that befalls his people. Occasionally, in an attempt to relieve his friend of the probably embarrassing situation to which he is subjected, he might wind up the conversation by saying, "The Chinese, however, are an intelligent race; their people are intelligent-looking." Here he walks away leaving his Chinese friend with a consolation unsurpassable.[11]

Chen recalled that he had been subjected "time and time again" to ignorant questions about China, such as whether there were railroads, automobiles, electric-cars and movies. He furthermore argued that the typical student was blind to the flaws of his own society, for example the detrimental effects of "Materialism and Money" on American culture. The Monroe Doctrine, he argued, had greatly narrowed the American student's worldview. As he concluded: "it requires a superb force to pierce through this great wall and peep into the world for a broader view."[12] Chen thus movingly conveyed his experiences as a foreign student on an American campus, while also forcing American students to take a hard look at themselves.

To further their project of educating Americans about China, and also to maintain their own connection to the homeland, the Chinese Students’ Club made several book donations to the MIT Libraries. The first major donation occurred in 1912-1913, soon after the founding of the Republic of China. The gift consisted of “216 volumes in Chinese, comprising the History of the Dynasties, 200 volumes; The Abridged Chronology from 2000 B.C. to the beginning of the Christian Era, eight volumes; and four other books.”[13] A later donation in 1923 consisted of twenty volumes of Chinese literature and thirty lantern slides.[14] The maintenance of this "Chinese Shelf” in the Institute Central Library, with copies of the Chinese classics – the Confucian "Four Books" and "Five Classics" -- in addition to current newspapers, periodicals and books from China, was a central mission of the club.[15]

Interactions with the Chinese students inspired numerous faculty and students to take a keen interest in China and Chinese culture. While many went to China to pursue opportunities in business, engineering, teaching or the military, perhaps the most interesting example of an individual who developed an abiding interest in studying Chinese culture is Tenney L. Davis (Class of 1913). A Professor of Organic Chemistry, Davis was interested in the history of chemistry and alchemy and became curious about Chinese alchemy. Working together with chemistry student Lu-Ch’iang Wu (BS 1927, PhD 1930), Davis translated the classic Chinese text The Kinship of the Three (Cantong qi), the earliest extant Chinese text on alchemy, publishing the translation in 1932.[16] With Wu and other Chinese students, Davis continued to work on other classic Chinese alchemy and Taoist texts, publishing articles throughout the 1930s and 1940s.[17] These collaborations produced some of the earliest English translations of important Chinese texts, and were seminal contributions to the history of science and technology in China.  









[6] CHINESE FETE. (1914, Apr 25). Boston Daily Globe (1872-1922) Retrieved from

[7] 4 articles in Bos Globe, repeated in 1915


[8] Gu, Yiqiao. One Family-Two Worlds, Weili Ye, 2001, 205.

[9] The Crimson, March 26, 1925,


[10] In Ye 2001, 205.

[11] "The American College Man", The Technology Monthly, volume IV, number 6, January 1918, page 25-27, 36. 26.


[12] "The American College Man", The Technology Monthly, volume IV, number 6, January 1918, page 25-27, 36, 36.


[13] Report of the Librarian, 1913, p. 36.


[15] Directory, p 12.

[16] Bridge, 26