Making China Known at "Tech"


“No, Tse [Tsok Kai] never worked in a laundry; he’s a real mandarin from Canton.  You will hope that they’ll never let him back to the Celestial region after he does his turn.  Here’s where you do the kow-tow.”

                                                                                                                     The Technique, 1908



The students were a vital conduit for the flow of modern science and technology back to China, but they also played an important role during their years in America as cultural ambassadors during an era of prevalent anti-Chinese sentiment. By the 1870s, labor competition was fueling mounting hostility against Chinese immigrants, especially in the Western states, and an organized campaign to stop Chinese immigration gained momentum. Responding to this pressure, in 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred the entry of Chinese laborers into the country – though permitting Chinese merchants, teachers, students, diplomats, and travelers. The act was not repealed until 1943. Despite their privileged status as members of the "exempt classes," students from China nonetheless felt the humiliation of Chinese Exclusion, as they had to provide proof of their exemption status to enter the country and were sometimes harassed by immigration officials.[1] In addition, Chinese Exclusion meant that the students generally could not remain in the US after completing their education and training. Thus, they knew they would ultimately return to China. Linking the discrimination against Chinese laborers in the US with China's degradation under imperialism, many developed sympathy for their working-class countrymen. Some took action by volunteering in Chinatown, while others went to France to teach the Chinese laborers who had been contracted there during World War I. Although MIT was generally very welcoming of the students, especially the administration, the students nonetheless at times encountered prejudice or condescension among their classmates, as brought to light by Lee Ting Chen (Class of 1918, Chemistry) in a prize-winning essay on "The American College Man" that was published in The Technology Monthly in 1918. The essay urged Americans to "pierce through the great wall" of their isolationism.

To provide mutual support for students "studying together in a school several thousand miles away from the homeland," the Chinese Students’ Club was formed on April 10, 1910.[2]  Club members were dedicated to promoting understanding of China’s culture and history, and counteracting the prejudices of their time. In addition to organizing the popular "Chinese Night" entertainments, Chinese students participated actively in diverse aspects of MIT student life: everything from athletics, to theatre, the Cosmopolitan Club, the Walker Society, and various professional societies. Frequently excelling in their studies and earning the respect of their teachers and peers, the Chinese students left a deep impression on the MIT community, and helped advance Sino-American friendship.




[1] CSM June 1917. See advert for Canadian Pacific Railway.

[2] CSM June 1910, volume V, number 8, page 529.

Image: Cartoon of Tse Tsok Kao from The Technique, 1908, 336.