Studying in the US Post-Cultural Revolution

Studying in the US Post-Cultural Revolution
Photo Credit: AP/達志影像

What you need to know

Visiting Chinese scholar reflects on his experience at the dawn of a new age in Sino-US relations.

In the late ’70s, China was still steeped in poverty. So when the nation prepared to send students to the U.S., it had to make sure the delegation looked decent. The Ministry of Education provided each student with one tailored wool coat and two suits, all in gray or black. At a reception held by then-President Jimmy Carter, the visiting scholars took off their coats and put them together, and afterward many could not identify their own from the pile.

More than 300,000 Chinese nationals now study at American universities, and most are millennials. But Liu Baicheng was 45 years old when he traveled to the U.S. to study in 1978 as part of that first group of state-sponsored students after the Cultural Revolution.

Earlier that year, the government had resolved to increase the number of Chinese students studying overseas to drive the country’s development, particularly in STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and math. But after a decade of disrupted scholarship, there were few young people with the necessary qualifications. “The Cultural Revolution had devastated higher education,” Liu recalled. “It was impossible to send youth.”

At the time, Liu taught mechanical engineering at Tsinghua University, a prestigious institution that now ranks 14th in the world for the field. All of Liu’s cohort — 46 men and six women — were in their 30s and 40s and were selected from top institutions in Beijing, Tianjin, and Shanghai. As researchers with established careers, it seemed awkward to term them “students,” so Zhou Peiyuan, the then-president of Peking University who had earned his Ph.D. from Caltech in the U.S., decided to bestow the title of “visiting scholars” on them.

When the group arrived in the U.S. in December 1978, The New York Times reported, “Their knowledge of English now ranges from excellent to minimal.” The visiting scholars took intensive English classes for up to three months after they arrived to get up to speed before setting off for their respective universities.

Each scholar received a monthly stipend of around US$400 from the Chinese government, depending on where they resided. They were also given a single dollar before the journey, which they were instructed to use for tips. “We were told that you had to tip when going to the toilet overseas,” Liu said.

Liu spent two years studying in the U.S., first at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and then at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). All 52 visiting scholars returned to China after completing their studies, and many became leaders in their fields. “It was springtime for intellectuals in China,” Liu said.

This is Liu’s story, as told to Sixth Tone and edited for brevity and clarity.

As the Chinese proverb goes, “We retain an army for a thousand days to use it once.” In the summer of 1978, Pan Jiluan, the dean of the mechanical engineering department [at Tsinghua University], asked me to take an oral English test. It happened so suddenly, and I was nervous. Our department had just one spot for the overseas study program to the U.S. I had a solid foundation in English, but I didn’t think I would be the one chosen because of my family background.

Born and raised in Shanghai, I received primary and secondary school education in church schools. As a student at St. Francis Xavier’s College, all my classes were in English except for Chinese literature, so by middle school, I could speak fluently with our foreign teachers.

After the Communist victory in 1949, my father was labeled part of the “national bourgeoisie.” But I’d witnessed the Japanese occupation, the corruption of the Nationalist Party, and hyperinflation, so as a young progressive, I joined the Communist Youth League. We regarded Beijing as a sacred place for revolution: Shanghai, a city filled with capitalists, was undesirable. I was admitted to Tsinghua University [in Beijing] in 1951. I graduated in 1955 and immediately took up a teaching role at Tsinghua. Then in 1959, I was criticized as a “right deviationist,” and between 1969 and 1974, [during the Cultural Revolution] I was sent to work in the university foundry.

When it came to the English test for selecting scholars to go to the U.S., many applicants who had a similar education to me failed because they’d been misled by the decade-long Cultural Revolution. There was a slogan then: “The more you read, the stupider you’ll be.” Teachers burned their books, and students aspired to be laborers. But I always believed that knowledge is power, so I would work all day in the foundry shop and then read books borrowed from the library at night. I stood out when the opportunity came.

I passed the first English oral test smoothly, and then I passed further tests at the university and education ministry levels. We were given short notice that we’d be leaving for the U.S. earlier than initially planned because the Chinese embassy was going to open on Jan. 1, 1979. The government hoped that we would help lend the opening some atmosphere. Deng Xiaoping was also going to visit the U.S. in late January.

I didn’t return to Shanghai to say goodbye to my parents. I was still worried that my family background would affect this opportunity. There were nine of us from Tsinghua, and the university sent a shuttle bus to take us to the airport along with our family members. My wife and daughter accompanied me to the airport and saw me off.

Our departure was a big deal. On the morning of Dec. 26, Deputy Prime Minister Fang Yi greeted us in the Great Hall of the People along with Zhou Peiyuan, the president of Peking University, and Li Qi, the Deputy Minister of Education.

It was evening when we arrived in Washington, D.C. The rush-hour traffic stunned me. In those days, even Beijing’s downtown area was almost empty at 6 p.m.

At first, the diplomatic office prohibited us from going out alone. But that changed once we arrived on campus, because I was the only one at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They had to count on our self-discipline and patriotism.

Some overseas Chinese were very pro-China, while others had strong opinions against the Cultural Revolution. I didn’t talk about being persecuted — we tended not to talk about political things.

There were two Chinese student associations at the university: one for students from Taiwan, and one for those from Hong Kong. Some of the Taiwanese students were friendly, and others were not. I joined the Hong Kong one and had dinner with the Hong Kong students for the first couple of months. For lunch, I usually just had McDonald’s. Breakfast was milk, bread, and butter. I cultivated an unhealthy habit of drinking Coke; I drank it as if it were water. It’s seen as a junk beverage now, but at the time it felt gratifying.

I gained three main things from my time in the U.S. First, the equipment available was much more advanced than what we had in China. Being able to explore materials at a micro level helped deepen my foundational understanding of mechanical engineering. I published four papers based on discoveries I made in the U.S.

Second, I helped develop a groundbreaking new area for China. My landlady’s son had an Apple computer. I had never seen a computer before. I felt that the invention could change everything in human life, so I registered for computer language classes, learning alongside the college kids. I had to work hard to catch up as a person over 40 who had no knowledge of computer science. The computer center was open 24 hours a day, so I would bring a cup of coffee and stay until 2 or 3 in the morning.

The skills I acquired helped me develop the fields of analog simulation and modeling when I returned to Tsinghua, combining computer science with traditional industry. This remains a cutting-edge field in China today, as it’s the foundation of intelligent manufacturing. My contributions led to my membership in the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the highest national honor in science and technology.

The third thing I gained was ties to more institutions. I made lots of friends in the U.S. and visited the University of Michigan, Case Western Reserve University, and Columbia University. Because I’m in the field of engineering, I also made contact with manufacturers and paid visits to the technical centers of General Motors and Ford. In September 1980, I transferred to MIT because professor Merton Flemings, a materials science expert, was teaching there. After three months in Boston, I felt it was time to go back to China and help build the country.

During my residence in Wisconsin, I was often invited to speak to primary and secondary school students. Once, in a high school auditorium filled with over a hundred people, a student asked me if I would like to stay in the U.S.

I didn’t even have to think. I started to sing a song I had learned in primary school:

“Home, home, sweet, sweet home; there’s no place like home.”

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published on Sixth Tone here. Sixth Tone covers trending topics, in-depth features, and illuminating commentary from the perspectives of those most intimately involved in the issues affecting China today. It belongs to the state-funded Shanghai United Media Group.