Between my third and fourth year of studying Chinese, I spent six weeks in the summer of 1992 at Tsinghua University in Beijing. I stayed in the international student dorm while participating in a MSU study abroad program focused on Chinese language and culture. I enjoyed exploring the ponds and bridges and walking around the campus after dinner in the cooler evenings.
An American student who was also living in the dorm told me that she’d found a room full of poster boards describing the history of Tsinghua. On the day before returning to the U.S. I went to the building after lunch and knocked on the door. A young boy, who had been napping, came to the door and called out to his mother. Having also been awakened, his mother invited me in with a yawn. I began taking pictures of the boards but before I finished I ran out of film.
In the Spring of 1993 my advisor and I discussed possible research topics for my masters degree in history. When he was a graduate student at Cornell, he had seen a journal at the university’s library called The Chinese Students Monthly. It was written from 1905-1931 to unite the Chinese student body across the United States and to inform the American public about events in China. This rich resource was perfect! It gave insights into the students’ hopes and dreams, the lessons learned by students participating in the national club, their role as cultural ambassadors, and the difficult issues they faced upon returning to China.
In the fall of 1994 I began changing my MA thesis into a book about Chinese students who studied in the U.S. I researched the political and cultural background, beginning with the first generation of Chinese students who came to the U.S. from 1872-81 and the tensions between the U.S. and China from 1880-1910.
By September 1996 I was doing research for the next chapter about Tsinghua, which opened as a preparatory school in 1911, for students entering American colleges. I was thankful for my time on the campus that gave me insights when looking at old photos!
Several old yearbooks, called Tsinghuappers, offered windows into campus life, including extracurricular clubs, athletics, dramatics, oratory & debate. I wondered if I could ever meet anyone who had been at the school in the 1920s. These men would be ninety years old or more. How would I ever find any of them?
One day Richard, an Indonesian graduate student friend, encouraged me to speak with a friendly elderly Chinese man from whom he rented a room in a house near campus. I replied that I was too busy working on a chapter.
Then the MSU Asian Studies Center sent out a newsletter. One article was about Wang Zhi, a man who recently published a short autobiography in Chinese. He had studied at Tsinghua from 1918-1926. The same man who Richard wanted me to meet! He lived five minutes from my home in East Lansing.
Richard helped to set up a meeting at Wang’s home. Because Wang was old, I took notes rather than possibly scaring him with a tape recorder. At the end of the time, I asked if I could come again and tape the sessions. I handed him the rough draft of my chapter on Tsinghua, asking if he would edit it.
When I knocked on his front door the following week, he opened it and with a wide smile, he said, ”I am the only who can help you with this.” He gave me back my draft having made corrections, some involving my English!
We met weekly for the next four months. Though his brain was getting confused about daily activities, he was quite clear about the past. He told me stories about his years at Tsinghua: Almost getting expelled after failing the English test three times. Jumping out of the classroom window to practice basketball. Riding a donkey for forty minutes from the campus gate to Xizhimen, the west gate of Beijing.
Wang graduated from West Point in 1932. He spoke with Mao Zedong in Yanan, the capital of the Chinese Communist Party, in April 1938. From 1941 -1946 he served as China’s liaison officer to General MacArthur in the Philippines, in Australia, on the deck of the USS Missouri, and in Japan. After moving to Taiwan in 1949, he taught English, becoming Academic Dean of Soochow University (Dongwu) in Taipei. When he retired in 1976, he moved to East Lansing to be near his son, a MSU professor. Wang Zhi died in 2001.
The interviews were the basis for a short biography which opens Chapter 2 “Preparing Students for the United States: Tsinghua School, 1911-1928.”
A marvelous series of conversations.