Out of the Boxer Indemnities, a world-class university

Society & Culture

"To use for educational purposes the money that is already allocated for indemnity would create benefit from damage, and gain from loss."

This Week in China’s History: April 29, 1911

It’s often said that two wrongs don’t make a right. But for every valid rule there is a valid exception, and, just maybe, the spring of 1911 was an example of two terrible decisions — really, a whole series of catastrophes — leading to something good.

Tsinghua University is one of China’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning. Rankings are always fraught, but Tsinghua routinely is the most highly ranked university in China — usually in all of Asia — by major outlets. Most useful for evaluating its prestige, the Times Higher Education’s “reputation ranking” placed Tsinghua in the top 10 for the first time last year, in a group that includes Stanford, Yale, Oxford, Princeton, MIT, Berkeley, and other elite global educational brands. (It has slipped to No. 16 this year, tied with Peking University.)

More about Tsinghua’s place on that list later, but being on a list with Harvard and Cambridge says something about, if nothing else, what people think of Tsinghua. Tsinghua stands out for at least two reasons: one, geography. Not only was Tsinghua the only Asian university in the top 10, but all the others are in the United States or the United Kingdom (Oxford and Cambridge). Second, Tsinghua is by far the youngest of these, founded in the 20th century. It’s that origin story that brings us to this week in China’s history, in a former imperial garden in the outskirts of Beijing.

Tsinghua’s beginnings were, as I alluded to at the outset, rooted in disaster: the Boxer Uprising and its aftermath. Not only did the uprising bring the Qing — once again — to the brink of collapse, but when the Eight-Nation Alliance (of European powers plus the United States and Japan) suppressed the uprising, it punished the Qing government for its antagonism. The terms included executing Boxer leaders and sympathetic officials and a raft of diplomatic and military sanctions, but among the harshest of terms was the so-called Boxer Indemnity demanding that the Qing literally pay for the uprising, to the tune of 450 million taels of silver: about $333 million. That’s a lot of money, but it’s just the start. That $333 million is worth roughly $11.1 billion in today’s money…and did I mention there was interest? When the principal was due to be paid off, in 1940, the entire indemnity would be more than twice the original amount. Comparisons are difficult because of the 40-year term on the penalty, but the total indemnity was for more than 40,000 tons of silver, which in today’s market would be worth $320 billion!

The Qing court argued that it was impossible to pay off that money and remain viable, and lobbied the foreign creditors to mitigate the penalty. (Each of the signatories to the Boxer Protocol was apportioned a different share of the indemnity, with the largest share, 29%, going to Russia, followed by Germany, France, Britain, Japan, the United States, and Italy.)

Chinese ambassador Liáng Chéng 梁诚 made a plea to the United States government (Liang had studied in the U.S. as a boy, attending Amherst College and Phillips Exeter Academy, and supposedly introducing baseball to China when he returned). Liang wrote to American President Theodore Roosevelt, “Please return the indemnity so that it can be used for establishing schools and sending students abroad. The American government will be pleased to gain a reputation of being just and to bear witness to the development of talent through education…and most of the country will welcome this lofty goal.…To use for educational purposes the money that is already allocated for indemnity would create benefit from damage, and gain from loss. The act would heighten China’s morale, lay a foundation for the nation’s resurgence, and lift us from humiliation.”

Liang’s proposal was not universally endorsed. Some in the Chinese government — including Yuán Shìkǎi 袁世凯 — wanted the indemnity revoked without strings attached, and would have preferred to use the money for building railroads and other infrastructure. In the United States, though, sentiment was strong that the Qing was corrupt and untrustworthy. Furthermore, as the late Michael Hunt has argued, remitting the indemnity was not a charitable donation, but a calculated investment. American diplomats described the plans at the time, the Chinese students coming to the U.S. “will be studying American institutions, making American friends, and coming back here to favor America for China in its foreign relations. Talk about a Chinese alliance!”

With assurances that the money would be “spent well,” the American president and legislature agreed to return their portion of the indemnity. In 1908, almost $12 million (about $370 million in 2022 dollars) was given to China to be used for educational purposes. Some was used to support scholarships for Chinese students who would study in the United States: one of the few avenues for Chinese to come to America under the terms of the Chinese Exclusion Act. The research of T.K. Chu indicates that between 1908 and 1911, the Qing sent nearly 200 students to study in the United States. Between 1912 and 1925, more than 800 students — including 43 women — were funded to study in the U.S.

But studying in the U.S. required more than money. Few Chinese students were prepared for American higher education, with a curriculum far different than most Chinese schools, not to mention English as the primary language of instruction. To prepare students to travel to the U.S., plans were devised for a preparatory school. The school they founded opened on April 29, 1911, in an imperial garden in the outskirts of Beijing: the Qinghua Garden. The school was labeled Qinghua Imperial College (subsequently renamed Qinghua College and then University, though like its prestigious sibling, Peking University, it retains Wade-Giles in its official English name).

Su-Yan Pan described the school’s curriculum as “an eight-year training program, with the first four years focusing on basic English skills and American culture, and the second four on advanced English skills, [social sciences and the humanities], and natural sciences. [Tsinghua College] also modeled the American universities’ credit system and adopted American versions of textbooks and, as the aim of sending students to the United States was to study Western subjects, the preparatory training emphasized English, science, and technology. To facilitate students’ adaptation to American life and higher education, TC also provided courses on American culture, including American literature, history, geography, life and customs, religion, and social politics.”

This emphasis on American culture was balanced by a framework of patriotism. The campus itself had been ransacked by European armies in the same campaign that had led to the destruction of the Yuanmingyuan. A pillar from the Yuanmingyuan was moved to the Tsinghua campus as a reminder of that history (it remains there today).

Just months after the school opened, the Qing dynasty was overthrown, but Tsinghua remained, surviving decades of war and revolution to become one of the world’s great universities, graduating Nobel laureates and even a “Tsinghua clique” in the Communist Party that includes Zhū Róngjī 朱镕基, Hú Jǐntāo 胡锦涛, and Xí Jìnpíng 习近平.

As perhaps its most famous living alumnus, Xi now casts a shadow over his alma mater.

Surrounding Tsinghua’s recognition in Times Higher Education, concerns have been raised about whether free speech, free debate, and uncensored information are essential to a great, global university. Without question, the restrictions of Xi’s government raise questions about the possibility of a liberal education in China. Ironically, given Tsinghua’s roots in emulating American education, these worries are now felt, too, in America, where many state legislatures in the United States are passing laws controlling college curricula and restricting academic freedom. For decades, the expansion and intensification of globalization seemed linked to the spread of academic freedom, open debate, and free inquiry. Perhaps it ought not be surprising that with the current global mood toward populism, isolationism, and authoritarianism, questions about what higher education means are being asked loudly, not just in China, but across the world.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.