UI's ties with China go back decades

UI's ties with China go back decades

Interim Chancellor Robert Easter has been to China 40 times, mostly as an expert on animal feed before he became the dean of the College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.

Easter speaks some Chinese – "enough to ask where the bathroom is and order rice," he jokes – and has long been the University of Illinois' point man on the country.

But the China connection goes back farther than Easter's life, when it was the first major overseas connection for the university.

Last month, in its most recent move, the Urbana campus signed a deal with a Chinese university, Zhejiang University, to bring students, mostly in engineering and food sciences, here for a combination of late undergraduate education and master's degrees.

Tim Barnes, the UI's assistant director of International Programs and Studies, said Urbana, with relationships with two other Chinese universities, will benefit from the deal as a recruitment tool for China's top students. Most of the students' out-of-state tuitions have already been guaranteed by the Chinese government and Zhejiang University.

The Executive MBA program also has extensive Chinese connections, including visits there.

But the first UI-China connection came out of a war that the Chinese described as against imperialism and some Westerners as an anti-foreigner frenzy.

Following the Boxer Rebellions from 1898 to 1901, in which skilled martial artists attacked Westerners and their consulates, China was forced to pay reparations to several countries which had residents in Shanghai and other cities.

Pradeep Khanna, an associate vice chancellor, said the UI was able to use reparations money to build what many consider the best university in China.

Easter said UI President Edmund James convinced American leaders to use reparations money for scholarships for Chinese students.

The U.S. share of $333 million (in 1909 dollars) went to those scholarships and to Tsinghua College, founded on the site of Beijing's imperial gardens in 1911.

It was also called the "American Indemnity College."

UI professor emeritus Winton Solberg, who has written extensively on UI history, said James had an abiding interest on maintaining ties with Chinese universities.

In 1912, a Chinese society sent an invitation to prominent college presidents, asking them if they were willing to serve as a vice president of the society. James became a member, Solberg said.

James also praised the connection with China, noting the campus had a significant number of Chinese scholars, some 40 to 50 students "well able to profit" from the Urbana experience.

Even the Quad at the Tsinghua University is based on Urbana's.

The main university's architect was T. Chuang, a 1914 graduate of the Urbana campus, and he modeled his designs for the quadrangle and auditorium of Tsinghua on the Illinois campus, specifically imitating Foellinger Auditorium, noted an article written by Melissa Mitchell for the UI News Bureau.

"Historically, the university had the largest number of Chinese students in the years after that," Easter said.

The number of Chinese students here have waxed and waned, with restrictive laws preventing immigration for long periods, writes the late UI alumna Iris Chang in her definitive "The Chinese In America."

There are now 2,333 students here from China, according to UI figures.

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