Book Reviews

Chinese Students Return Home—To What?

Patriots or Traitors: A History of American Educated Chinese Students, by Stacey Bieler. Routledge, June, 2003. Hardcover, 496 pages, ISBN-10: 0765611864; ISBN-13: ‎978-0765611864. Available on Amazon.

“Our old hearts, burnt out by dreams,
Fell like meteors on the shore
And transformed into these rocks
That cannot be shaken by the great waves.”

From “An Old Red Guard Reply,” by Ha Jin Between Silences (Bieler 351)

Scorched, seared, scalded in the fire of deception, they were left only with the ashes of what once seemed magnificent hopes and dreams. The young Red Guards—those who had so exultingly cheered Chairman Mao Zedong in Tiananmen Square, while thrusting aloft the little Red Book containing his oh-so-wise pronouncements—those Red guards had crashed and burned.

Generation after generation, the youth of China have searched for a secure anchor, a moral compass by which they might be guided in a modern world that somehow does not mesh with the mores of their home culture. In the mayhem of June 4, 1989, the man those youth in Tiananmen Square thought was their savior became their destroyer.

Today in 2021, though experiencing a prosperity previously unknown in modern China, many men and women still carry the pain of the wounds of Tiananmen within and too often see that same pain in the eyes of their aging parents. Only one segment of Chinese society has succeeded in finding a secure anchor; they succeeded not with politics or possessions but with faith in Christ.

Among those who followed Christ, some found their faith not in China, but rather on foreign shores. They were liuxuesheng (留学生) foreign students who had been sponsored in a variety of ways to study abroad and many of whom chose to go to the United States for that opportunity. Many were welcomed into the homes of Christians who offered to host them during their stay and help them navigate a culture very different from their own. Some of these students became fervent Christians; others chose to follow Marx and Lenin down the communist road.

The story of these adventuresome souls and the difficulties they faced upon return to their home culture in China is aptly and entertainingly told by Stacey Bieler in her work entitled Patriots or Traitors: A History of American Educated Chinese Students.

The title chosen by Bieler gives a clue to the book’s emphasis. She shines a spotlight on the reception experienced by the returned students as they settled back into their home locations between 1850 and 1930. They were eager to use the training and expertise they had acquired in their long hours of study abroad. However, many became discouraged when they discovered that it was impossible to directly apply what they had learned in the US to their own society; China was too many years behind the US in development. Others were shocked to be met with jealous hostility as they attempted to share their new expertise with former teachers and local government officials.

It took great patience and creativity for these returned students to find ways to use their new knowledge and training, especially those who had studied agriculture. Returned student, Jimmy Yen, wanted to design a better chicken brooder to aid Chinese chicken farmers.

One Mass Education Movement staff member with a Ph.D. from Cornell went through ten modifications before the model of brooder was “scientific,” used local materials, and was cheap—it was a mud brooder with a screen made of twigs.”1

Humility and a true desire to serve were also required of the students. Some that had been highly regarded enough to earn the opportunity to study agriculture abroad were not eager, upon their return, to work in the relatively primitive conditions of rural China. “Zhang Fuliang, the rural reconstructionist, commented, ‘Unless he is a saint or a fanatic, the temptations of living away from the farm are too great for him to resist.’”2

In her book, Bieler shares the experiences of sixteen returned students. These include China’s liaison officer to the US Army under General MacArthur, China’s Ambassador to the US in WWII, the first Chinese woman university professor, and a General Secretary of the YMCA in Beijing c.1900—along with several less renowned students and professors. The primary research source chosen by Bieler was the Chinese Students’ Monthly, the first magazine published by Chinese students in the United States. It was in circulation from 1906 to 1931 and became the official publication of the enlarged Chinese student organization: The Chinese Students’ Alliance in the US.  Out of this organization came many of the politically ambitious and savvy young people who very quickly became prominent citizens and filled influential posts upon their return to China.

The Chinese Students’ Monthly reflected the changing political make-up of the leadership of the Students’ Alliance. It sometimes sported articles favoring Chiang Kai-shek’s Guomindang3 and at other times revealed a distinctly Marxist inclination.

The Monthly stressed cooperation as the “watchword of the twentieth century” … The small group of returned students, equipped with degrees and dreams, the power of the pen, and foreign connections found that both traditional strongholds and revolutionary rhetoric regarded liberal ideals as a threat.”4

The “liberal ideals” referred to here are those learned and adopted in the US by the foreign students. These students had supposed that they would be teaching and implementing these new liberal ideals when they returned to China. What they encountered instead was a fierce, on-going battle between the Chinese traditionalists and the Communists, both of whom regarded Western values as traitorous.5

Bieler has meticulously documented her research; there are 366 pages of text, followed by 162 pages of appendices and footnotes after the epilogue. This format provides a reader-friendly work for those interested in Chinese history but not intent on doing research, yet also meets the needs of those requiring documentation for writing projects or researching individual historical persons.

What happened to the returned students that became China’s intellectuals? Bieler recounts how they did indeed crash and burn; she quotes two other works on the returned students.

Jerome Grieder labels the Chinese intellectuals’ transitions over the years: They went from “political entrepreneurs” around the time of the 1911 Revolution, to “political amateurs” during the New Culture Movement, to, finally, ‘victims of politics’ in the 1930s onward.6

Bieler’s second quote is an excellent one from John Dewey, a prominent educator and philosopher in the first half of the twentieth century. Dewey’s description seems to apply to all of the returned students—even those who study in the present era in the US and then return to China:

They have been idealizing their native land at the same time they have gotten Americanized without knowing it, and they have a hard time to get a job to make a living. They have been told they are the future saviors of their country and then their country doesn’t want them for anything at all—and they can’t help making comparisons and realizing the backwardness of China and its awful problems. At the same time at the bottom of his heart probably every Chinese is convinced of the superiority of Chinese civilization—and maybe they are right—three thousand years is quite a spell to hold on.7

Patriots or Traitors: A History of American Educated Chinese Students by Stacey Bieler details three waves of students that were sent abroad to study in the fervent hope that they would strengthen and modernize their homeland upon their return. Today China is one of the lions of the world economy, intent on extending its power and influence around the world through the “Belt and Road Initiative.” Although rural China is still quite primitive, urban China rivals New York City and the capitals of Europe. The nation’s high school students often set the curve on international standardized tests and earn many of the seats in top American and European universities. These students go on to fill key roles as researchers and scientists in major multinational corporations.

However, there are also those who upon return to their homeland experience a disappointing reception. They find it difficult to land the kind of job they assumed would be theirs after investing in study abroad and are sometimes treated as unpatriotic by friends and neighbors. As relations between China and the US continue in a downward spiral, some returnees may hope to again leave China in search of a warmer welcome elsewhere.


  1. Bieler, 325; Quoting J.P. McVoy, Jimmy Yen: China’s Teacher Extraordinary, 41-42.
  2. Bieler, 325; Quoting R. E. Stross, The Stubborn Earth: American Agriculturists on Chinese Soil (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1986).
  3. Guomindang was the political party founded in 1911 by Sun Yat-sen. It governed China under Chiang Kai-shek from 1928 until 1949 when the Communists took power and subsequently was the official ruling party of Taiwan.
  4. Bieler, 334.
  5. Bieler, 336.
  6. Bieler, 335; Quoting Jerome Grieder, Intellectuals and the State in Modern China, chapters 5, 6, 8 titles.
  7. Bieler, 344; Quoting John Dewey and Alice Chipman Dewey, Letters from China and Japan, 244.
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BJ Arthur

BJ Arthur (pseudonym) has lived in China for many years and was in Beijing in June 1989.View Full Bio