Loving the Liuxuesheng (留学生)

When I began my sojourn as a student of Chinese in Changchun, one of the first vocabulary words my classmates and I mastered was liuxuesheng (留学生), which means “student studying abroad,” or, more colloquially, foreign student. In a culture where categories are important, that was our category. We were not foreign experts (waiguo zhuanjia 外国专家), but foreign students. And we had the ID cards to prove it.

Years later, a professor in Beijing taught me more about Chinese students studying abroad, introducing me to the terms liusu 留苏and liumei 留美. In the early days of the People’s Republic of China, Chinese students went to the Soviet Union (sulian 苏联) to study. These students were referred to as liusu. Now, he said, most Chinese students go abroad to study in the United States (meiguo 美国). These students are referred to as liumei. He pointed out that the then crop of Chinese leaders had all been liusu, and this deeply shaped their worldview. Twenty to thirty years hence, he suggested, it would be the liumei who would be in power. We had a long discussion on what it might mean for China’s future to have government officials who are liumei instead of liusu.

That day’s discussion has stuck with me whenever I think about the importance of outreach to Chinese students studying abroad, the Chinese liuxuesheng, the topic of this issue of the ChinaSource Quarterly.

Many people date the arrival of Chinese students in the United States to the 1980s, following the launch of China’s Opening and Reform policy. This is what we remember. Visiting scholars showing up at universities. Later grad students. Then undergrads. Now (COVID-19 aside) secondary students. However, Chinese students came much earlier, the first being in the 1840s. Stacey Bieler opens this issue with an overview of the early Chinese students studying in the United States, helping us understand when and why they came, the challenges they faced, and how Christians reached out to them.

In recent years, more and more Gen Z students (born between 1998 and 2014) have gone abroad to study. Unlike the students of earlier days (90s and early 2000s) Gen Zers are connected, both locally and globally. Chaoyang Peng takes a deep dive into the lives of Gen Z youth, their worldview, and effective ways to reach them for Christ.

Over the past decades thousands of Chinese students have made faith commitments during their time as liuxuesheng, either through the friendship and hospitality of individuals or because of outreach efforts by organizations and churches. Many have been discipled and become deeply involved in local churches. But what happens when their studies end, and they return to China? Do they connect with local Christians? How do they find and settle into local churches? The answers to these questions are complicated. Leo writes about the important dynamics of movement and connection in reaching this strategic group of returnees.

It is not just Chinese liuxuesheng who need friendship and hope; thousands of liuxuesheng from all over the world—most from Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia—are studying in China. Indeed, this is a remarkable opportunity for the church in China to reach out cross-culturally without leaving home. What is being done to serve them? How has COVID-19 impacted this ministry? Phil Jones gives us an overview of the current difficulties and opportunities for reaching these students, ending with a challenge to believers in China—both local and expat—and to the global church not to forget these liuxuesheng.

Jon Kuert shares the story of starting a Chinese student ministry in Minnesota centered around outdoor activities—a providential choice since the pandemic broke out shortly thereafter. He includes suggestions and observations based on more than seven years in student ministry, both in China and the US.

BJ Arthur reviews Patriots or Traitors: A History of American Educated Chinese Students, by Stacey Bieler. The book tells the stories of key Chinese students who were educated abroad, beginning in the mid-1800s.

We close the issue by introducing two new resources from InterVarsity International Student Ministry. One is a booklet titled Connecting with Chinese International Students: Sharing the Good News with Cultural Wisdom which explores how to minister to this generation of Chinese students; the other a set of scripture memory playing cards in Chinese, English, and Spanish.

With travel restrictions being relaxed—at least in some countries—the Chinese liuxuesheng are once again making their way onto university campuses around the world. It is our hope that this issue of CSQ will motivate and equip us to reach out to them in love.

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Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio