Engineers for Modernising China

Transnational Dimensions of Professionalisation in the Late Qing and Republican Eras
Wednesday
2:00 pm – 3:45 pm
Room 1

  • Organised by Hailian Chen
  • Christine Moll-Murata, Chair
  • Hailian Chen, “The Birth of China’s Technical Intellectuals: From Missionaries to Polytechnics and Engineering Universities in the Late Qing Period”
  • Po-ching Yu, “Translating and Spreading Western Navigation Instruments and Knowledge in the Late Qing. Case Study of Essential Technique and Navigation”
  • Thorben Pelzer, “John Ripley Freeman (1855–1932) Goes to China & China Comes to Providence: Dynamics of the 1920s Sino-American Network of Hydraulic Engineers”
  • Lin-chun Wu, “’Standardising’ China: Transnational Connections and China’s Industrial Standardisation in the Early 20th Century”
  • Christine Moll-Murata, Discussant

Engineers have been significant agents in transforming the modern world since the nineteenth century. In China, the modern engineering professions emerged in the late Qing period and continually developed in the Republican era. Chinese engineers intimately connected with the global world, both through their education within and outside of China, as well as through their participation and cooperation with foreign partners in engineering practices. Their influences go far beyond the professional dimensions of designing and constructing and extend into the economic, social, political, and cultural spheres. This panel examines three different aspects of Chinese engineering professions from the late Qing to the Republican era. The first paper investigates the technical education reforms in the late Qing and analyses the role of missionaries and other foreign educators in the making of China’s new technical intellectuals. The second paper focuses on a case study of an informal network of Sino-American hydraulic engineers during the 1920s and traces the changing views of engineers towards hydraulic projects and governance. The third paper contributes to a rarely studied topic on the process of China’s industrial standardisation in the early twentieth century in the transnational and global contexts and addresses the influence of standardisation towards China’s industrialisation. Together, the three papers can advance our understanding of the role of engineers in shaping modern China.

Hailian Chen, “The Birth of China’s Technical Intellectuals: From Missionaries to Polytechnics and Engineering Universities in the Late Qing Period

Engineers have become a dominant elite group in contemporary China. How did the epoch-making transition from traditional Confucian-trained literati-elites to modern technical intellectuals occur? The emerging technical education for training experts in the late Qing was a significant turning point. So far, no systematic research has connected the rise of contemporary technical elites with nineteenth-century Chinese education reforms. Based on an original survey of Qing archival documents and private writings, this paper examines the transformation of Chinese intellectuals by focusing on the aspect of foreign educators and supervisors in technical education. Previous studies about the educated Jesuit and Protestant missionaries have addressed the significance of Sino-Western cultural contacts, exchanges, and scientific transfers in many aspects. However, most of the existing work focused on the translations of science(s) and not on technical subjects. Late Qing missionaries such as John Fryer and Richard Timothy, together with their Chinese partners, played a crucial part in establishing polytechnics and engineering universities in China. What were their attitudes towards China’s modernisation regarding education? How did these foreigners change the methods of learning among Chinese intellectuals? How could they effectively communicate with the native students? The answers will help in moving away from the popularly studied themes on missionaries and translations and instead focus on their contributions to educational practices. As a result, this paper aims to shed new light on the role of language and hands-on practices in the intercultural transfer of knowledge, and in the shaping of Chinese technical intellectuals.

Thorben Pelzer, “John Ripley Freeman (1855–1932) Goes to China & China Comes to Providence: Dynamics of the 1920s Sino-American Network of Hydraulic Engineers”

During the late Qing era, the Grand Canal had become largely inoperable (Pomeranz 1993, Ye 2019). In 1918, the Chinese government organised a canal improvement project funded by the American International Corporation (Mazuzan 1974, Wu 2009). John Ripley Freeman (1855–1932) assumed the position of consulting engineer and recruited Chinese engineering students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to accompany him to Tianjin. There, they joined the young hydraulic engineer Yang Baoling (1887–1966), himself a returned former US student. The informal network of Sino-American hydraulic engineers disseminated professional ideals and fostered transnational friendships. This paper follows what I call the ‘Canal Board interpersonal network’ through a decade of letter exchange. Their communications took place in the time of three failed infrastructural projects: the aborted improvement of the Grand Canal (1917–1922), the rejected bidding on the Yellow River Bridge (1921), and the unanswered calls to tame the Huai River (1922, 1924, 1926, 1929). Focusing on the case study of the personal communication between Yang and Freeman, I argue that, through the decade, practical experiences of failure reshaped the engineers’ perception of their profession’s extent of power. Their experiences allowed them not only to rethink their societal role as professionals but also to reconstruct their ideal of technocratic governance. The hydraulic engineers, from the perspective of the professional engineer, evaluated different governments, including the Beiyang, Warlords, Nationalists, Communists, and Mussolini’s Italy, and came to sympathise or reject them to varying degrees.

Lin-chun Wu, “‘Standardising’ China: Transnational Connections and China’s Industrial Standardisation in the Early 20th Century”

After the Qin government created national standards for weights and measures, they became an indispensable economic institution for maintaining the economic system of the Chinese Empires in the following dynasties. However, the traditional Chinese standardisation of weights and measures was quite different from Western standards. The practice and ideas of industrial standardisation were first introduced into China by foreign engineering groups in the Shanghai International Settlement which promoted the electrical standardisation of Shanghai in the early 20th century. The First World War and its aftermath helped China’s standardisation. The Association of Chinese and American Engineers, founded in Beijing, aimed to promote engineering professionalism in China and played a leading role in China’s industrial standardisation. China also made great attempts to standardise the various railway systems. In the 1930s, the Chinese government established the “Industrial Standards Committee” and adopted the American scientific method and industrial standardisation as a model. After WWII, in 1946, China participated in the organisation of the International Federation of the National Standardising Associations, which marked a new chapter in China’s standardisation to the global system. Few scholars have studied the issue of China’s industrial standardisation and its transnational connections in the early 20th century. This paper fills the gap by examining how China adopted ideas and practices of industrial standardisation. I will also address the questions such as how significant the standardisation was in shaping modern China and what kind of role governance and its transnational factors have played in the process of modern China’s industrialisation.

Event Timeslots (1)

Room 1
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Transnational Dimensions of Professionalisation in the Late Qing and Republican Eras