This superb piece of historical writing traces the careers of seventeen Chinese who studied in America and then returned to serve their country. More than that, however, the book ranges widely over the course of China’s history from the late nineteenth century up to the present. Thus, each individual story fits into a coherent narrative, illustrating general trends and finding significance from the overall picture.
We read of scientists, diplomats, doctors, and engineers; of professors and deans. Though fewer in number, women play a vital role in this engaging, even engrossing, account of courage, commitment, and competence. Bieler introduces us to the Americans (often Christians) who befriended them, as well as to those who mistreated them, and to their Chinese compatriots, who alternately praised and reviled these promising scholars.
The title reflects the ambivalent reception afforded those who returned to China. While they were valued for their new skills, questions about them quickly arose. Had they forgotten their homeland? In their effort to adapt to American culture, had they abandoned their own? What were these dangerous ideas which they so glibly bandied about – democracy, Marxism, freedom, individualism, even marriage for love?
Like Bieler herself, we cannot withhold our admiration, even affection, from those who endured much opposition to their well-intended efforts to modernize and humanize their nation, often with a new-found Christian faith. Again, like the author, those who are privileged to get to know today’s generation of Chinese students tremble with awe and apprehension at the weighty burden they carry. Nor can we ignore our own responsibility as their hosts. So much hangs upon how they are treated while in America!
Plentiful quotations from the students’ writings and dozens of photographs add even greater vividness to this already sparkling study. Since all the chapters but the Epilogue deal with students who came before World War II, this reader eagerly awaits a sequel.
Meanwhile, anyone who picks up this marvelous book will find it hard to put down.