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The Inspiration and Heritage

My grandmother was one of the first cohort of women in the 1930s to study at Tsinghua University, now widely considered the MIT of China.  She was the product of an all-girls secondary school, headed by a fearless principal who believed in cultivating a strong math and science foundation for girls - something clearly ahead of the 1920s imperial mindset.  


Her chosen major at Tsinghua was chemistry.  Despite that she was the only woman in that department, she distinguished herself not just academically, but with a warmth and collegiality that transcended age and gender and social class.  After graduating top of her class, she was offered a coveted position (only one each year) to stay on as a professor of chemistry, despite the tradition of offering that position to a male selected from the large pool of such candidates available.  


As a young Tsinghua professor and a woman in an very novel field, she boldly set her own classroom values: curiosity before content, collaborative discovery, and instilled a culture of mutual praise and appreciation between her students. 

Only a few years into her professorship, the Japanese invasion of China during WWII decimated parts of the country.  My grandmother had to return to her hometown to help in the aftermath of suffering war casualties.  Leaving her professorship at Tsinghua, she took on a teaching position at a local all-girls high school in her hometown. 


Despite the local all-girls school attracting the lowest tier students and teachers, my grandmother's chemistry course soon became famous across the province.  Her students were scoring among the highest on the national college entrance exams’ section on science.  Many of her students went on to become chemists or physicists or engineers in their lives, and to this day continue to write or speak about the inspiration she had on them.  


The impact she made over her lifetime has been depicted in several  biographical compilations (Historical Figures in Tsinghua Chemistry, Changzhou’s Notable People).  Among her cohorts of classmates in the 1920s and '30s from the all-girls school and Tsinghua, many went on to become notable figures in politics, humanities, math, science, including some who contributed to the Manhattan Project in the US and the Jet Propulsion lab at CalTech.  There still stands to this day a rock with calligraphic etchings at my grandmother's all-girls school which carries her written prose from her graduation year, fondly commemorating her. 


At a time when the rest of the country was preoccupied with binding girls’ feet, and saw women as dainty objects of physical beauty who were useless to perform tasks or self-advocate for a life of their own meaning, my grandmother's achievements were all the more remarkable.  Almost no girls received schooling, let alone attended college, nor would even think to study chemistry or such unknown topics.  


The rest of the world at the time also knew very little about the physical sciences.  Tsinghua itself, although today a world-renowned research university and grand incubator of technologies-turned-successful-startups, by stark contrast started off back then as an icon of colonialism.  Funded by the Boxer Rebellion indemnity that China was required to pay to the US - some partial funds which the US gave back to "reinvest" in China - Tsinghua was born in 1911. 

Teddy Roosevelt and his advisors, with their vision of Manifest Destiny, conceived the idea of Tsinghua as a preparatory school for Chinese students who would receive scholarships to study at American colleges.  Taught by Americans, the program was meant to educate the best and brightest scholars in China on western ideals and technology, who would return after their overseas study to lead China in policy reform and infrastructure build, thereby peaceably influencing US-China trade and political relations over the long run. 


Tsinghua's founding, initially, was mixed with sentiments of embarrassment and a frank realization among Chinese people.   Through centuries of its own hubris and sheltered rule, China finally realized that it had fallen so behind in science and engineering and governance as a country, that it had inevitably become a colonization target.  For the dozen western powers that had been carving out larger spheres of influence in China over the preceding century, there was almost a sense of entitlement to these regional colonies, almost as war trophies. 


Every time the local Chinese citizens attempted to rebel against foreign bad behavior, an embarrassing loss would ensue due to the stark mismatch in military capabilities and local political corruption leading to treason.  Foreign powers would then capitalize on the embarrassing fails, audaciously demanding huge indemnity payments from the Chinese locals for even attempting the uprisings.  Crippled by military weakness, the Chinese had no choice but to comply with foreigners' ridiculous war reparations demands, and then were forced into greater economic and geographical concessions. 


The Boxer Indemnity was one such massive, embarrassing repayment, valued in 2018 currency at ~$10 billion, to properly illustrate its unfair magnitude.  The cycle of eruption, weakness, and put-downs during the preceding half century included the terrible opium wars and other losses that China suffered culminating in the Boxer Rebellion, building up an increased sense of embarrassment and finally a drive to reform the governance and bridge the gap of technological advancement inside the country.  The US, unlike all other western powers who were acting aggressively in China, sought to return part of its portion of the Boxer Indemnity payout, by reinvesting it in Chinese education.  The goal was to stand out from the other powers, and achieve the US' desired world image as a benevolent power.


By the time my grandmother matriculated in the chemistry department at Tsinghua in the 1930s, the feelings of shame had turned to an exciting realization of the potential of this American gift of goodwill: a simple American prep school had blossomed into China's first science and technology university with 4-year undergraduate and graduate programs, importing the most advanced curriculums from the US. 


My grandmother was fiercely driven to contribute all she could to this wounded country seeking to regain its standing in the world.  The promise of intellectual novelty and the social challenge of reinstating a certain dignity and pride back to her people, took my grandmother down a path vastly less traveled, but vastly worthwhile and rewarding.

Through the turmoil of the Japanese invasion, the Chinese civil war, the cultural revolution, immigrating to the US and starting from scratch, the one piece of what has amazingly endured in my grandmother's legacy and my family's heritage is the passion and best practices in teaching science.  My grandmother's spirit of education and impact-making has carried on through the generations. 


In her own children, she cultivated a culture of laughter, emotional intelligence, and exploratory learning.  Those practices trickled down into each of her eight sons and daughters who themselves went on to lead departments or schools of engineering and sciences in their own lives, spanning across multiple cities, and particularly for my father, across the ocean to a whole other country.