Some Historical Perspective by Dori Jones Yang
How much does it matter whether you live in a high-tech nation? We Americans don’t often think about this question. After all, we do live in such a nation. We can take photos from our phones, drive cars that don’t need gas, access cutting-edge medical treatment, and wear computers on our wrists. So can people from other countries, if they can afford it.
But people in China see the importance of technology with different eyes. In the 19th century, China viewed itself as the most advanced country in the world, with a long history of literature, art, and strong central governance. But when European warships arrived, it was unprepared. China lost war after war, and European nations forced it to give up rights to its own territory—and to legalize imports of highly addictive opium. Humiliated, China’s leaders realized there was a lot more to superiority than refined culture.
Several centuries ago, China was more powerful than Europe. It invented paper, block printing, the mariner’s compass, and gunpowder, which helped Europeans advance into the Renaissance and the Age of Exploration. But the game changed with the Industrial Revolution, which began in Britain around 1800 and quickly spread to the United States. The use of coal for steam power and the invention of machine tools led to modern manufacturing, railroads, rifles, and engine-powered naval ships.
After Britain and France routed China in the Second Opium war in 1860, China’s rulers realized they needed to catch up. Until then, China had been an inward-looking nation with a large population, confident that the rest of the world had nothing that China wanted or needed. After two humiliating military defeats, some in Beijing realized that modern technology was essential to defend their country.
Ironically, at the same time, young workers from the southern China began to arrive in California to seek jobs, and a group of them built the western portion of the first Continental Railroad, laying track across the treacherous Sierra Nevada Mountains. At the time, this 2,000-mile railroad was a wonder of the modern world, yet China itself did not have a single mile of railroad track.
A bold young man named Yung Wing, the first Chinese to graduate from Yale University, convinced China’s rulers that they should organize a large-scale mission to learn technology from the West. He proposed the Chinese government should select a large group of boys and send them to the United States to study for fifteen years and return home to teach. Although many at the emperor’s court resisted the idea, a visionary statesman named Zeng Guofan gained official approval in 1871.
In 1872, the Chinese Educational Mission to the United States began sending students to the United States. Over four years, China sent 120 boys, most age 11 to 16, after training them in English in Shanghai. Yung Wing located American families who welcomed the boys to live in their homes in their pre-college years, teaching them English to prepare them for high school and college. The host families all lived in Connecticut and Massachusetts.
The most exciting moment came in August 1876, when all the Chinese boys went together to the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. The world’s most advanced technology was on display there, including a huge steam engine that powered almost all the other machines in “Machinery Hall.” It produced as much power as 1,400 horses. Also on display were sewing machines, typewriters, wobbly bicycles, machine guns, a monorail, an early elevator, a mechanized icebox, and even Alexander Graham Bell’s first telephone.
Many of the boys were excellent students. As they grew up and finished high school, some were accepted at Yale, Columbia, Rensselaer, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and other universities. However, the U.S. Congress refused to allow them to attend West Point or the Naval Academy to study military technology and techniques.
In 1881, the Chinese government cut short the mission and ordered all the students to return to China. Only one had finished college. In China, they were treated badly, as if they had somehow betrayed their homeland by becoming “too American.” Still, many found ways to work in rail or naval technology. One of the returned students, Zhan Tianyou, led the team that built the first Chinese-built railroad in China. He is revered today as the “Father of China’s Railroads.”
Unlike Japan, which undertook a concerted effort to adopt modern technology starting in the late 1800s, China languished as a weak nation, beset by revolution, civil wars, invasion, and Maoist radicalism. Although the Communist government began to industrialize in the 1950s, it wasn’t until after Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms in the 1980s that China truly embraced modern technology.
China’s leaders today believe that technology is key to defending their country and ensuring a good life for their people. Much of their economic policy is centered on acquiring advanced technology—by buying it, pirating it, or convincing foreign companies to share it. Today, more than 300,000 Chinese students are studying in the United States; while many settle in the United States, increasing numbers of them are deciding to return to their homeland.
After thirty years of modernization—in a twist of irony—China now has the world’s largest high-speed rail network, while the United States has no high-speed rail at all. China also has the world’s fastest supercomputers, the world’s largest radio telescope, a space station, and a satellite that can beam quantum particles into space to transmit secure information.
China’s President Xi Jinping continues the push for technical achievement. In March 2017, he told the National People’s Congress, “We must have a greater sense of urgency to push for science and technology innovation and advancement with greater determination and efforts.”
To Americans, the 1800s seem like far-off history. To Chinese, they seem like yesterday.
Delighted to see this excellent review of The Forbidden Temptation of Baseball - in VOYA magazine, the leading journal for young adult librarians. It reaches over 7500 major library systems and school districts nationwide. The word is getting out!
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Yang, Dori Jones. The Forbidden Temptation of Baseball. SparkPress, 2017. 256p. $12.95 Trade pb. 978-1-943006-32-8.
In the 1870s, the emperor of China sent 120 boys to the U.S. in hopes of developing a cadre of future leaders who would immerse themselves in their dynamic host country and then return, bringing the energy and know-how of American industrial technology back to their highly traditional homeland. Through a pair of fictional brothers, the author provides insight into this little-known historical event. Twelve-year-old Woo Ka-Leong (his name is Americanized as Leon) and fifteen-year-old Woo Ka-Sun (Carson) are both sent to live with a middle-class, New England family. The story is told from the viewpoint of the optimistic and adaptable younger brother, Leon, who soon becomes proficient in English and comfortable with American culture and cuisine. He also becomes an enthusiastic baseball player and a fan of steam engines and railroads. Carson, however, clings single-mindedly to his mastery of classical Chinese poetry and calligraphy while scorning all things American. On his rare ventures into wider American society, notably on a group visit to the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia, the older brother's erratic behavior causes widespread dismay. The two boys represent opposite poles of the range of results likely to arise from cross-cultural experiences.
This well-written historical novel is filled with intriguing details about Chinese and American customs and lifestyles of the era. Through Leon's expectations and his confrontations with alien customs, the reader learns about both pre-modern Chinese and Victorian-era American societies and technologies. The novel features several appendices, including a short bibliography, questions for discussion, and trivia for readers who will want to learn more. The boys’ experiences are both timely and timeless in Yang’s deft hands.—Walter Hogan.
The Forbidden Temptation is now available in bookstores, libraries, and online! Check your local bookstore for availability.
On publication day, August 15, I went to Brick & Mortar Books. It's great to see my book on sale.
Buzzfeed listed The Forbidden Temptation of Baseball as #1 on its list of "5 Books to Gift Your Child's Teacher This New School Year.
And Culturalist also chose it for its list of Reads to Beat the Back-to-School Blues. It reaches 500-600,000 readers a month.
Amazon awarded it a #1 New Release banner for "Children's Asian and Asian American Books" and "Children's Baseball Books."
Lots of excitement - and more in the works.
For me as a writer, the sweetest joy is when I celebrate a new book with friends. Plus, I love supporting local independent bookstores.
So if you are in the Seattle area, please join me at one of my book launch parties:
Saturday, August 26, from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m., at Brick & Mortar Books
7430 164th Avenue NE, Redmond Town Center
(eager to support this brand-new independent bookstore)
Sunday, September 10, at 4:00 p.m., at Island Books
3014 78th Avenue SE, Mercer Island
(a favorite local indie bookstore for years)
I’ll be talking about the book and showing some slides, and then we’ll celebrate with food, drinks, and a signing.
I'm also pleased to be talking and signing books with another author, Rachel Linden, at
The Book Tree, 609 Market Street, in Kirkland, WA
Saturday, Sept. 9 from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m.
My new book, The Forbidden Temptation of Baseball, is a novel for readers aged 10 to 14. The story of two fictional Chinese boys who were sent to the United States by their government in 1875, it is based on a real historical event and deals with cross-cultural adaptation and how Americans respond to foreigners in our midst. It was inspired by—and dedicated to—my friend Peter Tonglao, whose grandfather was one of the real 120 boys sent to America in the 1870s. I think it’s important that American kids know about this and try to imagine what it feels like to be an outsider in our country.
More independent local bookstores I love:
My dad was an independent bookseller in Ohio. Hope you'll shop at your local bookstore and help keep independent bookstores healthy!
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