April 8 event celebrates history of Chinese students at UW

MADISON — The Center for East Asian Studies (CEAS) and UW–Madison Libraries at the University of Wisconsin–Madison will host an event Monday, April 8, at 4 p.m. in Memorial Union that will feature the stories of Chinese students from the early 1900s.

Chinese Badgers/Badgers in China” will highlight three students from China who earned degrees in Madison from 1912 to 1927 — an economist who headed an important university, a mathematician whose career focused on astronomy, and a political activist advocating for human rights — along with a UW professor-turned-diplomat who served as the U.S. representative in China from 1913–19, examining how their careers were inspired by their time in Madison and helped change China and U.S.-China relations.

A group of 10 children and grandchildren of the three Chinese students will be traveling to Madison from across the U.S. to attend the event.

“These are amazing stories of Badgers whose impact on their world took the Wisconsin Idea to a global stage,” said Center for East Asian Studies Assistant Director Laurie Dennis, who organized the event together with East Asian Librarian, Anlin Yang.

Dean and Vice Provost of University Libraries Erla Heyns, and International Division Associate Dean Patrick Rumble will open the event and will offer special recognition of materials donated to the university. This includes boxes of documents from the family of Wen-Ying Peng recently donated to the University Archives.

East Asian Researcher Lihao “Billy” Yuan (at right) discusses materials in the new Wen-Ying Peng archive with (from left) East Asian Librarian Anlin Yang and University Archivist Katie Nash.

Accompanying the April 8 event will be a special exhibit at Memorial Library’s East Asian Reading Room, “Journey Across Cultures: The Saga of Early Chinese Badgers.”

“This is an ongoing and important project for us,” said Yang. “Along with the April 8 event, we are also working to prepare a digital exhibit about our first students from China. This is a collaborative project among UW–Madison Libraries. For the exhibits, we plan to showcase a selection of both physical and digital resources from our libraries, all related to these early Chinese students.”

The four who will be profiled April 8 include:

  • Paul Reinsch, Milwaukee native, 1869–1923, inaugural chair of the UW Political Science Department, and US Minister to Republican China, 1913–19.
    • Recent UW graduate Lihao “Billy” Yuan will discuss how Prof. Reinsch connected promising students in China to the University of Wisconsin, helping turn his alma mater into a top recipient of Chinese students in the 1920s and 30s.
  • Wen-Shion Tsu, Jiangsu Province, 1883–1939, UW Class of 1912, among our earliest students from China, active in campus international clubs and studied with mathematics Professor E.B. Van Vleck. Tsu went on to become a pioneer in the use of modern scientific methods to systematically study the ancient history of Chinese astronomy.
    • History of Science PhD student Yu-Hsuan Wang will comment on Tsu’s time on campus and his career highlights.
  • Yuan-Lung Yeh, Anhui Province, 1897–1967, UW bachelor’s in 1921, master’s degree in 1922, recipient of the prestigious “golden key” award from the Artus honorary economics fraternity in Madison. In China, he was a professor of economics in Shanghai and Nanjing, and he was also involved in education reform. He served as president of Chongqing University, guiding the campus through the tumultuous years of 1938–41.
    • History major Zhengzai Pei will present Yeh’s Madison years and his career as an educator and economist in China.
  • Wen-Ying Peng, Jiangxi Province, 1904–1962, UW Class of 1927, one of three from Jiangxi’s Anfu County trained in political science at UW who went on to become prominent political activists in China. Peng’s writings and advocacy made him a target of both the left and the right in China, but also helped spread the concept of human rights to Chinese audiences.
    • UW–Madison Engineering PhD Xingyu Chen will discuss Peng’s political advocacy from the perspective of his own experience on campus in 1989, when he served as the inaugural president of the Chinese Independent Union.

This is the second spring campus workshop for presentations about early Chinese students and UW–Madison faculty. The pilot 2023 event, held at Memorial Library, focused on both early and more recent Chinese alumni. Dennis said the workshop is being planned as an annual spring offering, with an emphasis on the early 1900s.

The pilot workshop on the stories of Chinese alumni, held in March 2023.

“From 1907, when the first students from China arrived on our campus, until 1927 when Wen-ying Peng graduated, we have so far documented over 200 Chinese men and women on our campus,” she said. “Almost every one of them had a remarkable story to tell. These were idealistic young people who returned to China (at the height of the Chinese Exclusion Act era in the U.S.) hoping to be part of reform efforts in their respective fields of expertise.”

Recent interest in the history of early Chinese students at UW started with public history classes on the topic taught by Department of History professors Joe Dennis and Judd Kinzley, which launched the research and collection of materials. This coincided with connections being made by the former faculty director of the Wisconsin China Resource, Genetics Professor Jerry Yin, who worked with the archivist at Tsinghua University in Beijing to create lists of students sent from China to study at UW-Madison through the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship Program. This scholarship was established to send students to study in the U.S. as part of the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion in China. Starting in 1909, the scholarship program made it possible for almost 1,300 Chinese students to attend universities across the United States. UW–Madison was the fourth-largest recipient overall, and the largest among all public universities.

In February, CEAS hired Lihao Yuan (one of the presenters at the April 8 event) for a special project to research both the careers of early Chinese Badgers, and the first UW–Madison faculty in China. Yuan, who graduated in December, wrote his senior thesis on how Paul Reinsch’s early Chinese studies at UW–Madison (1900–1913) impacted his diplomatic career in China. It was through Yuan’s research that the “Chinese Badgers” project was able to connect with the Peng family, and Yuan is currently working to organize the Wen-Ying Peng papers for the University Archives.

Dennis hopes the “Chinese Badgers/Badgers in China” project will bring continuing connections to the families of early Chinese Badgers, opportunities for current students to present research on the topic, and a publicly accessible collection of materials about the careers of Badgers in and from China.