Chuimei Ho, president of the Chinese American Museum of Chicago, gives a presentation marking the anniversary of a 1906 visit by Chinese imperial commissioners to the Dunning area.
Chicago was one of several stops on a multi-continental tour by the quintet of Chinese imperial commissioners in 1906. Dispatched by the Chinese emperor to study how modern industry and social welfare were handled elsewhere in the world, their journey also included the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the United States.
“One hundred years ago today, at 9 o’clock, a group of Chinese visitors came to the Northwestern train station,” Chuimei Ho, president of the Chinese-American Museum of Chicago, told a packed auditorium Jan. 19 at Wilbur Wright College, 4300 N. Narragansett Ave., during a celebration of the Imperial Chinese commissioners’ three-day stay
The cultural disparities between imperial China and the democratic United States were evident immediately, Ho indicated, as the ambassadors were followed off the train by 750 pieces of luggage. “And I lost count of how many carriages they took” to their hotel, she added as she narrated over a black-and-white slide presentation.
After a reception in Chinatown, the delegates’ quest to find American ideas to benefit their homeland took them to the city’s Northwest Side for a tour of the mental-health buildings of The Dunning Institutions, the now-defunct hospital campus where Wright College now sits. One of the commissioners, whose diary entries later were published in China, took note of how patients were segregated by the type and degree of their condition, with the most severely ill patients restrained in fenced-off areas and tuberculosis patients in one large room in a separate, well-appointed building.
The Dunning visit inspired the commissioners to bolster humane care for the mentally ill in China, having seen how “clean” and “comfortable” the local operation was.
“We are surprised it can be conducted so cheaply, and now we believe we are prepared to go back and establish places for the insane in China,” Tuang Fang, associate commissioner, told a daily Chicago newspaper at the time, describing the Dunning facilities as “wonderful.”
Likewise, the commissioners’ visit to Chicago’s Union Stock Yard elicited praise as an efficiently run operation. That same year, Upton Sinclair published “The Jungle,” which criticized the massive livestock and meatpacking district as a filthy, deplorable place.
During the delegates’ rounds, they relied heavily on China’s earliest foreign-exchange students as tour guides. Yung Wing, the first Chinese native to graduate from an American university in 1847, had urged his nation’s leaders to send as many students as possible to study in the United States to allow them to witness the progressive side of the United States at a time when tensions were high between the two countries.
Ji Yuan, China’s education consul to Chicago, told the crowd at Wright that 180,000 Chinese students have studied in the United States. About 10,000 currently are here, while 3,000 U.S. students are in China, comprising the third-largest foreign-student population in the country.
Before the commissioners left Chicago for Pittsburgh, one of them left behind a token of appreciation for the love of art he shared with Americans. Tuang Fang, himself a collector, visited the soon-to-open site of the Field Museum, donating a Tang Dynasty Stele, circa A.D. 726. Having come from a nation with no public museums, “He loved the idea of having public trust in art objects,” Ho explained. Although the pace of change in China would prove deliberate, the commissioners’ visit to the United States yielded several broad-reaching results on that nation’s way to becoming the People’s Republic of China, Ho said. They included: improved state prisons, libraries, respect for overseas students, advocacy for democracy, suggested changes in bureaucracy and an emphasis on Western-style management.
Wright College President Charles Guengerich said he looked forward to working with present-day Chinese education officials in Chicago as Wright looks at “globalizing” its curriculum.
“The world is getting smaller,” Guengerich said. “And we need to understand the culture of China. We need to partner with the Chinese people and make the world a better place for everyone.”