Mr. Burlingame to Mr. Seward

No. 134.]

Sir: I am happy to bring to your attention certain Chinese memorials and replies (A, B, and C) relating to the establishment of an institution at Peking by the government for giving instruction in the arts and sciences of the west.

As long ago as 1862 the Chinese government established the “ Tung-Wan-Kwan,” a language school, and invited English, French, and Russian teachers to give instructions in their departments. The pupils, selected from the Manchu bannermen, lads not far from fourteen years old, have made respectable progress during the past five years. From those instructed in English by Dr. W. A. P. Martin (American) were selected two to accompany Pin Chun to Europe for the purpose of making inquiries respecting western improvements.

While this school is to be continued, the Chinese have wisely determined to establish a higher department or college, and to call upon the great scholars of the empire over twenty years of age to come forward and compete in a new field for the highest honors of the government. To this end Mr. Hart, inspector general of customs, with whom these progressive views originated, was instructed to procure eminent scholars as instructors.

He has done this, and the Chinese have now a body of distinguished savans [Page 473] in their service. Dr. W. A. P. Martin, the translator of “Wheaton’s International Law,” is the senior professor, and by courtesy the head of the college.

The institution is under the general direction of “Sen-Ki-Yu” as president. “Sen” you will recall as a distinguished member of the foreign office, who received his promotion for his geographical labors, for which he had previously been degraded.

Could there be a greater evidence of progress than is disclosed by these papers ? I marvel as I read them, and call your attention to them with infinite pleasure.

When I came to China, in 1861, the force policy was the rule. It was said “the Chinese are conceited barbarians, and must be forced into our civilization ;” or, in the energetic language of the time, it was said, “you must take them by the throat.” Fortunately, the representatives of the treaty powers did not listen to this view. Conspicuous among these was Sir Frederick Bruce, the British minister, who with his colleagues said that if force was ever necessary the day for it was over; that we were in relations for the first time with the chiefs of the government, and that it was necessary to proffer fair diplomatic action as a substitute for the old views, and to so bear ourselves as to secure the confidence of this people. Accordingly the policy was adopted of which you have been advised so often, and which you have approved so fully. Under this policy great development has occurred, missions have extended, trade has increased three-fold, scientific men have been employed, “Wheaton’s International Law” translated and adopted, military instruction accepted, nearly one hundred able men received into the civil service, steamboats multiplied, the way slowly opened forfuture telegraphs and railroads, and now we have this great movement for education. Against this movement there has been continued opposition among the Chinese, and it has been frequently endangered by the inconsiderate action of foreigners impatient of delay; but there has been no successful reaction, and the intention of those now in authority is to go cautiously and steadily forward.

I have the honor to be, sir, your obedient servant,


Hon. William H. Seward, Secretary of State, Washington, D. C.



A careful memorial to the throne from the foreign office on the establishment of an institution for giving instruction in the arts and sciences of the west.

The object of the present memorial is to lay before your Majesties a proposition for inviting our officers and educated men to study astronomy and mathematics, with a view to acquiring a thorough acquaintance with the arts of the west; and we respectfully request directions from the throne upon the same.

We are of opinion, that, in opening such a school, and seeking for pupils of a proper capacity, we have no ancient rule to guide us, other than the maxim, that if the principle of selection be broad, men of ability will contend for the privilege. In the autumn of 1862, our board established the tung-wan-kwan, or language school, and invited English, French, and Russian teachers to give instruction in their departments. The pupils were chosen from Manchu bannermen, lads not far from 14 years old. During the five years which have since elapsed, they have made respectable progress io speaking and writing those foreign languages. But they were mere tyros in Chinese studies, having been selected at an early age, and are still unable to express their ideas in their own tongue in a connected manner. We have accordingly directed that they continue to exercise themselves in rendering from foreign languages into their own, in the hope that they will at length become adepts in translating. But if their undivided attention be not given to this object, it is vain to hope that it will be speedily attained. Should we, in addition to this, require them to study astronomy, mathematics, and other branches, we fear that their attainments would be various rather than profound—diversified at the expense of thoroughness.

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It appears that the machinery of western nations, their artillery, their steamers, and their military tactics, are, without exception, the result of mathematical (or physical) science. At Shanghai, and in the province of Chehkiang, and elsewhere, attempts are now making to build steam vessels. But if we do not commence at the foundation, and do the thing thoroughly, the superficial attainments we may make will really be of no practical utility.

We, your Majesties’ ministers, have, therefore, resolved to propose the establishment of an additional department, and to invite educated men, both Manchus and Chinese, who have attained the grade of master of arts, or have been promoted among the bachelors of arts, who are over twenty years old, and well versed in their native literature, to bring certificates under the seals of their local authorities, or tickets from their banner officers proving their descent, and be examined at our office with a view to admission into this new institution. We would also admit officials of the fifth grade or under, being still young and possessed of good parts, of either race, who may be inclined to enter and pursue these studies, and compete on the same conditions, provided that they shall have risen in the regular way from either the Manchu or Chinese graduates.

After this proposed enrolment of pupils has been made, we would proceed to invite men from the west to give instruction in the college, with the expectation that the scholars would thus acquire a complete knowledge of astronomy and mathematics. Thus science being understood by those in the highest stations, the arts will be perfected by those in the lower ranks; and it cannot be doubted but that the good results, after a few years, will be evident.

As to the three departments at present in operation, (i. e., the schools for the three languages,) which will be maintained on their present basis, it is certain, that as we are able to select from a larger number and promote deserving scholars, we may reasonably expect that men of rare abilities will be discovered among their graduates.

The people of China are not inferior in talent and skill to those of the west; and if, in every department of mathematics, of philosophical research, or of mechanics, and in the modes of investigating the resources of the earth and the changes in the heavens, they become well versed and skilled, so that they can apply their knowledge, this will daily add to the strength of the nation.

We have already conferred with Mr. Hart, inspector general of customs, about inviting professors from western countries on our behalf, and he will be able to attend to it; but the regulations pertaining to the proposed institution, and the scale of rewards to be conferred on successful students, can be decided on after the general plan has received your Majesties’ sanction. We will then deliberate upon them, and lay the results before the throne in another memorial.

At this time we merely most reverently state our proposition to invite candidates for the study of western arts and sciences—astronomy, mathematics, and other branches—with our reasons for it, upon which we humbly beg their Majesties, the Empress dowagers and Emperor, to send down their instructions for our observance.

A respectful memorial requesting the will.



A careful memorial proposing rules for the study of astronomy, mathematics, and mechanics, and for the examination and selection of suitable persons of every class to enter upon these branches, respectfully prepared for their Majesties’ sacred glance.

Your Majesties’ ministers previously brought this subject before the throne in a memorial proposing the establishment of a new department in the college of languages, and received a rescript on the 11th of December last, approving of the plan, and requiring it to be matured.

They now humbly represent that this plan of inviting persons to be examined for studying astronomy and mechanics is not done, because in their love for the marvellous, or admiration of the new, they have been amazed at the skill and learning of occidentals. It is rather because the modes which have been followed by them in their mechanical inventions have all sprung from their knowledge of mathematics. At this time Chinais devising how she can find and apply the best modes of constructing steamers and machinery; and if she does not avail herself of the guidance of Western scholars, and get them to explain clearly the principles of mechanics, and the details of manufacture, your ministers think that this spirit of self-confidence will result in wasting the public money without any corresponding benefit. It is on these grounds that we have most carefully discussed the subject in all its bearings, and now embody our conclusions in the present memorial.

Cavillers, who have not so carefully examined into this question, will undoubtedly allege that there is no pressing urgency for us now to bring forward this scheme; or they will object that it is wrong to discard our national usages and arts in order to adopt those from the west; and some will even assert that it is a humiliation for China to employ foreigners instead of natives. Such men evidently do not appreciate the demands of the times: for, without contradiction, the true policy that is required for this country at this moment to pursue, is to [Page 475] make herself strong; and the true way to do that is, in the opinion of intelligent observers, to avail ourselves of the skill and science of occidentals.

Among our own highest officials, men like Tso Tsung-tang and Li Hung-chang* see the force of these ideas very clearly; they maintain them with great persistency, and illustrate them with full details, in their various memorials and minutes to court. Last year the latter established an armory at Shanghai, to which certain officers and soldiers, selected from the cantonment at Peking, were sent to learn the details of the work. Quite recently, too, the former has requested that he be allowed to open a literary and mechanical institution at Fuh-chau, in which chosen young men of quick parts and promise may be taught by foreigners to write and speak their languages, and be carriedthrough lessons in mathematics, mechanics, and drawing, to prepare them to construct steam vessels in all their parts, and manage their navigation.

These statements will sufficiently prove to all that this conviction of the urgent need of adopting foreign skill and improvements is not alone held by the few officers who present this memorial.

But some will say, “It is better to charter steamers and purchase military weapons, as has been done at every port; it is both cheaper and more expeditious; why take all this trouble and expense?” These objectors surely do not reflect that steamers and fire-arms are not the only things which China needs to learn to manufacture; yet to speak of them alone in this connection, convenient as it may be to hire or to buy them when necessary, these men must themselves admit that lawrs are made for as well as by man. If, therefore, we ourselves can understand clearly the principles, and learn the construction of such things, their utility will be all our own. Even to attain this one end, then, to meet an exigency whenever it occurs, (i.e., to hire or buy what is wanted,) needs no great discussion; for the thing is too plain for dispute, if we can adopt, at the same time, a mode which will supply ourselves whenever we need these things.

The next objection, that it is impolitic to discard our national arts and modes in order to adopt those from the west, is a very prejudiced remark. Now, it has been ascertained that the foundation of western (astronomical) science was derived from the original observations of the Chinese; and, indeed, those nations believe that their arts originally came from the east. But their learned men, being skilled in deep analysis, and clever at working out an idea, were soon able to eliminate what was old (or erroneous) and develop new [thoughts and modes,] which they thereupon presumed to call foreign and outside; while at bottom they were nothing more nor less than Chinese art and science. It has been so with astronomy and mathematics, and in fact with all other things [of value ;] Chinese originated them, and the occidentals appropriated them as their heritage. If, therefore, China can avail herself of their progress, and get ahead of [needing] them, seeing that she already possesses a thorough acquaintance with fundamental principles, she would not then be obliged to go abroad seeking for aid whenever an exigency occurred. The advantages and profit of such a course as is now proposed are, consequently, neither small nor doubtful.

Furthermore. the learning and arts of foreigners were highly approved by our most holy Emperor [canonized the] humane, viz., the Emperor Kanghi; for in his time western scholars were made officers in the observatory by law, and appointed to regulate the calendar. In this we recognize his boundless toleration and comprehensive wisdom, which observed everything; and it does not become us, in these days, while adhering to the old paths, to ignore these statutes and traditions.

Among the six liberal arts, mathematics holds a high place. In ancient days, even the husbandmen and the soldier knew the motion of the heavenly bodies; but when, in subsequent days, its study was strictly forbidden, then men learned in it began to diminish, and were seldom seen. But during the reign of Kanghi, (A. D. 1661 to 1722,) the prohibitions against private persons studying the heavens were all repealed, and thenceforth learned men [in this department] arose, and the science of astronomy began to revive. Scholars who studied the classics combined the pursuit of mathematics with it; examining authors on each subject, and carefully comparing their deductions and reasonings. The proverb says, “To be ignorant of a single thing is a disgrace to the scholar;” and full of shame indeed should that scholar be, who, on going out of doors and looking up to the sky, can tell you nothing of the order of the constellations or their laws. In these days, if no college such as is now proposed was established, it would be expected of him that he ought to study the science in order to learn their motions; how much more so, when the pursuit is held up before him as a target, which he is invited to hit.

The third objection, that it is disgraceful to learn from foreigners, is still more unreasonable and stupid; for of all shame worthy things in the world, the most shameful is to willingly be inferior to one’s fellow. Western nations have been engaged in investigating and explaining the construction of steamers for scores of years, comparing and testing each other’s plans; and in this way they have constantly made new discoveries. The Japanese, on the east of us, have recently sent men to England to learn its language, and there study mechanics and mathematics, so that they may become qualified to write treatises on the construction of steam-vessels. In a few years, at farthest, these men will attain their end.

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It is unnecessary to speak here of the rivalry among western nations, who are striving for supremacy on the seas; but when even a small kingdom like Japan perceives that only by the greatest efforts can she attain a standing in the world, shall China alone stiffly adhere to her old inert and routine modes, and care nothing about reforming her practice ? This would indeed be disgraceful. Now if it be true that it is shameful to be inferior to one’s fellow, how can these objectors turn around upon those who are seeking how to come up with others, if perchance they may by and by even excel them, and assert that to learn aught from them is disgraceful ? Will it wipe out their own shame to rest contented with their inferiority, and never learn anything at all ?

To the remark which some may urge, that it is the business of artisans and craftsmen to invent and make things, and altogether beneath scholars to demean themselves to such pursuits, your ministers have one observation to make. The contents of the section in the ritual of, Chan, devoted to the examination of workmen and their performances, is wholly taken up with notes about working in cedar, or about making chariots and other vehicles. Why, we ask, have these arts for several thousand years been looked upon in our college and their curriculums as classical learning ? It is because, that while the artisan practices his craft, the scholar makes himself acquainted with its principles; and when these are thoroughly mastered, their application can be vastly extended. If scholars of the present day should be asked to investigate these principles, and our literati to employ themselves in profound inquiries into the nature of all things, who suspects or argues that it is done to compel them to become artisans or experts in these crafts?

In short, the end of learning is its fitness for present needs, and that calling is honorable which suits the times. Though the objections and doubts raised by outsiders are many, yet it is incumbent on those who, being at the helm of affairs, are better able to judge of the points involved, to decide; and we, your Majesties’ ministers, have assuredly given these questions our mature consideration.

But the plan is new in many points, and therefore requires careful attention in its details. If the course of study is, on the whole, to be severe, it will be desirable to make the allowances liberal, and in order to stimulate the students, their promotion in rank and honor should be kept constantly before them. We have agreed upon a plan for conducting the institution, and have drawn out its details under six heads; which we now reverently present for the inspection of your Majesties, and await the reply from the throne.

On the 29th of January, 1867, the will was received, “Let the thing be established in conformity to the proposed plan. Respect this.”



The Censor Chang Shing-tsau has presented a memorial to us, proposing that the study of astronomy, mathematics, and other branches [of western science] ought to be confined to the officials of the boards of astronomy and of works; and objecting that it is unadvisable to invite persons from the general body of graduates and literati throughout the empire to come together and study these sciences.

A short time ago the members of the foreign office laid before us a memorial with six regulations appended to it, asking our permission to establish a new department in the college of languages, and suggesting that only such graduates and officials as had taken their degree in the regular course, superior to the rank of bachelor of arts, should be chosen to study astronomical and mathematical branches in it.

At the time a rescript was issued, giving our assent to the propositions laid before us

The Censor Chang now raises an objection to that proposal, on the ground that those who have attained the degree above that of bachelor of arts are devoted to literary pursuits and the study of philosophy, and could not with propriety be required to apply themselves to the practice of mere mechanical arts. True scholarship would be seriously injured by such an innovation, and the public mind much unsettled.

We have established this school of languages and directed the students to be selected from the literary class, because we consider that the sciences of astronomy and mathematics are branches of knowledge of which no scholar should be ignorant; they can in nowise be looked upon as mere mechanical arts. These sciences will be more easily mastered by regularly educated persons, who have of course more power of application and greater intelligence, than others. The new study will, therefore, by no means prejudice or do away with the pursuit of literature and study of philosophy.

It is our will that Sen Ki-Yu take the position of president of the new institution, and let the responsibility of working it be placed in his hands. The plan is simply borrowing western science in order to supplement and illustrate that already existing in China. The sacred philosophy [of Confucius] is not thereby abandoned, nor do we enter on any out-of-the-way [Page 477] path of investigation. What injury, then, can result to the public mind, or to the interests of true scholarship by its adoption ? We command therefore, without further discussion, that the censor’s proposal to call for a report on this whole subject, from the high dignitaries of the government, be not entertained. Respect this.

  1. The first of these men is the governor general of Fuhkien and Chehkiang provinces; the other is governor general of Kiangnan and Kiaogai provinces.