Dickinson-in-China: Compiled, Edited, and Referenced by Drew Kaiden '02 and Robert Reeves '02 in the Fall of 1999

Dickinson College has a long history of involvement with other nations.  Prior to the Second World War, Dickinson had loose affiliations with England, Germany, Spain, France, and countries of the Orient.  These affiliations, while not always designed as student of faculty exchanges, often involved Dickinson alumni taking positions at the foreign institutions.  The case of Dickinson's involvement with China followed that same pattern.  Beginning in the early 20th century, a number of graduates traveled to the Orient with a missionary zeal similar to the Christianizing of the Native Americans during the colonial period in North America.  The mission this time: to convert the pagan Chinese to Christianity and save them from eternal damnation.  The best way to accomplish this?  Education.  Soon after establishing themselves as a true presence in the country, these travelers created colleges and universities designed to pass the word of their God into the daily life of the Chinese.  The University that Dickinson College had a particular interest in was the West China Union University.

The West China Union University (WCUU), located in Chengtu, Szechuan Province, China, was the product of the collective efforts of four Protestant, denominational, missionary boards.  Once established, the University had a difficult task in converting the people of Szechuan province -- an area in size equal to the United Kingdom, France, and Germany combined -- as it was the only institution with a Christianizing purpose in the region; the faculty and administration were attempting to convert the beliefs of a population in excess of 100 to 150 million people.

In addition to the logistical problems faced by the missionaries of WCUU, certain political problems also presented difficulties.  The Boxer Rebellion, which began in 1900 with roots from the later part of the 19th century, put Chinese Christians and Western missionaries at odds with the local peasants who believed that foreigners had taken a privileged position in China.

Missionaries such as Francis Gamewell and Raymond Brewer, Dickinson graduates, brought their significant talents, intellects, and desires to bear upon the problems they saw in China.  Their goals in China, though, reflect the changing position of foreigners from the late nineteenth to early twentieth century.  Gamewell, harking from an earlier time, believed with evangelical fervor that the Chinese must be converted to Christianity to save their souls.  Those who did not convert were seen as heathens.  Brewer, with his more contemporary perspective, saw that as much could be learned from the Chinese he worked among as could be taught to them; his approach, while still interested in conversion, respected the individuality of China and its people's unique contributions to society.


What is the significance of Dickinson's involvement in China under the broader context of Dickinson "engaging the world"?  According to Dr. Joseph Beecher, President of the West China Union University:

Dickinson College at the West China Union University has a significance which far transcends the value of an additional teacher on the faculty of this University.  I venture to believe that the action of Dickinson is prophetic of a new spirit in the colleges and universities of the west which will express itself in university extension all over the world...1
This message, sent nearly seventy-five years ago, truly was prophetic.  During the second half of the century Dickinson implemented plans that would establish the college as an international institution; it solidified many of the loose affiliations mentioned above, creating Dickinson programs in England, Germany, Spain, Russia, Japan, France, Mexico, Cameroon, and, of course, China.  Interestingly enough, when a random faculty member or student -- even those interested in China -- are asked if they know about Dickinson's historical affiliation with China, most would respond in the negative.

    With that in mind, how honestly can we say that this Dickinson-in-China program reflects Dickinson's current "engagement" with the world?  It is our opinion, the compilers of this section, that Dickinson's current engagement with the world must be defined by the people involved, not by the institution itself.  Our analysis of the Dickinson-in-China movement during the early nineteenth century shows just that; it wasn't Dickinson that was going to China, it was Dickinson alumni.  Perhaps a look at the curriculum of Dickinson College will show that it reflects an emphasis on international involvement, perhaps the foreign students enrolled at Dickinson helped to broaden our own, sometimes colonial, mindset.  Dickinson's foreign involvement was also furthered by highly motivated  people, such as Joseph Clemens or John Hartigan.  In the final analysis, if nothing else, one thing becomes clear -- Dickinson has had a long history of involvement with the world outside its limestone walls.


1.  "Influence of Student Felt in the Orient."  The Dickinsonian, Nov. 21, 1925.    Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

**Note on the title banner: the Chinese characters do pronounce "Dickinson in China."  The first three characters are a phonetic representation of "Dickinson," the next character is "in," and the final two characters pronounce "China."