• Wed
  • Sep 24, 2014
  • Updated: 6:34am

New school of thinking

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 April, 2006, 12:00am

Shanghai Jiaotong University, the oldest in the city, is celebrating its 110th birthday and the life and achievements of its remarkable founder. Sheng Xuanhuai (1844-1916) was a senior official of the Qing dynasty and was one of its most important industrialists, who set up China's first domestic shipping company, steel mill, telecommunications firm and railway.


A close adviser of prime minister Li Hongzhang, Sheng personally witnessed the defeat of the Qing armies at the hands of the European powers and Japan, and the treaties his government was forced to sign. He determined that the only way to compete with the foreigners was to learn their technologies and languages, and he became one of the country's leading modernisers.


To his great chagrin, not everyone in the government agreed. After British merchants paid for the construction of China's first railway, between Shanghai and Wusongkou in 1876, the governor of the province decided to pay them 280,000 taels of silver to buy it, rip up the tracks and build a temple on the site to atone for the 'mistake' - as he saw it - of building the line.


Sheng's greatest legacy was the foundation of the Nanyang Public School on land he bought in the Xujiahui district of Shanghai in 1896, which became Jiaotong University. 'Our diplomats are trained in foreign languages, but their perspective is too narrow. They cannot see far and long enough,' he said.


He saw it as a place to train people for the government, industry and commerce, equipped with a base in Chinese culture and philosophy, and the tools of science and technology from the west. He also set up schools and colleges in Beijing, Tianjin , Shanghai and Wusong.


'People laugh at me and say that the results of my work are slow,' he said. 'It takes 10 years to train a person. If 10 years is too long and we do nothing, then after 10 years we will have no one [ready for diplomacy].'


In 1902, after China's first student protest at the university over the issue of scholastic freedom, Yuan Shikai, one of the strongest military figures in China, ordered Sheng to close the university and stop providing scholarships. But Sheng defied him, saying that it was too important to close. He served as its chancellor until 1905.


Sheng died in Shanghai in 1916, but what he founded has achieved a lot since then. A survey by The Times Higher Education Supplement last November rated Jiaotong as the 169th best in the world, and fifth among mainland universities. More than 200 members of China's academies of science and engineering are alumni of Jiaotong. It now has 20 schools in the fields that Sheng envisaged, such as naval architecture, engineering, medicine and foreign languages.


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