[Review] 魏善玲《國民政府對海外留學生的救助》(Wei Shanling: The Guomindang Government’s Aid to Overseas Chinese Students, 1937–1946)

Wei Shanling 魏善玲, Guomin zhengfu dui haiwai liuxuesheng de jiuzhu 國民政府對海外留學生的救助(1937—1946) [The Guomindang Government’s Aid to Overseas Chinese Students (1937–1946)], Nanjing: Nanjing daxue chubanshe 南京大學出版社, 2022. ISBN 9787305250149, 385 pages, 88 RMB.

Reviewed by Christina Philips

Wei Shanling’s book on the Guomindang Government’s Aid to Chinese Overseas Students is an in-depth analysis of the discourse between various government institutions on the disbursement of financial aid for living expenses and return tickets to struggling overseas Chinese students during the Second Sino-Japanese War and its aftermath until 1946. The study is a result of Wei’s doctoral research at Nanjing University and was published in the “Universities and Contemporary China” (Daxue yu xiandai Zhongguo 大學與現代中國) series, edited by her supervisor Zhu Qingbao 朱慶葆, who also contributed a preface on the role of universities in the making of modern China.

Wei follows earlier scholarship on the history of Chinese overseas studies in the period prior to the founding of the People’s Republic of China.[1] However, she is the first to analyze previously unknown document sources of the GMD government that are now held in the Second Historical Archive in Nanjing, which is the great strength of this book. She also points to the important but often overlooked question of how students were able to pursue their academic interests and fund the costly periods of studying and living overseas during a period of turmoil and destruction. Due to the global range of student activities within a complex and multifaceted international environment, this is an ambitious goal, which she only partially achieves. As discussed below, the book tries to present a comprehensive overview of many different individuals, countries, and government agencies but only manages to scratch the surface when exploring the motivations, structures, and effects of government aid. The book, therefore, is very vague in the description of the trials and tribulations that students faced in their respective host countries and presents a narrow picture of the discourse on the provision of aid to overseas Chinese students.

The book is divided into seven chapters, followed by a short conclusion and two appendices with a list of students who had qualified for support for their living expenses (appendix 1) and a list of names of Chinese students in Germany in 1941 (appendix 2). Both lists seem not to have been included in the analysis. The afterword at the end of the book details the author’s difficult personal journey during the research and writing of her dissertation, and the general impression is that this book closely follows the original dissertation. Each chapter is divided into various subchapters, with the two smallest categories of subchapters not being included in the table of contents. Thus, in the search for individual sections and topics, the short index at the end of the book proves very helpful.

In the introduction, Wei states that historical research on Chinese overseas study programs has neglected the devastating impact of the Second Sino-Japanese War, interchangeably termed the “War of Resistance Against Japan” (kangri zhanzheng 抗日戰爭) and “All-encompassing War of Resistance” (quanmian kangzhan 全面抗戰). She stresses that foreign-educated elites were essential to the resistance and rebuilding efforts of the GMD government, which she also identifies as predominantly responsible for the dispatching of students (pp. 1–2). Previous research concentrated on the analysis of study abroad policies or on the contributions of returned students to Chinese society (p. 2). Therefore, the study contributes to the field with a focus on government aid (jiuji 救濟) and resettlement (anzhi 安置) schemes after the student’s return to China (p. 25). Wei’s thorough overview of the current state of Chinese-language research on the topic is commendable (pp. 3–24). In contrast, she mentions several works that were published in English, Japanese or German, but seems to not have incorporated such foreign language studies in her analysis in the following chapters.[2] This is unfortunate since these studies provide background information on the Chinese overseas community and the financial situation of students during the period. Wei’s treatment of the available archival source material in this study, which primarily are GMD government records, would have benefited from a more critical approach, possibly facilitated by a study of archival materials that are held abroad.

Chapter 1 sets the tone for the rest of the book by focusing on the impact on higher education in China of the Japanese invasion, which led to the destruction of higher education institutions and a significant decrease in the number of outgoing students. Statistics on outgoing students, taken from the existing literature on the topic, indicate that, in 1937, a total of 366 students received an official study abroad certificate (liuxue zhengshu 留學證書), decreasing to 8 in 1945 (pp. 62–63).[3] With the wealth of information that can be found in the source materials at hand, Wei could have contextualized these numbers with her own statistical data. Moreover, the small number of individuals, who decided to leave the country during the period, stands in stark contrast to the extent of aid provided by the government to the students, as is detailed in the following chapters. In other words, why would the Chinese government go to great lengths in order to support a small group of struggling overseas students? Wei explains this contradiction by connecting Chinese overseas students with the often-repeated nationalist narrative of “returning to serve the country” (gui guo fuwu / hui guo fuwu 歸國服務 / 回國服務, p. 68), thereby interpreting Chinese overseas studies first and foremost within the context of the morality and duties of the individual in society, which also were propagated by the GMD. Such an approach neglects the possibility that the students might have primarily followed their individual study or career interests rather than being motivated by the urge to serve their country. Moreover, with daily newspapers like Shenbao 申報 frequently reporting on the dire situation of students (p. 87), the group of students abroad might have had an outlet of representation that other groups of Chinese abroad were denied. For example, the book mentions government aid schemes for workers or businessmen abroad who had encountered similar difficulties during the period only in relation to the provision of return passages to China in chapter four.

Individual accounts of students in their host countries could have helped contextualize the influence and effects of the government aid programs. In Germany, crucial information on the financial issues of foreigners, including Chinese, during the period are preserved in the archival holdings of local government institutions. I suspect this to be similar in other countries in the West. To illustrate my point, I would like to introduce a case taken from the police files in Leipzig, held today at the State Archive in Leipzig, which is not included in Wei’s analysis. In April of 1940, the customs investigation department at the Leipzig police headquarters questioned a Chinese student about his involvement in a criminal offense against German tax evasion laws.[4] The student Liu Dejia 劉德嘉, born in 1915, stated that he had studied in Germany since 1935 with the financial support of his father. After the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945), the National People’s Party (Guomindang 國民黨, GMD) government of the Republic of China blocked all private capital flows from China amid an attempt to stop a further devaluation of the Yuan. Liu, therefore, was unable to receive the expected bank transfers from his family and suddenly found himself without any financial support in a country on the brink of war. Appeals to the Chinese embassy in Berlin were left unanswered. To bear the costs of living and studying in Germany, Liu was forced to find more unconventional ways to support himself. A relative, preparing to return to China, left a large sum of cash with Liu and, in turn, was promised to be reimbursed by Liu’s family in China. According to Third Reich law, this was a criminal offense. Discriminatory financial policy schemes, among others, the Reich Flight Tax (Reichsfluchtsteuer), targeted predominantly German Jews and limited the outflow of capital. Such laws also affected foreign nationals, who relied on the exchange of currencies for their finances. Thus, foreigners in Germany were extremely limited regarding monetary transactions and had to rely on third parties to cover their living expenses. Liu Dejia was found guilty of collaboration in a tax evasion scheme but saw his sentence reduced to a fine of 1500 Reichsmark. Perhaps, treated more favorably due to his status as a student or to the fact that his father was the official representative of the German company IG Farben in China, Liu also was allowed to finish his studies and work in Germany until his return to China in 1946. Similar charges against Chinese tradesmen and workers in Leipzig, who were investigated by the local Devisenstelle (Foreign Exchange Office), led to incarcerations or – much worse – forced military service on the front.[5]

Detailed individual accounts that could have helped contextualize the students’ decisions to remain abroad and continue their studies, as was the case with Liu Dejia, are nowhere to be found in Wei’s analysis. Moreover, when reporting on the situation in the host countries, she generalizes on the costs of living and the specific economic circumstances of the students in their host countries. While she clearly differentiates between self-funded (zifei 自費) students abroad and official scholarship (gongfei 公費) holders, Wei postulates that compared to the United States, the lives of students in Europe were generally at greater risk because of the war (p. 83). This is based on the assumption that from the outset, the war in Europe directly impacted the students’ daily lives, whereas even in Germany, students often continued their studies relatively unaffected by the threat of war, depending on their living situation and location.[6] Since the main problem for all students abroad was a lack of funding due to restrictions imposed on international monetary transfers, all Chinese students abroad experienced varying degrees of financial hardships. Therefore, the consecutive listing of source materials, like a survey of the economic situations of students in the United Kingdom in 1939 (pp. 71–72), followed by a survey of the funding received by individual students for the payment of their study fees in Germany from 1946 (pp. 73–74), without any critical commentary or reference to different monetary regulations, living costs, and impacts on everyday life at the various stages of the Second World War, is confusing rather than illuminating. The list of students in Germany, moreover, shows that students heavily relied on scholarships to cover their study fees, which might have lessened the urgency for the disbursement of aid funding from the GMD government.

Chapter 2 deals with the development of policies reorganizing overseas studies as well as the publication of plans for the disbursement of aid for students abroad. Wei relates the government’s objective to recruit returned students to a lack of funding for study abroad programs in war-torn China. On the one hand, students were urged to “return to China and serve the country”; on the other hand, the government limited the number of scholarships for outgoing students to save the already strained foreign currency resources. This also resulted in failed disbursements of scholarship grants as well as delays in the disbursement of financial aid to students. She concludes that the government remained hesitant in the disbursement of aid and, instead, instructed the Chinese embassies in host countries to survey the financial situation of the students (p. 110).

Chapter 3 describes the bureaucratic hurdles students encountered in applying for aid and gives a meticulously detailed account of the process that followed an application. With the Executive Yuan of the GMD, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Finance, as well as several embassies involved in deciding on the issuing of aid for individual students, the structure of the bureaucratic process rendered immediate responses to urgent aid requests nearly impossible (p. 135). Moreover, aid funds were transferred to the bank accounts of the embassies, which further complicated disbursements since few students collected the funds in person. This is exemplified by students from Germany, Italy, and German-occupied Austria and Czechoslovakia, who received emergency funding to help them relocate to neutral countries in Europe (p. 142). When describing the disbursement of aid, Wei sticks to the information given in the Chinese archival documents, which clearly emphasizes the role of the institutions that created the documents. It would have been helpful to learn more about other sources of support, such as overseas Chinese associations or scholarship programs in the host countries. Only the situation in the United States is described in some detail (pp. 171–173).

More background information on international financial systems during the war would also have been helpful in understanding the government discourse that Wei so dutifully portrays. With no details on exchange rates and the costs of living or passenger fares, the enumeration of funding sums provided by the government to students via various embassies, alternatingly listed in Yuan, US Dollars, and Pounds (see, for instance, pp. 145–155), is confusing. She only mentions in passing the fact that the Chinese government had to rely on the Bank of China branch in New York City as the only remaining branch operating in the West and that the conversion of funds from US Dollars to Pounds or other currencies was impossible due to war-time restrictive financial policies (pp. 160–161). To add to the confusion, Wei introduces lists of students in various countries from 1939 to 1943 who had received funding, including support for living costs or return tickets to China (always limited to 800 Yuan), with little information on the conditions in the host countries.

Among the most interesting applicants were Muslims from the Republic of China who had studied at the Al Azhar Madrasa in Egypt (pp. 167, 182–185). Members of this group were initially denied government aid since they had not met the required standards of having received an official study abroad certificate and enrolled at a regular, meaning Western, institution of higher education. Unfortunately, Wei neither provides any further information on their experiences of being left without funding in Egypt nor comments on the reasons why the government at last decided to disburse aid to this group. In contrast, Chinese students in Germany are frequently mentioned in this and the following chapters. Still, at this point, the reader will be hard-pressed to give a summary of the students’ experiences in any country as well as of the effects the disbursement of aid had on the students’ livelihoods. To the reader, this chapter would have been much more rewarding had the author concentrated on examples from one or two countries and then extrapolated her findings to include the rest of her evidence. Moreover, Wei could have avoided redundancies and ambiguities as displayed in this and the following chapter conclusions, in which she recurrently uses “many” (xuduo 許多, duoshu 多數) or “not a few” (bushao 不少) to refer to the amounts and recipients of aid funding or government efforts.

Chapter 4 delves into the logistics of arranging return passages for students, with an emphasis on students returning from Japan in 1937 and from Europe after 1939. Wei painstakingly describes the allocation and distribution of grants for the purchase of return tickets to China as well as the dispatching of officials accompanying groups of students from Japan in 1937 and Europe after 1945. She highlights the efforts made by the embassies in France and Switzerland in procuring passages for the students. The funds some students had received for their return trips were instead used to cover living expenses (p. 197). This comes as no surprise, given the scarcity of passenger ships from Europe to Asia during the war and the difficulties students faced in reaching the ports from which ships departed, which led to long waiting periods in which the students had to rely on other means of support. Moreover, Wei’s description of the distribution of aid by the embassies also hints at the misallocation or misappropriation of funding, as evidenced by the embassy in Germany that was dissolved in 1941 (pp. 200–201), but she provides no further information at this point. Moreover, while Wei mentions other Chinese citizens abroad (qiaomin 僑民), who had been granted funding for their return fares to China (p. 202), there is no reference to support programs or distribution of aid by embassies to returning workers or merchants.

A relatively large section of the book discusses the resettlement (anzhi) of students after their return to China. Chapter 5 essentially describes the resettlement process as government-led surveys of returning students and subsequent offers of positions in government institutions (p. 229). Here, the previously overlooked interns at foreign industries and militaries, who formed a very different group of students than those who had enrolled at universities, are featured in greater detail. Wei does not explain why returned interns and students, who were offered government positions, were classified as “service volunteers” (fuwu zhiyuan 服務志願, p. 235). Similarly debatable is the author’s framing of the recruitment of talent among former scholarship holders for the government as aid. Government positions provided safe sources of income for returned students in uncertain times, with most students appointed to positions in education, the editing of translations, research, or various government institutions (p. 276). Student associations also referred students to positions in the government (p. 258), which shows that government aid was only one part of the overall support system for students abroad, which the reader should have been informed about much earlier.

Chapter 6, which aims at critically assessing GMD aid schemes, reiterates Wei’s previous conclusion that government policies on education reform were effective when focusing on the recruitment of returned students. This chapter would have benefited from statistical information on returned students and their subsequent involvement in industry, research, or education. With her praise of the successes of a handful of individuals after their return to China, Wei merely adds to the established narrative that students formed the backbone of the rebuilding efforts during and after the war and were crucial to the People’s Republic of China’s rise after 1949 (pp. 302–308). In the same vein, she seems to reconcile the fact that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was absent in the provision of aid with the political interests of students by alluding to some returned students as being suspected of CCP membership (p. 309). Moreover, Wei insists that most students returned and contributed their acquired knowledge because they had the desire to ‘serve their country’ rather than being grateful to the GMD regime (pp. 307–308).

Frustratingly, a discussion of the mishandling of funds by various embassies and the representative of the government in postwar Germany is relegated to the very last pages of this chapter (pp. 316–327). After reading at length about the immediate aid efforts provided to students in Germany after the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 in previous chapters, the reader only now learns that students, who were unable to cross the border into Switzerland from Germany, had no access to aid funds (p. 325). Here, Wei surmises that GMD corruption was an ordinary occurrence and facilitated the CCP’s victory over the GMD in 1949 (p. 327). This leads to several unanswered questions: What does this say about the checks and control measures by the government in financial matters? How were the embassies to be trusted by the government in distributing the funds to students? And how did students perceive the government’s aid efforts?

In the conclusion, Wei reiterates that the government limited foreign student numbers due to strained financial resources after the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War. She remains vague about the effects of such policies by arguing that even though the government valued and protected the students as “elite talents” (jingying rencai 精英人才), the aid policies lacked detail and coordination (p. 332). However, as she alludes to in the previous chapters, students abroad not only sought help from the Chinese government but found all kinds of ways to sustain themselves in the years between 1937 and 1946. Their influence on government policies deserves greater attention. Moreover, Chinese tradesmen and workers played a major role in the communities abroad as did associations, Chinese or local, who set up support schemes for struggling students. In addition, the study could have benefited profoundly from a critical discussion of the implementation of the aid schemes. Despite the deserved criticism, given the wealth of source materials from the Chinese archives that are presented here, this book will serve as an important starting point for future research on overseas Chinese students during the Second Sino-Japanese War.


[1] Most notably, see studies or compendia of source materials on the history of overseas Chinese students by Shu Xincheng 舒新城. Jindai Zhongguo liuxue shi 近代中國留學史 (Shanghai: Shanghai wenhua chubanshe 上海文化出版社, 1989, 1st edition in 1927); Li Xisuo 李喜所, Jindai liuxuesheng yu Zhong wai wenhua 近代留學生與中外文化 (Tianjin: Tianjin chubanshe 天津出版社, 1992); Li Xisuo 李喜所 & Yuan Qing 元清 (eds.). Zhongguo liuxue tongshi. Minguo juan 中國留學通史民國卷 (Guangzhou: Guangdong jiaoyu chubanshe 广东教育出版社, 2010); Liu Zhen 劉真 & Wang Huanchen 王煥琛, Liuxue jiaoyu: zhongguo liuxue jiaoyu shiliao 留學教育:中國留學教育史料 (Taibei: Guoli bianyiguan 國立編譯館, 1980); Zhou Mian 周棉, Liuxuesheng yu Zhongguo de shehui fazhan 留學生與中國的社會發展 (Xuzhou: Zhongguo kuangye daxue chubanshe 中國礦業大學出版社, 1997); Xie Changfa 謝長法, Zhongguo liuxue jiaoyu shi 中國留學教育史 (Taiyuan: Shanxi jiaoyu chubanshe 山西教育出版社, 2006); Wang Qisheng 王奇生, Zhongguo liuxuesheng de lishi guiji 中國留學生的歷史軌跡 (Wuhan: Hubei jiaoyu chubanshe 湖北教育出版社, 1992); Lin Zixun 林子勳, Zhongguo liuxue jiaoyu shi, 1847–1975 nian 中國留學教育史,1847—1975年 (Taibei: Huagang chuban youxian gongsi 華岡出版有限公司, 1976).

[2] For details on the prominently featured Chinese students in Germany, the author could have taken into account the source materials presented in Harnisch, Thomas, Chinesische Studenten in Deutschland, Geschichte und Wirkung ihrer Studienaufenthalte in den Jahren von 1860 bis 1945 (Hamburg: Institut für Asienkunde, 1999).

[3] Zhongguo di yi lishi dang’anguan 中國第一歷史檔案館, Zhonghua minguo shi dang’an ziliao huibian 中華民國史檔案資料彙編, di wu ji 第五輯, di er bian 第二編, jiaoyu (yi) 教育(一), Nanjing: Jiangsu guji chubanshe 江蘇古籍出版社, 1997; Xie Changfa, Zhongguo liuxue jiaoyu shi, 2006.

[4] “Verhandelt, Leipzig, 24 April 1940,” Staatsarchiv Leipzig, OFP 2020, SF 11162, Devisenstelle Leipzig Nr. 1180, “Liu, Tuh-kya”.

[5] Staatsarchiv Leipzig, OFP 2020, SF 11171, Devisenstelle Leipzig Nr. 1289, “Ping I Chih”.

[6] For instance, the prominent former students in Germany Ji Xianlin 季羨林 (1911–2009) and Qiu Fazu 裘法祖 (1914–2008) continued their studies and worked in their fields in Germany. They remembered the hardships that followed the start of large-scale allied bombing raids in 1943. Ji Xianlin 季羨林, Liu De shi nian留德十年 (Beijing: Dongfang Chubanshe 東方出版社, 1992, pp. 67–89); Qiu Fazu 裘法祖, “Zai Deguo qiuxue shinian de diandi huiyi 在德國求學十年的點滴回憶” In Lü De zhui iErshi shiji ji dai Zhongguo liu De xuezhe huiyilu 旅德追憶——二十世紀幾代中國留德學者會憶錄, edited by Wan Mingkun 萬明坤 & Tang Weicheng 湯衛城 (Beijing: Shangwu Yinshuguan商務印書館, 2000, pp. 201–209).



Cite this blog post
philips (2023, October 1). [Review] 魏善玲《國民政府對海外留學生的救助》(Wei Shanling: The Guomindang Government’s Aid to Overseas Chinese Students, 1937–1946). European Research Centre for Chinese Studies. Retrieved June 22, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/ohaj

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