1979 Delegations to China have Enduring Impact

Among the hundreds of new graduate students who arrived on campus for the start of the fall 2011 semester, Zhao Jingzhou of Shanghai could claim a unique connection to a  special moment in UW-China relations.

Mr. Zhao’s grandfather arrived in Madison 32 years ago as a member of the first group of visiting scholars to come to Wisconsin following the  normalization of US-China relations.

“Those two years in UW-Madison were one of the most precious memories of my grandfather,” Mr. Zhao said.

His family ties are a reminder that UW-Madison was a national leader in resuming academic connections to the People’s Republic of China.  In 1979, then-Chancellor

Irving Shain, 2011
Irving Shain, 2011

Irving Shain led one of the first university delegations to China.  That opening resulted in the most extensive exchange agreement of any American university.


“My main interest was in improving the academic system in China,” said Shain, who is now the vice president of the University Research Park’s Board of Trustees.  “I also wanted to provide opportunities for Madison faculty who were interested in China studies. I think we helped in opening the doors for joint research.  This helped the university become a center for Chinese scholarship.”

Shain actually led two month-long UW-Madison delegations to China in 1979, the first in February and the second in November of that year.  Delegation members toured the country and made countless toasts at official banquets.

Delegation in 1979
Delegation in 1979

The primary focus, though, was on interviewing candidates from top Chinese institutes.  Shain’s goal was to bring a team of senior Chinese academic leaders to Madison.  The scholars would be expected to spend about two years working with UW faculty.

“I decided that China would be better off if we brought faculty members to campus,” Shain explained, adding that students, and even junior faculty, would take too long to influence China’s higher education system.  “So I set up a new status called ‘visiting scholar,’ and that turned out to be very successful.”

The first such visiting scholar was Liu Baicheng of Tsinghua University in Beijing, who arrived in the spring of 1979 to work with UW-Madison Metallurgical and Mineral Engineering professor Carl Loper on casting research.

1979 Delegation
1979 Delegation

In the fall of that year, 55 visiting scholars came to UW-Madison.  The next academic year, the size of the group swelled to 139, the largest PRC group on any American campus that year.

By 1984, over 470 had spent time in Madison, though after that peak, the program was phased out.  The emphasis switched from a special program for visiting scholars to the more traditional enrollment of regular students.  The number of students from the PRC has steadily increased ever since.  Today, the UW-Madison has over 1,500 students from mainland China, by far the largest group of foreign students on campus.

Most of those first visiting scholars specialized in the fields of engineering and science, including almost 100 in mechanical engineering.  However, the program also brought a sociologist, three historians, ten English specialists, a political scientist and two scholars of East Asia.


Besides bringing visiting scholars to Madison, the program also sent UW-Madison students to China through a sister-university relationship with Nanjing University.   About a dozen students from Madison spent a semester or more at Nanjing University between 1979 and 1983.

That number included Barrett McCormick, who is now a professor of political science at Marquette University, but in early 1979 was ready to quit his program because he thought he would never get to China to do field research.  Then his advisor, UW Professor Edward Friedman, brought unexpected news.

“He reported that Chancellor Shain was just back from China where he had concluded an agreement with (Nanjing University) which meant that if I wanted to do dissertation research in the PRC, I could,” said Professor McCormick. “That was an offer that I could not refuse and my academic career was back on track.”

Today UW-Madison students participate in study abroad programs across China, totaling about 150 students per year.

The initial Nanjing connection resulted from the bond between Chancellor Shain and Kuang Yaming, the president of Nanjing University.

“Kuang Yaming was a serious victim of the Cultural Revolution – he wanted to put all that behind him,” said Shain.  “He wanted to bring his university up to modern standards.”

Today, Nanjing University is one China’s elite top nine universities, known collectively as China’s Ivy League.  Kuang and Shain became friends and corresponded regularly until Kuang’s death in 1996.  They also worked to keep a steady stream of scholars and students traveling between Nanjing and Madison.

“The two presidents were willing to try something new,” recalled Nanjing University Chemistry Professor Chen Yi.

Professor Chen was among that first group of visiting scholars in the fall of 1979.  His yellowing scrapbook from his two years in Madison includes pictures of him sampling ice cream at Memorial Union and trying out cross country skiing with UW engineers.

“My deepest impression was that (UW-Madison) was very active; it was open to exploring things, a place for collaboration,” he said.  Chen’s work with UW chemical engineering Professor James Dumesic led to a scholarly relationship between chemists and engineers at the two universities that continues to this day.  Zhang Rong, the current executive vice president of Nanjing University, has a PhD in chemical engineering from UW-Madison.

Professor Chen attributes the success of the exchange to the vision of Kuang and Shain.  “In the years of the 1970s, to carry out such cooperation was much more difficult than now,” he said. “Their great efforts have in fact produced deep influence in enhancing the cultural exchanges between our two great countries.”


UW chemical engineering Professor Bob Bird was among those picked by Chancellor Shain to join the 17-member delegation.  Photos show him wearing a winter cap and coat as he toured unheated facilities.

“We would start at 7 a.m. with breakfast and then go all day long – it was rather tiring,” he said. “It was a really long trip but we wanted to see all their universities, and some special institutes, both large and small.  We wanted to get a good picture of the entire educational system in China.”

Professor Bird carefully documented the people he met during his first visit to China.  According to his notes, he toured the Shanghai Chemical Engineering  College on Feb. 16, 1979, interviewing a 43-year-old lecturer in fluid mechanics who “seems like a good bet for a visiting scholar.” The lecturer had two children, a son and a daughter.

“That daughter is my mother,” said Zhao Jingzhou, looking over a copy of Professor Bird’s handwritten notes while drinking coffee at the Institutes of Discovery this September.  “What my grandfather remembers the most from that interview is that Professor Bird asked him two questions, ‘What are you interested in?’ and ‘What are you good at?’ That is what my grandfather often asked of me.  He said that what you are interested in is probably what you are good at.”

Mr. Zhao’s interests are in mechanical engineering, and that is the department he is now enrolled in at UW-Madison.  His grandfather spent two years in Madison working on engineering projects with Professor Bird.

“Professor Bird is 87 and my grandfather is over 70,” Mr. Zhao said.  “They have one thing in common – they both still go to the lab every day. That goes back to your interests.”

Professor Bird was not surprised to learn that the grandson of one of his first colleagues from China was enrolling in engineering at UW-Madison.  These kinds of continuing connections are what the 1979 delegations were all about.

“I would like to see the exchange programs continue because they have been very successful, largely because of Irv Shain,” said Professor Bird. “I think it is the personal contacts that are the most important.”

To learn more about UW-Madison’s connections with China, go the Wisconsin China Initiative website.

  by Laurie Dennis, UW-Madison, and Xu Ya, 2011 UW-Madison intern from Tsinghua University

Photos by Kerry G. Hill & Pauline Zhu, Division of International Studies