Liu Baicheng: Studying at UW was a milestone


Direct links between the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the People’s Republic of China have become so numerous and so varied that simply keeping track has become a herculean task. Today, people pass back and forth through a door that, just 35 years ago, was tightly shut.

Liu Baicheng and David Ward
Liu Baicheng and David Ward

Liu Baicheng, the first person to step across that threshold, joined UW–Madison alumni and others with Badger connections at a reception in Beijing in June. Liu was among the guests recognized by Interim Chancellor David Ward and the Wisconsin delegation.

Liu, a professor of mechanical engineering at Tsinghua University, was born in 1933 in Shanghai and graduated cum laude from Tsinghua University in 1955. He is an expert in casting process and equipment, a fellow at Chinese Academy of Engineering and a 2002 recipient of the Guanghua Engineering Technology Prize, China’s top prize in engineering.

His journey offers some perspective on how far linkages with China have come in a relatively short time. In a Chinese journal article published in September 2009, he talked about his experiences and how studying abroad had changed his life.

In the late 1970s, China was emerging from the decade-long Cultural Revolution. In mid-1978, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping decided to send scholars and students to study abroad—a major change for a country that had been sealed off from the rest of the world.

Because higher education had been dormant during the Cultural Revolution, few Chinese in their 20s were prepared to go abroad. So the government decided to send “visiting scholars” who were in their 30s and 40s.

The selection process focused on a small group of top universities. The need for candidates with strong English language skills limited the pool.

“After decades of learning from the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s, Chinese universities were packed with Russian speakers, yet English-speaking scholars were just a handful,” said Liu, then an assistant professor at Tsinghua University.

Nominated by the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Liu did so well throughout the screening process that he was selected as the leader of the 52-member group.

Liu Baicheng
Liu Baicheng

“My secret of succeeding in those tests was because of my long-term training in English,” he explained. “I attended a church school as a little boy, and I started learning English as a third grader, using original textbooks from the United States. When I got to middle school, all my classes in geometry, algebra, physics, and world geography were taught in English. There were a bunch of foreign teachers in my school, which gave me plenty of opportunities to practice my spoken English.”

During the Cultural Revolution, when he worked days carrying sand and pig iron in a foundry, he continued to read English books at night.

Eventually, his perseverance paid off. After surviving a period when family background determined people’s future paths, the son of an entrepreneur now felt he could help shape his own future. “I have been really grateful for Deng Xiaoping’s visionary policy.”

# # #

Before they left China, the scholars underwent intensive training at Beijing Language and Culture University and were told to “stay excited but get prepared for all possible conditions.”

The scholars’ departure date was determined by Deng Xiaoping’s decision to make an official visit to the United States to mark the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

“In order to celebrate these two events and to create a friendly atmosphere, our group was asked to depart early,” Liu said. The mission—scheduled to commence in January 1979—began on December 26, 1978.

After a farewell event in the Great Hall of the People, the group flew to Paris, where they were told that many reporters would be waiting when they arrived in New York. “But what should we say after being isolated from the rest of the world for so many years?”

On the plane, the scholars crafted their statement—words that Liu still considers to be appropriate: “Chinese people are great people. American people are great people too. We came all the way to the United States, not only for learning advanced science and technology, but also for strengthening the friendship between Chinese and American people.”

The scholars eventually arrived in Washington, D.C., where staff at the new Chinese Embassy reported seeing coverage of their arrival on television.

On January 1, 1979, the scholars participated in the opening ceremony of Chinese Embassy in the United States. Next, Liu went to the White House, where he saw leaders Deng Xiaoping and Jimmy Carter and their wives, Zhuo Lin and Rosalyn Carter.

The scholars attended a White House reception hosted by the First Lady and then one at the Chinese Embassy, where they were photographed with Deng Xiaoping. These events received major coverage back home. Liu said, “My family said we were almost television stars, because we were seen everywhere in China.”

# # #

“As a result of long-time isolation, we barely knew about foreign countries,” Liu said. “Upon our arrival in the United States were embarrassed ourselves quite often.”
He also noted that, at the time they were selected, most of the scholars did not have business suits.

“The only place to get business suits was a special service station for people traveling abroad, right behind the Wangfujing Department Store building. So we as a group ordered our suits there.” Liu said.

Their choices were limited, he noted.

“All of our coats were either black or grey, and made of woolen cloth which was heavy and draped over the body. American journalists even thought that we were wearing uniforms.”

Each scholar was issued a cassette player—“as big as a brick”—for use in learning English.

“We cherished those cassette players very much, since we had never seen them,” Liu said. “When we visited American families, we were again amazed by their stereos—there were just so many buttons. For us who only had cassette players, there were only two buttons that mattered: record and play.”

# # #

After three months of advanced English training, the scholars were dispersed, mostly in groups, to U.S. universities. Liu elected to go alone to the University of Wisconsin–Madison, which was highly ranked in casting, his area of expertise.

At that time, UW–Madison had more than 400 students from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Two students from Hong Kong helped Liu move in with an American family.

“Rather than staying all together with Chinese people, I preferred to spend more time with ordinary American people, which made it convenient to understand American culture and society,” he said.

He got along well with his host family and maintained contact with them over the years. He fondly recalled cooking a Chinese dinner for them at Christmas 1979.

“During my first three months in Wisconsin, I almost never cooked for myself over the weekends. People—students from Hong Kong and Taiwan, and also American Chinese people—always invited me over for meals because they were very eager to know more about China,” he said.

He eagerly accepted invitations—for meals and to speak at local schools. He welcomed opportunities for “telling people what China really looks like, what our country had achieved, and for eliminating prejudice many foreigners had on China.”

# # #

As a visiting scholar, his primary objective was to learn. His adviser was Carl Loper, UW–Madison professor of materials science and engineering and an internationally recognized expert in many areas of metallurgy.

Liu was impressed by what he discovered. “I saw many kinds of material test instruments which were rarely seen in China then,” he said, such as electron micro-probes and scanning Auger spectrometers.

Access to instruments with higher resolutions enabled him to look more closely into the micro world of cast alloy. He said, “It was my biggest achievement in the United States, because I was able to greatly improve my research on the crystallization mechanism of cast iron.”

Carl Loper and Liu Baicheng
Carl Loper and Liu Baicheng

“Casting science at the University of Wisconsin is world-renowned,” he said. “During my stay in Madison, there were also visiting scholars from other countries. These scholars have become leading experts in casting science in their home countries. We frequently contact each other, exchange scholarly ideas, and make possible international collaborations.”

His U.S. experience also deepened his understanding about the growing application of computers. Even then, he recognized that computers would ultimately change everything in human society.

“I signed up for computer language courses, attending classes and coding on computers with my American classmates. My solid foundation in computer languages enabled me to establish the brand new field of analog stimulation of the solidification process. I was among the first few in China who brought up the idea of using computers to stimulate the casting process,” Liu said.

He pointed out that China’s Ministry of Science and Technology selected the three-dimensional cast stimulation software he developed for nationwide application.

During breaks, Liu read and visited several universities, technology centers and the casting facilities of General Motors and Ford. For his final semester, he transferred to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to broaden his studies in material science.

At the end of two years, Liu brushed aside suggestions about staying in the United States. Despite his fondness for his host country, he was eager to return to China to use what he had learned there.

“We traveled abroad for the development of our country, and we certainly should go back for the development of our country. Our roots are in China,” he said.

# # #

The success of that first group spurred China to continue sending scholars and students to the United States.

“When I returned to China, I was invited to speak at several universities to visiting scholars preparing to leave. Some even asked: ‘Professor Liu, is it necessary to take a washing board with me to the United States?’ I smiled to myself. It was easy to tell how China was isolated and ignorant about the rest of the world 30 years ago.”

Liu Baicheng and David Ward
Liu Baicheng and David Ward

For Liu, the experience had a considerable impact.

“Studying abroad was a significant milestone in my life, especially in terms of my research capacity in science and technology,” he said. “Thanks to my overseas experience, I have grown significantly.”

He improved his academic skills and even established a new field of research in casting science.

“I got several awards, and published plenty of high-quality papers, among which one was selected as distinguished paper by the American Foundry Society. The research team I have been leading is known internationally, and I have been invited to give speeches at more than 30 foreign universities and companies,” he said.

In 1999, he was named a fellow at Chinese Academy of Engineering and has been involved in several special projects. Over the years, he has traveled overseas more than 50 times, including more than 10 trips to the United States.

In 2009, he returned to Madison, gathering with Carl Loper’s former students and associates for an international symposium in casting in his honor. The event brought together 80 visiting scholars, post-doctoral students, and graduate students from 11 countries.

“My adviser was excited to see me back in town,” Liu said. “He constantly spoke highly of me, and was very proud of being my adviser. Meanwhile, it was also a great opportunity to showcase our research capacity in front of colleagues from foreign countries.”

While in Madison, he also visited the house where he stayed as a visiting scholar and met with his landlady. “I took a picture in front of the house 30 years ago, and I did it again this time. The flashback made me emotional,” he said.

“The opening up of China gave me the opportunity to study abroad,” Liu said. “My only belief back then was to study hard, work tenaciously, and serve back to my home country. I am now satisfied that my wish has come true.”

— by Kerry G. Hill, with translations by Pauline Zhu




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