John Haddad is an associate professor of American studies and popular culture at Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg. He is the author of America’s First Adventure in China: Trade, Treaties, Opium, and Salvation.
On a recent trip to China, I made a stop at Sias International University, in Xinzheng, Henan Province, to deliver a lecture on American popular culture. Sias is a relatively new private university that presents itself as an American-style college. Its founder, a local entrepreneur who made his fortune in the United States, believes in internationalism and in cooperation between China and the United States—so much so that he has infused the campus with this vision.
The effect is striking: It feels like a world’s fair. Touring the campus, I passed New York Street, Red Square, European Street, and Spanish Square. I wound up at the administration building, a bizarre Sino-American hybrid. After entering through its neo-Classical front, modeled on the U.S. Capitol, I found upon exiting that the building had morphed into the Forbidden City.
China’s current global turn marks the country’s second opening in the past 200 years. The first took place after the Opium War (1839-42). As someone who studies the history of Americans in China, I find it interesting to compare China’s earlier opening with the current one in the area of Sino-American intellectual exchange. Of course, the circumstances surrounding the two openings are quite different. The first was accomplished by British force and against China’s will; the second amounts to an act of self-determination on China’s part.
That said, China’s earlier opening does offer a lesson that could perhaps guide the numerous China-U.S. academic partnerships that have proliferated in recent years: Teachers should be learners....