Education between Empires: International Schools in East Asia during the First Half of the Twentieth Century

Category: Essay 0

In the late nineteenth century, under the global condition, all societies had to newly define their place in an increasingly interconnected world.[1] During the time of the “great divergence”, the industrially leading centres of power made use of their competitive advantages to shape global relations according to their designs.[2] These imperial societies projected their power into the world and pursued global agendas that ranged from the establishment of formal colonies to more subtle forms of political, economic and cultural penetration.[3] All imperial societies considered their own institutions and practices as models that the world should best follow. As a result, their global outreach projects intensively competed with each other. This did not prevent imperial societies from cooperating in various ways whenever their representatives anticipated advantages from doing so.[4] Therefore, most historical constellations that can be subsumed under the term imperialism did not occur between metropole and colony of clearly defined empires. Transimperial history makes sense of this connectivity and goes beyond the well-known empires that have received most historiographic attention.[5] It takes into account lesser empires, including metropolitan centres that lacked formal imperial links. Transimperial history can also help to elucidate the transformations and continuities that impacted on the global order after the First World War.[6]

Profiting from new transportation technologies, such as steamships and railways, imperialism induced various forms of migration, including the movement of people from the metropoles to the destinations of imperial engagement. Such migration did not require formal colonies, as sizeable diasporas could also form without direct political control. Metropolitan nationalisation processes had consolidated nation-states so that migrants appeared foremost as representatives of national diasporas. But at their destinations, they frequently interacted with representatives from other imperial societies. As a consequence, it is also possible to speak of a transimperial diaspora that was characterised by the interaction of multiple European and American diasporas and that often defined itself in opposition to the local populations. Whether approached through the macro perspective of migration regimes or the micro perspective of transnational lives and imperial biographies, a focus on migrants as historical actors provides insight into the social history of transimperial constellations.

East Asia is a fascinating context to observe the interactions between different European and American imperial projects and their diasporas. From the mid-nineteenth century onwards, European and American imperial powers used military threads and interventions to force unequal treaties on the East Asian countries with the aim of establishing diplomatic and economic relations. Representatives of the treaty powers were soon allowed to take residence in especially created foreign settlements where they profited from trade privileges and extraterritoriality. Europeans and Americans came to East Asia in comparatively small numbers but constituted influential diasporas whose presence was supported by diplomatic, military and economic might as well as the cultural soft power of what many East Asians perceived as Western modernity.[7]

A multitude of dynamically changing geopolitical and legal conditions characterised the European and American communities in East Asia during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In China, internationalised treaty ports such as Shanghai and Tianjin existed from the 1840s to the 1940s, whereas outright colonies, such as British Hong Kong or the shorter-lived German lease in Jiaozhou, were the exceptions. In Japan, on the other hand, foreign settlements and related privileges which had been granted in the 1850s were abolished in 1898, providing the basis for ostensibly equal relations. With the onset of Japanese imperialism, Europeans and Americans also lived in the colonies of a non-Western power, such as in Korea which became a Japanese colony in 1910. Manchuria in north-eastern China presents still another case that experienced several transitions from Russian back to Chinese and eventually Japanese control during the first half of the twentieth century.

Bourgeois respectability was a key characteristic of imperial diasporas in East Asia. The early treaty port societies were predominantly male and saw a high fluctuation of residents, but over the decades, stable communities formed that adopted – and celebrated – genuine middle-class lifestyles. In such environments a regular family life could flourish. As a result, the question emerged how to organise the education of children of European and American backgrounds.

European and American societies were already shaped by a process that had started in the nineteenth century and has been termed the educationalisation of the world.[8] Formal schooling beginning from the now compulsory primary level had become the dominant way to socialise new generations. Education turned into a panacea to address a variety of social, economic and cultural issues, most centrally to forge a nation’s future citizens. This aspect was of particular importance in a diasporic context where additional efforts were required to keep children within the national community. Educationalisation processes had only just started in East Asia. Whereas Japan had begun to implement a comprehensive education system in the 1870s, “modern” educational options in China were still rudimentary. Many other differences led Europeans and Americans to see East Asian populations as radically different from themselves and to develop a sense of superiority. Consequently, education together with East Asian children was neither practically nor ideologically imaginable for most European and American families.

Under these circumstances, parents made use of various practices to educate their offspring. Home-schooling was one option, whereby befriended families often worked together and those who could afford hired private tutors. Another option was to send children to relatives or boarding schools in the home countries. A third option opened up with the establishment of schools that especially catered for European and American children in East Asia. A first wave of school foundations occurred around the turn of the century. In practice, parents often employed all three options, for example by starting to educate their children at home when a school was not available in the immediate vicinity, then making them attend a foreign school in East Asia and eventually sending them to Europe for secondary education.

The international schools of East Asia have not yet been the object of systematic historiographic analysis.[9] International schools were institutions that mainly served a student body that did not stem from the local majority population, but from one or more of the imperial diasporas. Still, the term international school can be misleading, as most of these institutions had clear national backgrounds and were embedded in nation-based imperial projects.

European education outside of Europe has for long been a popular research topic. Various studies have analysed how European imperial administrations implemented colonial education systems.[10] Numerous publications have also uncovered how European ideas shaped educational reforms in many parts of the world, be they initiated by local reformers or mediated by missionaries or other imperial agents.[11] Research on international schools adds a new perspective on European education beyond Europe. It allows for a discussion on how Europeans and Americans in China, Korea and Japan from the late nineteenth century until the Second World War organised the education of their own children. This educational – and by extension childhood, parenting and family life – dimension provides a fresh perspective on the European and American experts, missionaries, diplomats and businessmen who were active in East Asia and who now appear as parents who had to manage the education of their daughters and sons in a foreign context.

In the following, three examples of international schools in East Asia will be shortly introduced.[12] The German school of Shanghai opened in 1895 under the name of Bismarck-Schule and was renamed Kaiser-Wilhelm-Schule in 1906. The history of Shanghai’s international and French settlements goes back to the 1840s. The city was home to a vibrant German trading community that was in need of educational options for its offspring. Similar to other German diasporic contexts, the school emerged from the Protestant German congregation in Shanghai. Operations started with twenty-three children. The number of students first peaked at about 200 at the beginning of WWI. The impact of the war – most Germans were forced to leave China – led to a sharp decline of the student body in the early 1920s and the school’s then building was temporarily confiscated, but by the mid-1930s the number of pupils again reached more than 250. The Kaiser-Wilhelm-Schule acquired a central role in East Asia, as it was the only German institution offering the whole range of education from kindergarten to secondary courses and, from 1936, Abitur examinations. It therefore attracted German children who had started their education at one of the German schools that existed in other Chinese and Japanese cities and pursued their school course in Shanghai. The central position of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Schule was only briefly disputed by the Gouvernementsschule in Qingdao during the period of formal imperialism in Shandong.

(The Kaiser-Wilhelm-Schule in Shanghai, ca. 1928. From the collections of the Bundesarchiv, Bild 137-018661)

A Polish high school opened in Harbin in 1915 and shortly thereafter adopted the name of the novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz (Gimnazjum im. Henryka Sienkiewicza). The origins of the Polish community in Harbin go back to the late nineteenth century when the Russian empire pursued ambitious imperial plans in northeast Asia.[13] The settlers who arrived in Manchuria and the newly founded city of Harbin were part of the Russian-Siberian migration regime. Their migration was crucially facilitated by transcontinental railway construction, so that they arrived in China by land, in contrast to most other Europeans who commonly travelled by sea. Among the Russian subjects who arrived in northeast China were numerous Poles whose country had disappeared as an independent state with the partitions of the late eighteenth century. As a result, several Polish primary schools were established in the city during the first decade of the twentieth century besides the dominant Russian schools, followed by the Sienkiewicz High School some years later. After 1919, the new Polish state actively supported the institution. The course of studies comprised all high school grades and the final diploma was recognised by the Polish ministry of public instruction. Catholicism as a key element of Polish nationalism strongly influenced the institution. Student numbers peaked in the early 1930s with more than 270 pupils. It remained the only Polish high school in Asia, but was one of many schools that existed in areas with sizeable Polish migrant populations all over the world.

(The Sienkiewicz High School in Harbin in the late 1920s. From the collections of the Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe, sygnatura 1-Z-311)

The Seoul Foreign School was established in 1912. Korea was the last East Asian country to be forced to “open up” to Europeans and Americans during the 1880s. Besides foreign settlements in major port cities, the capital Seoul attracted the largest number of foreign residents in the country. This did not change when the Japanese Empire took control of Korea. The Seoul Foreign School emerged from previously existing informal arrangements within Korea’s foreign community. Like similar institutions in China and Japan, it was essentially an American school. The leading Presbyterian missionaries in Korea founded and shaped the institution, so that Protestantism became a key characteristic of the school. In this way, the Seoul Foreign School reflected the strong American missionary element of Korea’s foreign community. It is therefore not surprising that the students of the Seoul Foreign School came almost exclusively from Anglo-Saxon backgrounds. The school started with twenty-seven students at primary level, later adding high school-level instruction. It applied the New York state curriculum. The Seoul Foreign School was one of two international schools in Korea in the early twentieth century. The other one was Pyeng Yang Foreign School, located in Pyeongyang, a stronghold of Christianity until the 1940s, which was a numerically larger institution that was equally in the hands of American Presbyterians.

(The Seoul Foreign School in the early 1920s. From Korea Mission Field, 20, 4, 1924, unpaginated section, collections of Yonsei University Library)

All international schools in early twentieth-century East Asia were embedded in imperial projects. Historians who work on the United States in the world have highlighted how Americans were essentially interested in economic open-door policies in East Asia. They have also outlined the robust networks of missionaries who laboured to disseminate Protestant Christianity.[14] Imperial Germany equally saw East Asia as a region for economic and cultural penetration, especially from the mid-1890s on. In the years up to WWI, the German schools (for Germans) interacted with a network of German-Chinese schools that catered for Chinese students and were a major means of cultural diplomacy. After the setback of WWI, new relations were set up with China on a more equal footing, Germany being the first European power to sign a treaty with China as equals, before Fascist cooperation between Germany and Japan again changed this diplomatic constellation. In the case of Poland, a pre-existing diaspora was increasingly mobilised for an emerging imperial project that promised Polish economic and cultural expansion in East Asia. Polish opinion makers were eager to join the imperial nations, but at the same time wanted to profit from Poland’s non-imperial past for forging more egalitarian – and thus, it was expected, more fruitful – relations with the Chinese. Accordingly, and in contrast to other international schools in East Asia, the Sienkiewicz High School testifies to a purposeful embrace of Asian culture. Chinese and later Japanese language occupied a prominent place in its curriculum in order to train imperial agents for Poland’s expansion.

Despite the diverse legal contexts and the schools’ different national backgrounds, the international schools in East Asia constituted a transimperial educational space of which the expatriate European and American families creatively made use. It was not uncommon for families to send their children to an international school in a different East Asian country than the one they were living in, engendering inter-Asian mobility between China, Korea and Japan. The family of the German musician Franz Eckert who served the Korean court in the first decade of the twentieth century, for example, sent its children to French Catholic schools: the daughters to Yokohama and the sons to Tianjin.[15] This reminds us of the religious divide of the imperial diasporas, as for many Catholics – like the Eckerts – a Protestant school was not an option which, in turn, created religious connections beyond national divisions. School administrators and teachers also experienced multiple forms of border-crossing. In 1899, a certain Fräulein Meyer who had been teaching at the German school in Shanghai left the institution and followed her new husband to Vladivostok. Shortly thereafter, a certain Fräulein Rosen-Runge who had served as an instructor in Yokohama replaced her.[16] By the early 1930s, to take another example, students of Austrian, Swiss, Russian, Latvian, Estonian, Dutch, English, Hungarian, American, Finish, Polish and Danish nationalities attended the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Schule in Shanghai, indicating how children of different European nationalities learned together.[17] Polish graduates of the Sienkiewicz High School in Harbin continued their education in Hong Kong and other Chinese and Japanese cities in the 1930s.[18] What is more, the international schools were sites of contact-making and distancing between expatriate groups and local populations. As mentioned above, some schools included local languages into their curriculum and tailored it to the local needs, while others tried to reconstruct European or American conditions as much as possible. Whereas some schools accepted “mixed” children of both European and Asian parents, other institutions categorically excluded this category. These multiple (dis)connections among international schools make East Asia a rewarding context for studying transimperial constellations.

The Second World War and the major geopolitical transformations that came in its wake were a turning point. The Kaiser-Wilhelm-Schule ceased to exist in 1945. A new German school was only established in Shanghai in 1995. The Sienkiewicz High School closed permanently when the last Poles left Harbin for Poland and other countries in 1949. The Seoul Foreign School had to shut down after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour. It reopened after the Japanese surrender and, with another interruption during the Korean War, exists until today. Since the start of the neoliberal era in the 1990s, international schools have gained an increasing appeal for East Asian middle-class families who want to equip their children with a competitive advantage in the global economy. The history of the international schools of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century thereby elucidates the East Asian beginnings of international schooling. It also underlines the contributions of the history of education to a more generalist history of transimperial connections.

Further Reading:

Ulrike Kirchberger, Steven Ivings (eds.): Global Diasporas in the Age of High Imperialism, Berlin 2018.

Stefan Manz: Constructing a German Diaspora: The ‘Greater German Empire’, 1871–1914, New York 2014.

David M. Pomfret: Youth and Empire: Trans-Colonial Childhoods in British and French Asia, Stanford 2016.

Maria Rhode: Zivilisierungsmissionen und Wissenschaft. Polen kolonial?, in: Geschichte und Gesellschaft 39/1 (2013), pp. 5–34.

Robert Sylvester: Mapping International Education: A Historical Survey, 1893-1944, in: Journal of Research in International Education 1/1 (2002), pp. 90–125.

[1] Charles Bright, Michael Geyer: Benchmarks of Globalization: The Global Condition, 1850–2010, in: Douglas Northrop (ed.): A Companion to World History, Chichester 2015, pp. 285–300.

[2] Kenneth Pomeranz: The Great Divergence: Europe, China, and the Making of the Modern World Economy, Princeton 2000.

[3] Christophe Charle: La Crise des sociétés impériales: Allemagne, France, Grande-Bretagne, 1900–1940. Essai d’histoire sociale comparée, Paris 2001.

[4] Volker Barth, Roland Cvetkovski (eds.): Imperial Co-Operation and Transfer, 1870–1930: Empires and Encounters, London 2015.

[5] Daniel Hedinger, Heé, Nadin, Transimperial History – Connectivity, Cooperation and Competition, in: Journal of Modern European History, 16/4 (2018), pp. 429–452.

[6] Tosh Minohara, Evan Dawley (eds.): Beyond Versailles: The 1919 Moment and a New Order in East Asia, Lanham 2020.

[7] Robert Bickers, Christian Henriot (eds.): New Frontiers: Imperialism’s New Communities in East Asia, 1842–1953, Manchester 2000.

[8] Daniel Tröhler: Educationalization of Social Problems and the Educationalization of the Modern World, in: Michael A. Peters (ed.): Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory, Dordrecht 2017, pp. 698–703.

[9] For my first elaborations on this topic, see Klaus Dittrich: “The Finest ‘Bunch’ of Children to be Found Anywhere”: Educating European and American Youths in Korea, 1880s–1940s, in: Paedagogica Historica, 52/6 (2016), pp. 629–645.

[10] For example: Harry Gamble: Contesting French West Africa: Battles over Schools and the Colonial Order, 1900–1950, Lincoln 2017.

[11] For example: Benjamin C. Duke: The History of Modern Japanese Education: Constructing the National School System, 1872–1890, New Brunswick 2009.

[12] This part is based on initial research I conducted for my project on the history of international schools in China, Korea and Japan.

[13] Dan Ben-Canaan, Frank Grüner, Ines Prodöhl (eds.): Entangled Histories: The Transcultural Past of Northeast China, Heidelberg 2014.

[14] Ian Tyrrell: Reforming the World: The Creation of America’s Moral Empire, Princeton 2010.

[15] Hans-Alexander Kneider: Franz Eckert and His Legacy in Japan and Korea: A Family Saga. With the Memoires of Amalie Martel as Contemporary Witness, Goyang 2017, p. 258.

[16] Lokalnachrichten, in: Der ostasiatische Lloyd, 5 January 1900, p. 10.

[17] Dietrich Weber, Jahresbericht für das 36. Schuljahr (1930–31), Shanghai, Kaiser-Wilhelm-Schule, 1931, p. 22.

[18] St. Ż., Abiturienci Gimnazjum im. H. Sienkiewicza w Charbinie na wyższych uczelniach angielskich w Hong-Kongu, in: Tygodnik Polski, 11 September 1938, pp. 1–2.

Author profile

Klaus Dittrich is assistant professor of history at the Department of Literature and Cultural Studies at the Education University of Hong Kong. He wrote a doctoral dissertation on education at world exhibitions during the second half of the nineteenth century. This research traced the transnational circulation of educational ideas and practices between France, Germany, Japan and the United States. During postdoctoral periods in Korea and Luxembourg he continued to work on historical interactions between Europe and East Asia. He is now preparing a new project on the history of international schools in China, Korea and Japan. Focusing on institutions of French, German, Polish, British and American backgrounds, the project will analyse transimperial entanglements in East Asia from the late nineteenth century until the Second World War.


Publications (selected):
- “‘The Finest ‘Bunch’ of Children to Be Found Anywhere’: Educating European and American Youths in Korea, 1880s-1940s”, in: Paedagogica Historica, 52, 6, 2016, p. 629-645.
- “Europeans and Americans in Korea, 1882-1910: A Bourgeois and Translocal Community”, in: Itinerario, 40, 1, 2016, p. 3-28.
- “The Beginnings of Modern Education in Korea, 1883-1910”, in: Paedagogica historica, 50, 3, 2014, p. 265-284.
- “Konkurrenz imperialer Gesellschaften: Die Darstellung nationaler Systeme von Primärschulbildung auf den Weltausstellungen der Jahrhundertwende”, in: Marcelo Caruso, Thomas Koinzer, Christine Mayer, Karin Priem (eds), Zirkulation und Transformation. Pädagogische Grenzüberschreitungen in historischer Perspektive, Köln/Weimar/Wien, Böhlau, 2014, p. 51-73.
- “Korea’s Internal Civilizing Mission: Education in the English Edition of The Independent, 1896-1898”, in: Acta Koreana, 16, 2, 2013, p. 431-472.

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