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April 27, 2024

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A flood, a school and a scholar: How modern education came to Shanghai

XUHUI College, a pioneer in the introduction of Western educational practices in Shanghai, and its first Chinese principal Ma Xiangbo hold a special place in the history of modern Chinese education.

The school was founded following a devastating flood in 1849 along the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, which left many children orphaned or homeless.

Italian Jesuit Angelo Zottoli, who was head of the Xujiahui Jesuit residence at the time, took in 12 distressed children, providing them with shelter and basic education.

As their numbers grew by the following year, Zottoli saw the need for a more formal educational structure. As a result, he and French missionary Claude Gotteland, who arrived in China in 1839 and became head of the local Jesuits in 1851, founded the Xuhui College.

Zottoli was the first principal of the school, which emphasized a curriculum steeped in humanism and focused on the development of character and intellect.

Originally named St Ignatius College, it was one of the earliest to admit impoverished Chinese students, rendering education accessible to those previously barred by social and economic norms.

From the 1860s to 1900, the school’s curriculum expanded to include subjects like math, physics, history and geography, in addition to Chinese and French language courses, music and drawing.

The school became a leading institution in Shanghai’s educational sector.

By the advent of the 20th century, the curriculum grew to embrace the increasing prominence of Western science and technology, and industrial progress. French and natural science classes became compulsory, with higher-grade classes taught in English or French.

The transformation prepared students for entry into Aurora University, which was a precursor to such prestigious institutions as Fudan University and Nanjing University.

The school’s lasting impact lies in its innovative approach to education — the blend of science and humanities, the respect for individual dignity and the provision of a comprehensive curriculum free from political interference.

The school served not only as a model educational institution within China, but also as a bridge between Eastern and Western educational practices.

Notable alumni of the school included education pioneer Ma Xiangbo and his brother Ma Jianzhong, who wrote the “Ma’s Grammar,” which established the first comprehensive system of Chinese grammar bridging Eastern and Western linguistic traditions.

Born in 1840, Ma Xiangbo was a scholar who recognized the crucial need for educational reform in China. After completing his education, he went abroad to study, embracing an understanding of Western sciences and humanities.

His return to China marked the beginning of his lifelong mission to revolutionize Chinese education.

He first took up a teaching position at his alma mater, Xuhui College, where he eventually took over as principal.

The apex of Ma’s educational legacy came with his founding of Fudan University in 1905.

He established Fudan University in response to interference from the Jesuits in the running of Aurora University while he was there.

Ma aimed to establish an institution of higher education that would be free from foreign control and embody his ideals of academic freedom and the integration of Chinese and Western learning.

The name Fudan was derived from a classical Chinese poem embodying the concepts of renewal and continuous self-improvement, mirroring Ma’s vision for Chinese education.

Fudan University quickly became a beacon of modern education in China, attracting scholars and students from across the nation and beyond.

It was one of the first universities in China to accept female students into its degree programs, underscoring Ma’s progressive beliefs in inclusive education.

In addition to Fudan, Ma also played a crucial role in the founding of other educational institutions, including the re-establishment of Aurora University as an autonomous Chinese institution.


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