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April 6, 2024

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Home » Feature » Art and Culture

An orphanage leaves a lasting legacy 
of modern education, craftsmanship

A museum on the south side of Xujiahui is the only building remaining of a former Jesuit-run orphanage that embodied Sino-French culture in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and set new standards for enlightened modern education.

Called Tushanwan, or T’ou-Sè-Wè in French, the orphanage sat in a verdant swathe of fertile farmland that has since been subsumed by one of Shanghai’s busiest inner city hubs.

The area caught the attention of French Jesuit priest Joseph Gonnet when he arrived in Shanghai in 1844 and later became the head of the Jesuit Society in 1862.

In 1864, Gonnet established the Tushanwan Orphanage on Puxi Road. The first building, a two-story brick structure, was constructed alongside a small river, allowing the water transfer of orphans to the city.

The orphanage was founded to shelter and educate orphans aged between 6 and 10. Its initial residents were often children abandoned in front of pawnshops. Many suffered from typhus.

Internal warfare in China led to a surge in the orphanage’s population, to 342 by 1867. A second row of buildings and a Gothic-style chapel were constructed.

The orphanage fed and clothed the orphans, and gave them an education rich in literature, languages, math, physics and vocational skills.

By the age of about 13, orphans entered individualized curricula tailored to their abilities and interests. Classes, including sculpture, painting, woodcarving, carpentry, stained glass, metalwork and bookbinding, were taught. Many of the orphans went on to distinguish themselves as masters of artworks.

Some of the pieces produced in the orphanage workshops were collected into an exhibition that appeared at four world expos. The centerpiece of the exhibition, now housed in the Tushanwan Museum, is an ornamental gateway, nearly 6 meters high and 5 meters wide. It is intricately carved with figures from ancient Chinese literature, including “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms.”

Between 1864 and 1934, more than 2,500 orphans passed through the doors of Tushanwan. Upon graduation at age 19, the orphans could decide whether to stay and work in the facility or venture out into the world. Those who stayed contributed to the enrichment of the institution’s operations.

This orphanage’s blend of modern education and vocational training painted a rich chapter in China’s modern cultural history, introducing new crafts, technologies and artistic methods to painting, mosaics, glass staining, printing, lithograph and metal plating.

Its workshops were sometimes presided over by master craftsmen from abroad, including Hippolyte Francois Moreau, a famed French metal sculptor.

One remarkable anecdote illustrates the level of excellence achieved at the orphanage. In 1903, when French aviator Rene Vallon flew to Shanghai, he found crucial parts of his aircraft needed repair. After futile attempts to find what he needed in the city, a last-ditch appeal to the workshops at Tushanwan ended up providing all the repair work.

Moreover, the orphanage played a pivotal role in linguistic reform and cultural exchange, particularly through its foreign-language teaching.

Among other achievements, it fostered a Latin culture in Shanghai. Figures like Cai Yuanpei, a philosopher and educator who later became president of Peking University, and Liang Qichao, a journalist and leading intellectual in the first two decades of the 20th century, both studied Latin in Xujiahui.

The closure of the Tushanwan Orphanage in 1958 marked the end of an era, but its legacy lives on in the works of artists, sculptors and architects like Zhang Chongren and Xu Baoqing. It also influenced a generation of Chinese art masters such as Liu Haisu, Xu Beihong and Ren Bonian.

Today, the achievements of the Tushanwan Orphanage resonate through the halls of its museum, encapsulating the spirit of a home that was more than a shelter, but rather a place where lives were transformed and culture bred.


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