East meets West in the utmost pursuit of knowledge

Two statues and a surviving section of old school building tell an extraordinary story of the teaching of Western sciences in China.

Statues of two 19th-century scholars ─ one British, one Chinese ─ stand shoulder to shoulder on the lawn of Shanghai Gezhi High School, a stone’s throw away from People’s Square. The statues and a surviving section of old school building tell an extraordinary story of this East-meets-West school which first taught Western sciences in China.

“They are British translator John Fryer (1839-1928) and Chinese scientist, translator and mechanist Xu Shou (1818-84), two core founders of this unique school, which was managed by a committee of both Chinese and foreigners,” says Zhang Yaojun, a researcher with the Shanghai Archives Bureau.

The school that opened in 1876 was named the Chinese Polytechnic Institution, hoping to emulate the well-known establishment of a similar name in London’s Regent Street but on a smaller scale. Its Chinese name, Gezhi Academy, was inspired by “ge wu zhi zhi” (格物致知), from the Confucian theory meaning “study the underlying principle to acquire knowledge or pursue knowledge to the utmost.”

As China’s first new-style school to import education of natural sciences and even edit textbooks in the subject, the institution lived up to both Chinese and English names.

East meets West in the utmost pursuit of knowledge
Zhang Xuefei / SHINE

Bronze statues of British translator John Fryer (left) and Chinese scientist, translator and mechanist Xu Shou, two founders of the school, stand shoulder to shoulder on the lawn of the campus.

Sir Walter Medhurst, then British consul in Shanghai, was the original promoter of the scheme. At first, it was only intended to be a reading room for local people. Foreigners and Chinese subscribed funds and finally the scheme resolved itself into the form of a polytechnic institution where the arts and science of the West were taught.

“It was a rare example in both Chinese and foreign educational history,” says historian Xiong Yuezhi from the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. “The founding of the school was advocated by a foreigner, but it was not a missionary or expatriates’ school. Chinese elites participated but it was not entirely managed by Chinese. Chinese officials exerted influence but it was not attached to the Chinese government,” he says.

“It’s neither Chinese nor foreign, but both Chinese and foreign. It’s neither official nor private, but combines both official and private forces,” Xiong chuckles. 

The school was the product of a unique city like Shanghai, he adds.

“Among the expatriates in old Shanghai were fierce invaders, greedy adventurers, devout religionists and serious cultural scholars, some of whom might have multiple of these roles. However, some of them had the intention to introduce Western sciences and technologies to Shanghai,” he adds. “Meanwhile our city gathered a group of Chinese intellectuals and merchants like Xu Shou. The meeting of these foreigners and Chinese brought to the birth of this unique institution.”

This special feature was fully showcased at the opening ceremony attended by “principal civil and military mandarins of the native city in numbers” and “a numerous attendance of consular officials of different nationalities, merchants and other residents.”

According to a report in the North-China Herald on June 24, 1876, Medhurst recalled his original idea of founding a reading room to introduce Western arts and sciences to Chinese some three years before. It met a generous response from both foreign and Chinese merchants. His friend, Mr Fryer, suggested the proposed institution should be something more than a mere reading room, and that an endeavor should be made to form it into a polytechnic institution and school of art.

“That idea was taken up with earnestness and especially by Mr Hsu (Xu Shou), who with his son had been added to this committee and through whom above three quarters of the funds have been obtained,” Medhurst said during the opening ceremonial. “The proposition was also well circulated at home and many people there also promised to help the institution by sending specimens of their arts and manufactures. Mr Hsu is one of the very few Chinese who have made collections of scientific apparatus at their own homes. He has promised to lend us a large proportion of his collection for the use of the polytechnic.”

In addition to honorable guests and the opening of the school building which is “plain but suitable for the purpose,” many European firms provided beautiful specimens from telegraphic and electrical equipment to plans of locomotives and wagons. There were also a pair of globes, a movable orrery, a clock-barometer, a large model of a locomotive, and a sketch map prepared for “the feasibility and most effectual means of introducing railways into the Empire of China.”

East meets West in the utmost pursuit of knowledge
Zhang Xuefei / SHINE

The surviving part of the 1927 building has been renovated into a museum of Gezhi High School, whose history dates to 1876 when it was founded as the Chinese Polytechnic Institution.

East meets West in the utmost pursuit of knowledge
Gezhi High School / Ti Gong

A group photo of a class graduating in 1936 from the then Polytechnic Public School

The school library, though not overstocked with books at the beginning, contained translations of foreign scientific books and a collection of works on Chinese agriculture.

Today, the 19th-century “plain building” has long gone and the institution underwent changes during political changes. It became the Polytechnic Public School run by Shanghai Municipal Council from 1915 to 1941; Gezhi Middle School of the Shanghai puppet government from 1942 to 1945; Shanghai Municipal Gezhi Middle School from 1945 to 1949 and Shanghai Gezhi High School from 1949 to the present day. A 1920s building has survived.

“This historical building was almost demolished during an expansion around 2003. Thanks to the efforts of some old alumni, a small portion of the building has been preserved. The building was ‘plain’ but the preserved entrance gate was exquisite,” says Tongji University professor Zheng Shiling, who co-designed the school’s new buildings with colleagues Zhang Ming and Zhang Zi.

On January 15, 1925, the China Press released plans for “the new building of the Polytechnic Public School for Chinese” approved at a meeting of the Chinese Education Committee.

“The plans call for a building containing 18 classrooms of varying sizes and an art room, a large science room, a lecture room and manual training rooms. The assembly hall is centrally placed on the ground floor and sufficiently removed from the classrooms to allow of its being used as a gymnasium also,” the report said.

East meets West in the utmost pursuit of knowledge
Zhang Xuefei / SHINE

The museum displays this East-meets-West school's rich history that spans three centuries.

East meets West in the utmost pursuit of knowledge
Michelle Qiao / SHINE

Ke Ruifeng, director of the school’s Gezhi cultural research office, says: “The new building completed in 1927 was acclaimed ‘adequately facilitated’ and attracted more recruitments. Since then it seemed like a new start of our school. The number of students soared to 278 the same year and grew to be over 500 after 1929. Among China’s galaxy of history-rich schools and universities, it was one of the few that still perches on the original location and luckily maintained the original Chinese name — Gezhi.”

The surviving part of the 1927 building has been renovated into a school history museum, which exhibits photos of a galaxy of Chinese and foreigners who contributed to the forming of the institution, including John Fryer and Xu Shou, whose statues look over Chinese students every day.

“In the 19th century Xu and his fellow Chinese were enthusiastic to learn and introduce Western sciences. They first learned technologies by imitating Western machines, then translated related theories and books. Finally they wanted to train more talent in this field and that how our school was founded,” Ke says.

Today the school is one of the city’s top high schools in the heart of Shanghai. Gezhi imported MIT’s first FabLab in a Chinese school and among their graduates are 13 academicians of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Chinese Academy of Engineering.

“One hundred and thirty years or more, this school has adhered to the tradition of patriotism and science, advanced along the road of rejuvenating China by developing science and education,” the opening introduction of the school museum notes.

About the building

Yesterday: Polytechnic Public School for Chinese (originally Chinese Polytechnic Institution in 1876)
Today: Gezhi High School
Date of construction: 1927
Address: 66 Guangxi Rd N.
Tips: The building is not open to the public. The exquisite gateway can be admired from Guangxi Road.

East meets West in the utmost pursuit of knowledge
Zhang Xuefei / SHINE

Chinese progress in science

Yesterday an influential meeting took place at the Polytechnic Institution, Regent Street, to witness some of the most interesting phenomena connected with the popularization of light and other branches of optics as shown by a new apparatus intended for an institution at Shanghai.

The demonstration were conducted by Mr. J.L. King of the Polytechnic who delivered a brief lecture explanatory of the scientific principles, which determine the phenomena and who stated that the occasion derived its chief interest from the fact that it marked an awakening in the Chinese mind to the importance of scientific instruction.

The Chinese Institution owns its origin mainly to the influence and exertions of Sir Walter Medhurst, lately our Consul in Shanghai who was Chairman of the Shanghai Committee and Mr. Fryer who acts as Honorary Secretary.

Their views have been energetically supported by our ambassador, Sir Thomas Wade and by many of the leading mandarins, among whom may be mentioned Li Hung-Chang, whose name has a European celebrity; Feng Chu-ju, Taotai of Shanghai, Hsu-Tsuch-Tsun and his sons, who are well known throughout their own country for their technical skill and scientific enlightenment; and by many others who favor the importation of Western knowledge of every kind as calculated to render the most important service to their country.

The design of the new institution is to make a first step towards satisfying this patriotic aspiration. A building has been erected at Shanghai, within which lectures are to be given and interesting apparatus and processes shown, and a reading room provided with suitable works is already in active operation. These measures are expected and designed to lead up to a Chinese International Exhibition at which the most interesting productions of the East and West will be brought into juxtaposition. A new Scientific Magazine, in the Chinese language, has been established in Shanghai edited by Mr. Fryer.

Mr. King’s lecture gave great satisfaction to his visitors and was in every respect most successful. Among the articles being sent out to China by Messrs. Bourne & Co. are several of their new high speed engines, which are believed by the most competent judges to be destined to become the steam engines of the future.

One of these engines will be employed to drive an emery wheel, which acts like a rotating file in rapidly polishing metals and sharpening cutting instruments. This machinery attracted much attention. Messrs. Bourne & Co. are also sending out some fine specimens of porcelain, mostly of Minton’s make.

The most promising feature in connection with the present movement in China is that it is adopted and presented on by Chinese themselves. The first step in all such innovations is the most arduous, and it appears now likely to be taken with success.

— Excerpt from the North-China Herald (July 2, 1877)

East meets West in the utmost pursuit of knowledge
Gezhi High School / Ti Gong

An archive photo of the school founded by a committee of both Chinese and foreigners

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