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More than two decades ago, overseas studies were mostly government-funded and confined to elite people, offering no substitutes. Nowadays it has become increasingly popular for ordinary people who make independent choices to go abroad.
In 1979, China sent the first 50 young men to the United States as visiting scholars after the 10-year-long Cultural Revolution ended in 1976. They initially settled down in the Washington-based Chinese Embassy, where they started writing application letters to universities.
However, it was tough in the beginning for them: these students did not know how to contact universities and they even had difficulties in reading responses due to the massive language barrier. Two biology teachers, one from the Shanghai Institute of Biochemistry and the other from prestigious Peking University, were even not clear about the field of molecular biology.
In the following 25 years, the number of Chinese people studying abroad snowballed to almost 820,000 by 2004. Only 200,000 of them have returned.
This generation of overseas students and returned scholars was lauded for the promotion of sci-tech development on the mainland, but more importantly, they broke the fetters to the mind and changed the international perception of China and the Chinese people.
Rao Yi: grateful of the new policy
Beginning in 1985, common people were given permission to study abroad at their own expense. Rao Yi was one of the first to enjoy the new policy. He just returned from Northwestern University in the US this year, and currently serves as the dean of the College of Life Sciences at Peking University.
Rao regards the new policy as a big step forward given the "conservative" social surroundings in the 1970s.
"At that time, a photo of Cinderella on the back cover of the film magazine Popular Cinema created a big public uproar and was criticized as porn; kissing scenes were also unacceptable," said Rao. "During the Cultural Revolution period from 1966 to 1976, if you sent your academic paper to a foreign magazine, you could be condemned as a traitor in China."
The concept of overseas studies was conceived against such a backdrop. When the late state leader Deng Xiaoping proposed sending some people to study abroad, he anticipated opposition and indeed there were multiple obstructions in the course of the country's policy change on overseas studies.
At first, only government-sponsored overseas studies were allowed; later on students who had overseas connections were also given the go-ahead.
Rao qualified because he had some relatives in the US. He made his application in 1984 when he was a graduate student at the First Medical College of Shanghai.
He received the enrollment notices from several US universities, right after the new policy release in 1985, allowing ordinary people to study abroad at their own expense without mandatory examinations.
Rao and other early overseas students highly appreciated the new policy. "Without it, our fate would have been totally different," they said.
Consciousness of the elite
Before setting out for the US, Rao read many documents.
He and his roommate Lu Bai, now a renowned biologist, started a documents reading club while they were graduate students at the First Medical College of Shanghai. The club offered a platform for students to exchange ideas and learn from each other. Rao finally picked up molecular neurobiology as his research topic for its promising future and was determined to go abroad for further studies.
"At that time, China lagged far behind in the natural sciences. You have to study abroad in order to achieve anything significant in these fields."
In 1985, Rao was simultaneously admitted by four US universities as a graduate student: Harvard, University of California, San Francisco, University of California, San Diego, and Albert Einstein College of Medicine. After careful considerations, he chose University of California, San Francisco.
"Most students now depend on web rankings to make a decision when they choose a university. This is not advisable," Rao said. "Thorough research is necessary to find out which university has the best faculty for your field of study."
Xu Xiaoping: for what sake do we go abroad?
Xu Xiaoping is vice president of the New Oriental School, a leading privately funded English training provider in China, established in 1993. He went abroad in 1987.
The idea of studying abroad occurred to Xu upon his graduation from the Central Conservatory of Music in 1983.
However, Xu and his friends were confused about why they should go abroad.
"We were full of enthusiasm and aspirations for China's domestic development at that time," said Xu. "What concerned us was whether going abroad would cost us the chance to serve our country. Nowadays people care more about their own careers."
Students did not have as many options as today, Xu said.
"'To be a minister or a teacher?' This was the question asked by a student from the Beijing Foreign Studies University as if there were only two paths before them after graduation: either live a political life or pursue a teaching career," Xu recalled.
When Xu was working for the Communist Youth League Committee of Peking University, one of his colleagues got the opportunity to study at Harvard Law School but ultimately quit.
"He became a state leader," said Xu. "My point is that 25 years ago, we had lofty social ideals. Overseas studies were just means to achieve that ideal but they were not the ultimate goal."
In 2002, Xu, after working in New Oriental for about seven years, launched the slogan: no blind pursuit of overseas studies, but with an aim; go abroad in order to better serve the mother country. He said this was a reflection of his personal experiences and true feelings.
"In the 1980s, we were unclear about why we should study abroad," said Xu. "A friend of mine encouraged me to go abroad, saying 'you can get home appliances like refrigerators, televisions and washing machines there.' As a Peking University scholar, he felt morally uneasy when he went abroad and could only get some consolation by fulfilling family responsibilities."