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Drake in China

This page contains sources and topics relating to connections between Drake University and China

The "Drake in China" Project

My name is En Li, a historian of late imperial and modern China (Ph.D. Washington University 2015). My first book is to be published in June 2023 and is about gambling on the civil service examinations in China (Harvard University Asia Center, 2023) My second book will be about Chinese Hula dancers in Republican Shanghai and Southeast Asia. I love cultural history and I think people’s stories should not be defined and limited by a single nation state.  

When I first started teaching at Drake in 2016, China felt far away; yet, I was still surrounded by discussions of Iowa and China. People frequently mentioned the legacy of Xi Jinping’s special connections to Iowa in the past decades and there is the annual China symposium on campus during the International Educational week.  

But does “China” have anything to do with the students at Drake? Not really.  

As someone who regularly taught about China from 2016 to 2023, I constantly asked myself, how could I make Chinese history more relevant to the students? It became the starting point of my journey to understand more about the historical engagement of Drake in China. Especially since leading students to study abroad in China became more of remote dream since March 2020, I wondered, would there be any history that we could trace to China here at Drake? More importantly and more generally, is it possible to discovery the history of China right here on our campus?  

With curiosity, I first visited the special archives related to China at the Cowles Library in Fall 2016. With the help of the librarians Claudia Frazer, Katherine Lincoln, and Hope Bibens (who later became a collaborator of this project), I realized that Drake University has had significant engagement in China since the late nineteenth century. For example, Jew Hawk, the first international student who enrolled in the Bible School in the 1890s, was from Canton (modern day Guangdong), China. As another example, in April 1959, Madame Chiang Kai-shek, the wife of the Nationalist Party Leader in China, visited Drake and delivered a formal speech on fighting Communism. The Cowles Library also collected various gifts and correspondences that Governor Robert Ray, a Des Moines native, received during and after his trips to China beginning in the 1980s. This is all to say nothing of the recently acquired Branstad papers.  

Throughout years, I incorporated some of these archival materials into my upper-level courses about Chinese history. In such a manner, I held class at the Cowles Library in the springs of 2017 and 2019 to lead students to view those archives. 

(Showing archives I found at Drake related to China, Cowles Library, Special Collection, Spring 2017, HIST129 Modern China) 

Since an increasing number students engaged in Asian history courses have shown enthusiasm in interpreting primary source materials, and my learning of the Open Education Resource (OER) concept at the library workshops, I started to envision a “documentation” project as a unique pedagogical opportunity to further their interest beyond the classroom.  

I envision two approaches for students to engage in this documentation project:  

First, documenting with the aim of creating a research guide/annotated bibliography to help future students find areas of possible research, especially for students who seek primary sources to conduct research in history and other relevant disciplines. This will seek to create a new resource that students who are interested in Asia, especially China, can explore.  

Second, displaying based on the research guide/annotated bibliography. In this portion, students can help to create a website or digital exhibit that would incorporate images, artifacts, etc. to further engage the broader community on the Drake campus and beyond.  

In this sense, this project is both scholarly and pedagogical. The documentation nature provides students an enriched experience in the study of modern Chinese history at Drake. Exhibition further serves as a foundation to contribute to the East Asian program that may attract incoming students with an interest in China in particular, and East Asia more generally. Among student’s learning experience here at Drake, I hope this is something unique that they will remember as a distinguishing factor concerning Drake’s engagement in modern China.  

Receiving funding from the Provost’s Office, I worked with two student researchers, Kaiya Kielb Young (History) and Tavia Swarney (Anthropology), to create a collection of materials related to Drake University’s historical engagement in China in 2022-2023. This included material concerning the first Chinese students who studied at the Drake Bible College in the 1890s, Drake’s missionary graduates who went to China in the early 20th century to spread Christianity, Madame Chiang Kai-shek’s visit to Drake in 1959, and Drake’s various cultural exchanges with China since the 1980s. These cultural exchanges include examples such as the Ray Society Seminar, the “Teaching in China” program, and the Drake football team’s visit to China in 2018.  

To engage the broader intellectual community, I organized a panel entitled “Drake in China: A Documentation Project” during the International Education Week-China Forum in November 2022, with David Skidmore (Political Science), Liping Zheng (Economics), and Hope Bibens (Special Collections, Cowles Library) serving as discussants. Faculty members and students across disciplines showed great curiosity and enthusiasm to the DIC project and suggested future directions.  

In April 2023, Kaiya Kielb Young (Phi Alpha Theta President, chief editor of the Drake Undergraduate Social Science Journal [DUSSJ], and recipient of the 2023 Department of History Engaged Student Award) presented part of the DIC project.   


  (Flyer for “Drake in China: A Documentation Project")                  (Kaiya Kielb Young with her presentation “Drake in China:

                                                                                                       Christian Education, Medicine, and Influencing Chinese

                                                                                                       Perceptions” at the Phi Alpha Theta Regional Conference, 

                                                                                                            University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, April 20, 2023)  


This project is original, important, and multi-layered to serve the following purposes: 


1. Research. As the most immediate outcome, the current themes and materials, especially the ones related to Christianity, can be developed into series of journal articles. Further, The Drake Undergraduate Social Science Journal (DUSSJ) should consider the publication of a special issue of articles and oral history reports on the DIC project. Also, students with a particular interest in China and East Asia who engage with primary sources should consider using the DIC project for Capstone history courses and honors theses.  

2. Innovative model to engage student research. With close collaboration with students as researchers, partitioners, and co-creators, future instructors should consider drawing from this experience and developing a pedagogical model to continue to recruit new student researchers. The model can be further expanded every year to recruit new students to engage in research about China and the original material discovered at Drake.  

3. Teaching. This project provides students a unique opportunity to study modern China at Drake. The student-centric approach makes students feel more relevant and connected to what they study, especially with the on-going travel restrictions and uncertainty in China. The broader documentation further helps faculty from different disciplines such as political science, religion, economics, business, journalism, education, sociology, anthropology, and health science, to enrich their teaching.  

4. Broader intellectual impacts. DIC’s emphasis on actual human contacts challenges the media’s propagandized stereotype, which is especially important during the current post-COVID world. By returning to a humanistic approach, I hope to encourage students to seek the truth, tell better stories, understand the world in a more emphatical way, and be more informed global citizens. For further engagement, the research results should be regularly presented during IE week, with invited faculty members as discussants. The research guide and online exhibit should be regularly updated and become a permanent component at the Cowles Library. Lastly, this project should be featured during the Asia Pacific Heritage month in May every year to raise consciousness about Asian culture and help to build a truly inclusive and diverse campus.  

Photo Documentation

The research of this project was made possible by a Collaborative Research Grant from the Provost's Office in 2022-2023. Special thanks to Renee Cremer for her generous support.