L'INSTITUT DES HAUTES ETUDES INDUSTRIELLES
ET COMMERCIALES DE TIENTSIN
The official name of the school changed in the course of its history. Eventually, in 1933, when it was officially accredited by the Nanjing government's Ministry of Education, it was called Tianjin gong shang xue yuan, which in English documents of the time was rendered as "Tientsin Kung Shang College." But in its first years, the school's official name was not a Chinese but a French name, L'Institut des Hautes Etudes Industrielles et Commerciales de Tientsin. The school was a French school in China, not a Chinese school founded and maintained by French priests. It was by socializing Chinese into French culture—and preparing them for jobs in French-run government or commercial agencies—that the Jesuits hoped to separate them from their non-Christian Chinese world and bring them into the hierarchical embrace of the church.
In 1919, the papal encyclical Maximum Ilud had warned missionaries about the dangers of identifying their faith with their country,  but the French Jesuits in the 1920s still resisted the warning. Ever since the mid-nineteenth century, the French government had been the official protector of Catholic missions in China, using gunboats if necessary to defend the right of Catholic missionaries to evangelize, and expecting in return missionary support for French imperialistic interests. In the mentality of the French Jesuits, it seemed indeed as if God spoke French. In a publicity statement (probably written for the French press) issued from the school in 1924, its first year of operation, the Jesuits emphasized the role of the French language in their curriculum: "Of six hours of class every day, three are devoted to French…. The assignments in the other courses tend gradually to be done in French. Later the courses in the upper division [facultes superieures] are given in French. As a matter of fact, in all of north China, the Institut des Hautes Etudes is the only French establishment giving secondary education to Chinese students." This was important as a counterweight to the predominant influence of "Anglo-Saxons" in north China. "In the big cities of the North, there are a number of large educational establishments directed by Anglo-Saxons. The American influence is considerable…. English is extremely prevalent in the ruling class. A course in English is obligatory in middle schools; in the Universities, teaching is given in English. French is being placed on a lower level."
The press release concluded with an appeal for French government subsidies: "An enterprise like this cannot be crowned with success without the help of the French government…. Obviously we do not seek any personal profit. It seems good that this work is to the great benefit of France." The Far Eastern branch of the French Chamber of Commerce stated what kind of benefit was envisioned. French business in China needed Chinese managers and engineers who could speak French and were familiar with French ways of working. And the French commercial attaché in China wrote, "Above all, the best agent of French propaganda in China is a technical school of French education," just like the one the Jesuits were establishing (emphasis in the original).
Of course, the ultimate purpose of the school was not supposed to be political or commercial, but religious. As the Jesuits saw it, the main problem with the Anglo-Saxon schools was that they taught Protestantism. The Protestants were making a huge effort in Chinese higher education and had gained a great deal of influence in government establishments. Although they had achieved "minimal success in terms of changing hearts," they had gained "considerable…prestige among the learned classes." Unfortunately, however, "among the upper classes, Catholicism seems to be the religion of the poor and ignorant, in spite of its brilliant role under Kangxi. It is essential to demonstrate to people who take legitimate pride in their ancient civilization and who prize new progress that the Catholic religion is capable of surpassing every other religion in the domain of spiritual culture and moral formation." Besides counteracting the unfortunate influence of Anglo-Saxon Protestants, the school was urgently needed to defend against the even more baleful influence of secularism. The state universities were having a "deplorable influence on the future leaders of China." "Atheism, rationalism, Bolshevism—every sort of unfortunate fruit is found in the new education."
As early as 1910, the Jesuit superior of the province of Champagne had visited Xian county and recommended the creation of such a school. Instability in China and the world war in Europe delayed these plans. But by 1919, the Jesuits received a charge from the Vatican's Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (Propaganda Fidei) to construct an institution of higher learning in Tianjin for children of the upper classes (pro filiis nobilium). The need now seemed urgent. The influence of both Anglo-Saxon Protestants and secularist Chinese had increased since the Great War.
Thus, the Institut des Hautes Etudes was finally established on Tianjin's Racecourse Road in the autumn of 1923. Although commonly called "Hautes Etudes," the school actually began as a college preparatory upper-middle school and then expanded to include genuine higher-level education, housed in a handsome stone building set in a neatly tended, walled-in campus. In the school's first year of operation, the student body consisted of fifty students, all but three coming either from "Mandarin families" or commercial and banking circles. "Our vision," wrote the Jesuits, "is to attend to the intellectual elite of the country." In practice, they seem to have identified "intellectual elite" with "social elite."
Established concurrently was the Institute of Research in Natural Science, staffed by Frs. Licent and Teilhard de Chardin and including the Beijiang Museum of Natural History. (In a conference held to celebrate the establishment, Teilhard lectured on a special research project he was carrying out for the museum in collaboration with French scientific circles.) Although Fr. Licent said that the students of the Institut de Hautes Etudes would be the primary beneficiaries of the museum and research institute, the students in fact seemed to have had rather little direct relationship with the latter. Frs. Licent and Teilhard did not teach classes in the school. Although students who were studying geology could
The academic structure of the school was thus hierarchical in a way that reflected the logic of the church's religious hierarchy. At the top was a research institute, staffed by committed Jesuit priests, that was engaged in pioneering dialogue with the most advanced levels of secular scientific thought. Under this was a school whose students and faculty had little contact with the potentially heretical ideas being explored by the institute. The Jesuits at the research institute patrolled the boundary between the church and the world and potentially even risked their faith in the process. Underneath them, less advanced students were kept segregated from such dangerous activities while benefiting from the intellectual shelter provided by their superiors.
The "Catholicity" of the Institut des Hautes Etudes was assured by the composition of its faculty—six French priests, one Italian layman, and four Chinese alumni of the Jesuit Aurora University in Shanghai. The initial student body was not so predominantly Catholic, however. Only about one-fourth were members of the church. In accordance with Vatican regulations, the Catholic students lived in a special dormitory and even used a study hall separate from that of the non-Catholics, although Catholics and non-Catholics attended classes together. The school thus protected its Catholics from the world by providing a place where they could be segregated from non-Christian influences under the watchful eye of the Fathers—but one in which they could also be prepared to engage with the world by interacting with a relatively safe buffer population of fellow students who were non-Christian but Francophone and presumably Francophile.
Besides French, the curriculum contained the standard courses of a European-style upper-middle school: mathematics, philosophy, physics, geography, Chinese literature, design, and typing. As the school expanded into higher education, it specialized in business management and a variety of types of engineering. The only place where Catholic teaching might be directly inserted in the curriculum was in the philosophy course, which dealt—it seems in an orthodox, Catholic Thomistic fashion—with "liberty, responsibility, conscience, and moral practice." The view of the French Jesuits seemed to be that what constituted a Catholic education for upperclass Chinese was not mainly the content of the curriculum, but the formal structure of the institution within which the curriculum was enacted. It was hierarchical, with priests at the top. It was French, with people of French nationality in charge and with most of the non-French faculty members having been educated in French universities. Moreover, the French language was at the center of instruction. The Jesuits seemed to assume that even without imparting
The most important sign that students were being receptive to that true faith would be that they converted to Catholicism. Only a relative few did. The first convert was baptized in 1927, three years after the school was established, and after that, even as the numbers of students expanded to over a thousand, only a handful of students were baptized every year. (Overall, however, about 25 percent of the student body was Catholic, mostly from old Catholic families around Tianjin. This was a higher percentage than the percentage of Protestants in typical Protestant universities.) But even though most students remained non-Catholic, the Jesuits still pointed to the school spirit as evidence that students were being influenced for the better by the Catholic faith. One of the most admirable characteristics of the students, the Jesuits thought, was their docility: "The work is serious. Discipline is imposed without difficulty. We like the students' docility, their good spirit, their respectful deference to their teachers."
During the nationalist movement of 1925, the students at the Institut des Hautes Etudes remained calm and refrained from participation in the agitation sweeping intellectuals throughout the country. This quiescence set a standard for the school. Students from the Institut des Hautes Etudes refrained from actively participating in all of the great movements in the Republican era. In college yearbooks, the students themselves expressed pride in this lack of activism. Even for non-Catholic students, it was a mark of the well-disciplined character of their school.
In its very institutional structures, then, the Institut des Hautes Etudes embodied a common early-twentieth-century European understanding of the nature of the Catholic faith and the mission of the church in the world, a vision of faith and mission that was firmly rooted in sixteenth-century Counter Reformation theology. In that vision, Catholic faith and practice were virtually identified with submission to a clerical hierarchy. To bring people into the Catholic faith was to bring them under the scope of this hierarchy and cultivate within them the virtues that made obedience to hierarchical authorities easy. Furthermore, the faith was deeply identified with national Catholic cultures. In countries like France, where much of the population was abandoning Catholic practice, the Catholic hierarchy often identified the essence of Catholicism with those aspects of national culture that resisted revolution and modern social change.
In this vision, however, not all kinds of revolution and all kinds of modern social change were bad. A revolution such as had occurred in China might be good if it swept away conservative leaders who resisted being influenced by Christianity. Basically, revolution was bad if it diminished the power of ecclesiastical authorities, good if it opened the possibility of extending such power. Social change resulting from advances in science, technology, and industry was by no means bad in itself. The church supported institutions of higher learning such as the
Consonant with this vision, it was salutary to offer a clerically supervised higher education to filiis nobilium. The scientific parts of this education might enable them to contribute to the progress of their societies; the humanistic parts might enable them to provide sophisticated leadership in complex societies; the moral parts might nurture a spirit of noblesse oblige. But it might not be good to broadly offer lower-class people the same kind of education. The scientific and technological parts of such education might too quickly raise their expectations and make them dissatisfied with their place in life. The humanistic parts might confuse them and render them skeptical about the moral verities that sustained them within their families and communities.
As long as one accepts the hierarchical view of life central to Counter Reformation European Catholicism, the French Jesuits were not being inconsistent in promoting an antiscientific, unreflexive folk piety in Xian county and a modern scientific education in Tianjin. Different classes of people should have different kinds of knowledge, different levels of sophistication in the understanding of the faith. In fact, these very differences reinforced one of the most important bulwarks of the Catholic faith, a healthy respect for hierarchy.
Catholicism of the kind propagated by the French Jesuits in north China in the 1920s and 1930s was antimodern only in an ambivalent, ironic sense. It in fact helped develop some of the principal institutions of modernization—science, technology, and industry—and it encouraged its believers to contribute to the building of a modern Chinese state. At the same time, though, it maintained an unmodern ideology. Unlike mainline Protestantism or Deweyan liberalism or revolutionary Marxism, it did not encourage, in principle or in practice, a flattening of hierarchies, an approval of social mobility, or a generalized skepticism of traditional authorities. It accepted as natural the deep cultural differences between city and countryside. Its solution to problems posed by such differences was not to try to make everybody the same but to encourage everybody to be satisfied with their station in life. The poor were to be helped by the moral responsibility inculcated in the rich. As long as men were kept aware that they do not live by bread alone, all would be benefited by the material goods made possible through scientific and economic progress.
In the first stage of the existence of the Institut des Hautes Etudes, this traditional, hierarchical vision of Catholicism was seen as virtually inseparable from French culture, at least conservative strands within that culture. By the 1930s, however, a new stage in the life of the school began. The Republic of China was finally gaining enough strength and coherence to set the terms under which foreign educational institutions could work in China. The Institut des Hautes Etudes could no longer be a French institution on Chinese soil. It had to become a Chinese institution,
Under these circumstances, the Jesuits had to confront the question of how to preserve the Institut's Catholic character while discarding its French character. This involved refining their view of what were the boundaries between the Catholic community and the world. As they did so, their changing vision interacted with changing aspirations of the Chinese students who were attracted to the school.