3 times political conflict reshaped American mathematics

Wars. Politics. Dynasties. Nationalism.

Although mathematics isn’t typically associated with these ideas, they have combined to yield a tremendous impact on its development in the U.S. Political conflicts have led to new study abroad initiatives, the creation or downfall of world-class universities, the migration of mathematicians and the stimulus for educational reforms.

In February, my University of Richmond students and I launched americanmathematics.org, a new website on the history of American mathematics. It showcases the people who create, the institutions that support and the cultures that influence mathematics.

This rich history shows that mathematics is much more than equations or multiplication facts. It’s a living, breathing discipline shaped, in part, by the political forces around it.

Boxer Scholars

In the late 19th century, a growing anti-foreign sentiment in China led to the Boxer uprising, acquiring its name from the rebels, known as “Boxers,” who practiced physical movements that they believed made them immune to bullets.

A coalition army of soldiers from eight western countries suppressed the rebellion in August 1900. In 1901, China was forced to pay war reparations valued at about US$333 million to the eight foreign governments over the course of 39 years.

The U.S. received about $24 million to $25 million. Many American government officials found this amount excessive, particularly since it exceeded the actual expenses for losses incurred.

Edmund James, then president of the University of Illinois, helped persuade President Theodore Roosevelt to return some of these funds and create educational opportunities for Chinese students to study in the U.S. These Boxer Indemnity Scholarships brought more than 900 Chinese students to America from 1911 to 1929.

Wang Renfu was the first Boxer Scholar to study mathematics in America. After earning his degree from Harvard in 1913, he returned to China and joined the Department of Mathematics at Beijing University. He later served on the Board of the Chinese Mathematical Society.

To prepare students for study in the U.S., the Chinese government also used the Boxer Indemnity Funds to create a college preparatory school in 1911. This preparatory school, known as Tsinghua School, ultimately grew into Tsinghua University.

The Tsinghua University campus in Beijing, China. Tsinghua/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA
The four faculty members of the initial Department of Mathematics at Tsinghua University included three Boxer Scholars, including Ko-Chuen Yang, whose number theory dissertation improved existing bounds for certain cases of what is known as Waring’s Problem. Waring’s Problem considers the possibility of writing every number as a sum of squares, cubes and higher powers. The school continues to enjoy a strong reputation today.

That rebellion created the opportunity for Chinese students to study in the U.S. and return home to establish strong mathematics programs in China. Later, Chinese mathematicians would receive their training in China and make contributions to American mathematics.