Webcast Recap

In 1863, the Rockeller family sold its first kerosene to China and made its first philanthropic gift to China missions. In her new book, The Oil Prince’s Legacy: Rockefeller Philanthropy in China, Mary Brown Bullock, Distinguished Visiting Professor of China Studies at Emory University, traces the relationship between the family and China since then, emphasizing in particular the notion that the sustained emphasis on elite science and medicine by the family legitimated a secular U.S. presence that remained despite upheavals in China during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. At an Asia Program event on November 2, Bullock noted that one of the reasons Rockefeller philanthropy was so influential in China was that it avoided the politicization of its cultural and scientific missions. Although paternalistic at times, the Rockefellers viewed the role of their philanthropy, often administered through their eponymous foundations, as creating cultural linkages and scientific communities that would exist beyond borders.

Much of the book concerns the family itself. The access that Bullock gained to the Rockefeller family archives provided an intimate glimpse into their dealings with China from the 19th century to the present. Starting with John D. Rockefeller Jr. and his wife Abby in 1921, family members regularly travelled to China, though their romanticism of the nation began before then, particularly through the collection of Chinese and Asian artifacts. Perhaps partly because of this fascination with and accumulation of such pieces, the family has often been accused of exhibiting imperialist tendencies. However, it is worth noting that John Jr. was critical of the often heavy-handed work of missionaries in China, preferring a more inclusive, universalist approach to religious belief.

As Bullock explained, the heart of the book covers the Rockefellers’ establishment of longstanding Chinese institutions. The Rockefeller Foundation and associated institutions were the most significant foreign influence on Chinese medicine and science in the first half of the 20th century. Through the foundation of the Peking Union Medical College (PUMC) in particular, the Rockefellers established what has come to be known as the “cradle of modern medicine in China.”  Seventy-five percent of those who graduated from the college before 1950 stayed in China, forming the basis for an epistemic community which valued American inspired models and standards of medicine. This community was able to survive and rebuild China’s medical system after the worst of the Maoist excesses of the 1960s and 1970s, and has remained in place even though the Rockefeller Foundation has ceased to operate in a China now capable of funding its own healthcare system.

Despite the significant success of its activities in China, the Rockefeller family cannot be viewed in a fully positive light. Warren Cohen, Distinguished University Professor of History and Presidential Research Professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and Wilson Center Senior Scholar, commented on Bullock’s book and presentation. According to Cohen, John Jr.’s son, John D. Rockefeller III, was an arrogant man who had nowhere near the taste for art exhibited by his father. Worse, his stubborn views on religion—he saw modern western medicine as an extension of Christianity—brought him into conflict with Roger Green, a talented former diplomat hired by the Rockefellers to extend their reach in China. John III forced Green out of the family foundation for disagreeing with the former’s emphasis on religion in the PUMC, although many in America and China supported Green. According to Cohen, John III’s insistence on maintaining a department of religion in the PUMC represented a stunning lack of sensitivity to Chinese nationalism.

However, for David M. Lampton, dean of faculty, George and Sadie Hyman Professor of China Studies, and director of the China studies program at Johns Hopkins Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, the Rockefeller story in China should be juxtaposed positively with the current environment. It is a narrative of cultural internationalism in which a family mobilized its resources purely to change China and the world for the better, and it contrasts sharply with the paucity of similar ambition in more recent times. Lampton stressed that the Rockefeller experience could be used to inform development models focused on elite institution building today, though he stressed that there was a need for other approaches as well. Moreover, the Rockefellers did not simply change the face of modern China, they changed the way China was perceived abroad, promoting cultural exchange that forced Americans to challenge their own fears about the communist nation in the 1960s. That, Lampton concluded, is a lesson that we could adapt to fears about China’s rise today.

By Bryce Wakefield

Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program