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The Oil Prince’s Legacy: Rockefeller Philanthropy in China

October 12, 2011

By Mary Brown Bullock

In 1863, John D. Rockefeller sold his first kerosene to China and made his first gift to China missions. He was 24 years old. He could not have dreamed that both his future oil company and future foundation would one day dominate the American commercial and cultural presence in China.

Indeed, the Rockefeller China story is America’s China story. The first three John D. Rockefellers were engaged with China from the time of the American Civil War to Deng Xiaoping’s reform era. Across the 20th century, their philanthropic investment in China’s science, medicine, and higher education far outpaced any other American source – upwards of a billion dollars. The Rockefeller interests in China’s commerce, religion, science, and art epitomize the multi-dimensional, non-governmental forces that continue to shape U.S.-China relations today.

The Rockefeller family story that began in the late 19th century continues today: several years ago members of the 4th and 5th generation gathered in Beijing to dedicate a Chinese statue of John D. Rockefeller. They followed by about 90 years John Jr. and his wife Abby’s 1921 trip to dedicate the Rockefeller Foundation’s flagship institution. This family keystone memory was intensified a year later when Chinese bandits kidnapped Abby’s sister Lucy Aldrich, daughter of Senator Aldrich of Rhode Island. Despite family consternation, Abby wrote Lucy, “I am sure this incident will not kill your love of China any more than it does ours.”

The family’s affinity for Asia is intrinsically interesting, but it is also important politically and culturally. As early as the 1920s, John Jr. and Abby’s world view came to encompass Chinese religion and art and the conviction that China mattered, not just culturally, but also politically. Their six famous children – Babs, John III, Nelson, David, Winthrop, and Laurence – grew up frolicking in Asian gardens, tiptoeing through Buddha rooms, and eating on antique Asian China. The Rockefeller family’s embrace of Asian peoples and civilization influenced American perceptions of China, in part because of their prestigious social position but even more because their cosmopolitan values shaped the institutions they created, institutions which are still influential today.

Over the course of the 20th century, several hundred Chinese institutions and many thousands of Chinese scholars and practitioners received Rockefeller philanthropic support. These institutions and scholars absorbed, adapted, and reinvented American learning and sometimes they rejected it altogether. Rockefeller philanthropy’s sustained emphasis on science and medicine transformed and secularized the American cultural role in Republican China. It legitimized an American scientific influence and a tradition of intellectual and professional relationships that transcended Mao’s China and continues to distinguish the bilateral relationship.

Rockefeller philanthropic institutions have long served as a bellwether for the American non-governmental presence in China. Their formative influence on China’s science and medicine defined the post-missionary era in the first half of the century. Their re-entry into China after Nixon’s opening was carefully orchestrated by China’s leaders. In a late-night meeting, Zhou Enlai reminded David Rockefeller of his family’s beneficial role. When Rockefeller Foundation president John Knowles was dying of cancer, Deng Xiaoping called to express sympathy.

In 1979, the Rockefeller Foundation and its former subsidiary, the now independent China Medical Board, were invited to reprise their historic roles, bringing resources to rebuild China’s medical infrastructure and revitalize its life sciences, and to link China with global scientific networks. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund concentrated on strategic dialogue and environmental programs. The Asian Cultural Council invited some of the first individual Chinese artists to study and perform in the United States. And the Asia Society led the way in public education about the People’s Republic of China.

When the first Rockefeller envoys went to China, it was widely referred to as “the sick man of Asia” – hard to believe now as its rise as a global power is rapidly changing the calculus for non-governmental relationships as much as for U.S. political and economic relations. Today, China’s investment in its own universities, think tanks, and cultural institutions dwarfs any potential contribution from an American organization.

Historic Rockefeller China philanthropy was successful in great part because of a convergence with Chinese priorities. The evolving new strategies for Rockefeller institutions endeavor to align Rockefeller programs with China’s most progressive new directions. These include equitable health care, artistic creativity, energy sustainability, civil society, and enlightened foreign aid. Since international philanthropy is most successful when it responds to a common agenda and becomes integrated with the existing fabric of a country, Rockefeller philanthropy’s second century in China looks promising.

Asia Foundation trustee Mary Brown Bullock is a Visiting Distinguished Professor of China Studies at Emory University, president emerita of Agnes Scott College, and chair of the China Medical Board. This piece was adapted from her new book, The Oil Prince’s Legacy: Rockefeller Philanthropy in China, co-published in June 2011 by the Stanford University Press and the Woodrow Wilson Center Press. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

The Asia Foundation has been programming in China since 1979, providing financial support and technical assistance to Chinese partners in academia, non-governmental organizations, and government institutions in the areas of law and governance, environmental protection, empowerment of women and disadvantaged groups, and disaster management.

Related locations: China

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for this article!

    I plan to use this as introduction to the Rockefeller Foundation’s work in China as part of a teaching unit in my US-China Relations Seminar. We have been looking at this relationship largely through the lens of education.

    Thus far, my students have looked at Tao Xingzhi and his studies in the US and work in China. We spent time today reading Dewey’s letters from China. I plan to pair this article with content from the RF 100 Years Project (see The digital surrogates on this site are *great*…my students will have great fun sitting with these and asking their own big questions.

    We will visit China Institute soon to learn how that organization helps to bridges between the cultures through programs open New Yorkers of all stripes.

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