Two University of Washington offices are updating a scholarship’s antiquated and potentially offensive reference to a region still recovering from occupation at the hands of the Imperial Japanese Army.
The Office of Student Financial Aid (OSFA), in conjunction with International Student Services (ISS), is changing the term “Manchuria” to “Northeast China” in all literature relating to the Statira Biggs Scholarship, after Chinese international students raised concerns about the scholarship’s unclear, culturally insensitive application criteria.
“Words have an impact,” said OSFA and ISS in a mid-February email to the international student body. “When we encouraged students to apply for the scholarship using this original description, we caused harm to members of our community and deeply regret doing so.”
OSFA first became aware of the language problems shortly after the department began soliciting applications in an early-February ISS newsletter, Kay Lewis, assistant vice provost for enrollment and executive director of financial aid and scholarships, said.
They had been advertising the annual spring scholarship for years by copying the original donor criteria description verbatim into marketing material without knowledge of the problem, Lewis said.
“We’re very happy that the students told us about that, so that would could learn that and be more aware of the situation,” Lewis said.
She said she appreciated the push to increase her office’s cultural awareness and said they will be paying closer attention to long-standing scholarship language in the future.
Chinese students account for the largest percentage of international students at the UW and are an important source of revenue for the school.
In autumn of 2017, the school hosted 3,711 students from all over China in its undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs, according to data from the university’s student database presented by the ISS. For perspective, the next most represented country is India, with a total of 718 students.
When international student Shihao Han read the term in his email, he thought it was old-fashioned and odd, he said. The political science doctoral candidate was born in southern China, but his parents are from the northeastern region.
“It’s just like if someone still would call the United States ‘the 13 Colonies of America’ today,” Han said.
Much of the problem lies in the fact that the now-obsolete term has imprecise and ambiguous origins, David Bachman, UW professor of International Studies and former China Studies Program chair, explained.
“The rough equivalent could be translated three different ways in Chinese, depending on the historical period and the political conditions at the time,” Bachman said.
One translation, “Manzhou,” can refer to two different physical maps, either the current Dongbei region within northeastern China or the older version of the Manchu peoples’ lands that included some of southern Siberia.
The most recent, and most painful, translation “Manchukuo” (or “Manzhouguo”), was the name given to the abusive puppet government established by the Imperial Japanese Army that invaded and colonized the region from 1931-1945, according to Bachman.
During the occupation, he explained, the Imperial Japanese Army used the local Chinese population as test subjects for chemical and biological weapons projects.
“That’s one of the true markers of why Manchukuo is so vilely felt by Chinese citizens,” Bachman said.
Meanwhile across the Pacific, the scholarship’s namesake, Statira Biggs (1883-1951), was witnessing first-hand the atrocities perpetrated by U.S. citizens against their Japanese-American compatriots.
A UW alumna, Biggs was the daughter of a teacher and a life-long educator herself. As a math teacher at Bainbridge High School for 23 years, she lost several students when Bainbridge became the first community on the West Coast to send Japanese citizens to relocation.
Biggs sent her former students magazine subscriptions, exchanged letters with those stationed overseas, and visited their families at the Minidoka War Relocation Center near Hunt, Idaho, according to stories published in the Bainbridge Island Review. At the end of the war, she retired from the island school to teach at the newly established veteran’s school in West Seattle.
The endowment in her name was likely a bequeath from her will, Lewis said.
This is not the first time this year international students have struggled with the university’s lack of international cultural sensitivity. Daily writer Kelsey Chuang, an international student from Taiwan, wrote last month about the shock of seeing her home identified as a “Province of China,” in her acceptance letter.
For his part, Han is quite satisfied with the school’s response to international student feedback.
“I believe it sets a good example of the kind of intercommunication and interactions between the Chinese student community and the school,” Han said.