International student exchange between China and Stockholm University started 1918. Photo:Mostphotos
The first international student exchange between China and Stockholm University in 1918 became the start of the university’s increasing international involvement outside of the European research sphere. Photo: Bartlomiej Magierowski/Mostphotos

“Zhou Zanheng stayed in Sweden for three and a half years and learned fluent Swedish with typical Stockholm dialect”, says Jan Romgard, science historian and sinologist, who wrote his PhD thesis at the Department of Asian, Middle Eastern and Turkish Studies, Stockholm University, about the exchanges with China.

Johan Gunnar Andersson. Photo: Östasiatiska museets arkiv
Johan Gunnar Andersson built up the first scientific cooperation with China. In the photo he is doing field work in the Henan Province, 1918. Photo: Östasiatiska museets arkiv

The story of Zhou Zanheng is now included in his new book Polarforskaren som strandade i Kina (The Polar Researcher that stranded in China) which deals with how the polar explorer and China researcher Johan Gunnar Andersson built up Sweden’s first scientific cooperation with Beijing in the 1910s and 1920s. Andersson was a geologist and became mining adviser to the Chinese government in 1914, two years after the country had turned into a republic.

“China wanted to get started with modern science, but lacked field experts and laboratories. Andersson was assigned the task of building up geological surveys there and training a new generation of geologists. Several Chinese students took part in the field work and looked, among other things, also for palaeontological fossils. The Sino-Swedish field teams found a lot of new species that, according to an agreement with China, were first sent to Sweden to be examined in laboratories here. That’s why the first exchange student, Zhou Zanheng, came here – to study palaeontology and to go through the material together with Swedish researchers”, says Jan Romgard.

New data from letters, journals and newspapers

He describes that he discovered a lot of new data about the exchanges during the work on the book. To find information, he reviewed a large material in both private and public archives – from letters between the researchers in Sweden and China to their field journals. The newspaper archives also gave new data.

the chemistry lab at Stockholms högskola 1909-1920. Photo: Stockholms stadsmuseum
Zhou Zanheng may have stayed in this environment when he came to Stockholm a hundred years ago. The picture shows the chemistry lab at Stockholms högskola (former Stockholm University) 1909-1920. Photo: Stockholms stadsmuseum

“It was fascinating to see that the cooperation already then received a lot of attention in the Swedish press. And there was a curiosity also about the student Zhou Zanheng. The newspapers in Stockholm wrote about him and he was taken care of by both the researchers in Sweden and the network around them.

Zhou Zanheng was 26 when he came to Sweden from Beijing, but he was originally from Shanghai.

“According to himself, he had a good time in Stockholm, and in his spare time he must have been hanging out with other students because he is said to have been completely at ease with the popular student jargon of the day.

The cooperation lasted for decades

According to Jan Romgard, the student exchange and research collaborations meant the start of a program between the two countries that lasted for several decades from the mid-1910s to the Second World War.

“A large number of Swedish and Chinese scientists travelled back and forth across the continent during that time and did both fieldwork and wrote reports about the joint discoveries in China. It was one of Sweden’s first major exchanges of this kind with a country outside Europe.

Zhou Zanheng returned to China in 1922 and then worked at the Geological Survey of China. He never returned to Sweden, but wrote letters to his old friends here, and Andersson met him again in China in 1937.

During the long-term cooperation, the Sino-Swedish teams also made many revolutionary discoveries.

Jan Romgard, science historian and sinologist. Photo: C Sturmark
Jan Romgard, science historian and sinologist. Photo: C Sturmark

“For example, together they made the first scientific excavations of dinosaurs in China, discovered fossil teeth from the Peking man and did the very first modern archaeological excavations in the country”, he says.

The history of Stockholm University’s first exchange student from China and the large Sino-Swedish cooperation is included in Jan Romgard’s new book Polarforskaren som strandade i Kina: Johan Gunnar Andersson & de svenska Asienexpeditionerna (Fri Tanke förlag, 2018). It is currently being prepared for translations into English and Chinese. The book has been nominated to the Stora Fackbokspriset 2018 (The Great Non-fiction Book Prize 2018).