At the turn of the century, the downfall of the last feudalistic empire - Ching Dynasty had begun, the society was on the verge of corruption. Learning from the heartbreaking experiences of defeat from the various conflicts with the foreign powers ( particularly the Opium War ) , the government realized that China had a lot of catch-up to do with respect to the western technology in order to survive. They sent a large group of young pre-college students to the U.S. (because the American government was more friendly and sincere to the Chinese) to learn the language and then enroll in the colleges for science and technology. Next, the Ministry of Commerce was established to oversee the development of railroads, telegraph, postal services and ship building as well as shipping (路電郵航). Two technical colleges were founded in 1896, the Nanyang College (南洋公學) in Shanghai and the Beiyang college in Beijing. The funding of the Nanyang schools was shared by the Shanghai-Peking Railroad (京滬鐵路) and the Shanghai Telegraph Office (上海電報局). The Beiyang college was likewise supported by mining and ship building agencies for the training of technical supporting personnel.
Zhan Tian-you (詹天佑) was one of the young teenagers from the first group of exchange students. At the age of twelve, he attained the Seaside Institute for Boys in West Haven, Connecticut in 1872, and attended Hillhouse High School in West Haven. He was admitted to the Yale University in 1878 and graduated with a degree in railroad/civil engineering in 1881. He returned to China after graduation and work for seven years in the Bureau of Ships, taking the responsibility to train technicians and mapping of the Chinese Sea Coasts. In 1888 he began to work as railroad engineer in a number of small railroad constructions and established a reputation to earn an honor as member of the Royal Academy of Engineers in England. In 1905, while Russia and England were having a dispute as to who had the ‘right’ to fund and build the railroad connecting Peking北京and Chang-Jar-Kou (張家口); the Ching government decided to build it without having to borrow money from foreign country and keep the expected operating profit at home. Mr. Zhan was appointed as chief engineer in 1905 to head the construction of the railroad, he was appointed as General Director for the project as well in the following year. It was the first railroad built by a Chinese Engineering team. The road spanned 202 kilometers ( 350 miles ) on a hilly terrain. It required four tunnels, the longest one is thirty five hundred feet under the Great Wall. He successfully completed the road in less than four years and within budget. The original budget was seven million two hundred twenty nine thousand ( Chinese ) ounces of silver, the actual expenditure was only six million ninety three thousand ounces.
Mr. Zhan founded the Chung-Hwa Engineers (中華工程師會) in 1911, the year that the Republic of China was found. In 1913, he merged the Chung Hwa Engineers with the Railroad Engineers Union (路工同人共濟會) and Chung-Hwa Engineering Society (中華工學會). A convention was held in Hankow, Hupei. The key members of the Associations were:
The organization moved to Peking in 1914 and change the name to Chung-Hwa Institute of Engineers 中華工程師學會. Mr. Zhan served as chairman of the organization since its founding until 1918. He died in April 24, 1919 on the job as the superintendent (Minister) of Communication, at the age of 59.