Pioneers of International Education: Onn Mann Liang

26 03 2013

Onn Mann Liang can be seen here in 1926, in his graduation cap and gown.

International students have been studying at Michigan State University for over 140 years, which the Archives’ new exhibit – International Students at Michigan State – outlines over here.  Recently, the scrapbooks and work documentation of one such student, Onn Mann Liang, have been uploaded to our On the Banks of the Red Cedar website almost in their entirety.  These donated materials provide the story of Liang’s life, mainly in pictures and a few brief correspondences, from late high school until the year before his death in 1957.


Being an Engineering major, Liang seemed to have a fascination with bridges. This image is one of many he took of various bridges while in the US, and it shows him on campus standing on a small wooden structure.

Liang was one of a

group of twenty international students who studied at MSU in the 1920s, and he can even be seen in the first photo of the International Students exhibit with the International Studies group known as the Cosmopolitan Club (back row, third from the right).   His scrapbooks from the time he spent at MSU reveal how immersed he was in the campus lifestyle.  His photographs include images of himself and others canoeing and walking alongside the Red Cedar River or alternatively around the major sights of campus, such as Beaumont Tower or the Greenhouses; the pictures also reflect his interest in bridge engineering – multiple artistic shots of various bridges around MSU have been included.  These campus pictures are


Liang was a prolific photographer, especially of MSU’s campus. This particular image appears to be on a bank of the Red Cedar River.

inter-mixed with oddly familiar and nostalgic college scenes of Liang looking perturbed at large drafting desks, reclining on lawn chairs, exploring nearby cities like Ann Arbor, and

finally posing in his long-awaited cap and gown.  While he was still attending school, Liang was known for the quality of his photographs (even winning a few awards), and his shots were good enough to open a photography studio in Lansing.


Liang took this picture while in Chicago in 1928. The La Salle Street bridge is foremost in this image, but another two can be seen in the background.

After completing his undergraduate studies in 1926, Liang spent the next six years in the US travelling to various cities while also working for the Michigan State Highway Department.  Scrapbook images of Chicago show such famous buildings as the Tribune Tower as well as the La Salle Street Bridge – which was built and completed throughout the year of 1928, and, as a bridge enthusiast, could very well have been the reason for Liang’s visit to the city.   Within the next two years his travels also brought him to Buffalo, before he came back to Michigan and began working full time with the Highway Department.  Some of Liang’s final photographs include him among coworkers at the Department, prior to his return to China in 1932.


This image shows Onn Mann Liang and his wife on their wedding day in 1936.

Wedding photographs from 1936 and registration documents as a Civil Engineer show Liang’s quick integration back into Chinese life.  Employment papers from the same period reveal Liang’s work as a primary engineer of dyke and bridge plans throughout his native country, which, just as with his time spent at the Michigan State Highway Department, was a direct application of the education he received from MSU.  After processing the Liang scrapbooks, it becomes apparent that he carried that education with him, even up to the last years of his life.  The final image of the Liang scrapbook shows him on a return trip to San Francisco alongside his wife and son – with the Golden Gate Bridge receding behind.



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