BEIJING, July 23 -- Liu Baicheng, an 81-year-old professor of mechanical engineering at Tsinghua University, is happy to recall his 1978 arrival in New York, an occasion that opened the floodgates to 35 years of booming academic exchange between China and the United States.
"Chinese people are great people, and American people are also great people. We came all the way to the United States, not only to learn advanced science and technology, but also to promote the friendship between the Chinese and American peoples," Liu told U.S. reporters upon landing at John. F. Kennedy International Airport on Dec. 26, 1978, five days before the historic establishment of China-U.S. diplomatic ties.
Liu quoted those words again at a recent event held to mark the 35th anniversary of the opening of the academic exchange program. Over the three and a half decades, 1.46 million Chinese have studied in the United States while more than 220,000 Americans have studied in China.
Liu was 45 in 1978, but not the oldest among the 52-strong group that was the first batch of "students" dispatched by the Chinese government to the United States since 1949.
In the late 1970s, after a decade-long Cultural Revolution that had restricted higher education, it was not easy to find suitable English-speaking university graduates in China. Before going to the United States, Liu was a lecturer at Tsinghua.
According to an agreement reached by the two countries, the U.S. side would accept 500 to 700 Chinese students and academics while China would accept 60 students from the United States in the 1978/1979 academic year.
"It took us more than 30 hours to fly from Beijing to New York, via Paris, as there was no direct flight between the two cities," Liu said, recalling how all the Chinese passengers wore brand-new, uniform dark suits.
The night before their departure, a Chinese vice premier bade farewell to the group at Beijing's Great Hall of the People.
In Washington D.C., Liu and other Chinese scholars witnessed the opening of the Chinese embassy on Jan. 1, 1979, and later that month they saw Deng Xiaoping visit Jimmy Carter at the White House.
While they rubbed shoulders with leaders of both countries, the Chinese academics were also celebrities themselves in the United States. From their first appearance at the airport, they became a center of attention. A lot of Americans were eager to learn from these messengers about a mysterious country which had been isolated from the rest of the world for many years.
After three months of English training, the scholars were dispersed to U.S. universities. Liu went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison and studied there for a year and a half.
"Rarely did I cook for myself at weekends during the first three months of my stay in Wisconsin," Liu said, as many people -- students from Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as American friends -- invited him to meals over which they could ask about the situation in China.
He also welcomed opportunities to speak at local schools.
Studying in the United States turned out to be a milestone of his career. Liu, a researcher of materials science and engineering, was exposed to scientific instruments which he had never seen in China, such as advanced microscopes.
He was able to look more closely into the micro world of materials. Liu also signed up for computer courses and had a good command of computing languages by the time he left the United States.
After returning to his home country in 1981, Liu brought up the idea of applying computers to the casting process and made important contributions to the new field of integrated computational materials engineering.
In 1999, the pioneering academic was named a fellow of the Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE).
Some two months after Liu's departure at the end of 1978, the first group of U.S. scholars arrived in Beijing. Frank Hawke was one of them.
Hawke, 25 years old at the time, was a major in political science at Stanford University.
"Although I studied Chinese politics, I had never dreamed of studying in China one day," Hawke said when recalling his experience.
Nevertheless, he has since made a life for himself in China, spending 33 of the past 35 years in his adopted country, marrying a Chinese woman and having two Chinese-American kids.
In the early 1980s, Hawke acted as a consultant to help U.S. firms including the Great Wall Hotel and the Beijing Jeep Corporation secure some of the earliest big deals in China.
He now works as Greater China director of Stanford University Graduate School of Business.
"Not many Americans live such an interesting life as I do," he said, boasting of having witnessed the great social changes and economic growth in China over the decades.
Since 1978/1979, China-U.S. academic exchange has become a steady and unstoppable trend.
According to the Institute of International Education, the number of Chinese students in the United States rose to 1,000 in 1980, while in the 2012/13 academic year, 235,597 Chinese studied there.
Of this large and growing figure, 68 have become CAE fellows and 289 fellows of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Currently, China is the leading place of origin for students going to the United States while the United States is the second-biggest sender of students to China.
"As time has gone by, scholarly exchange between China and the United States has evolved from a thin string into a broad bridge connecting the people of the two countries," said Cen Jianjun, director general of the Chinese education ministry's department of international cooperation and exchanges.
It is now a major engine for China-U.S. friendship, Cen added.