Many of the earliest Glasgow graduates who went to China went as missionaries of the London Missionary Society (LMS), working in particular as doctors and teachers, developing both areas in the country. The earliest known connections were missionary translators and lexicographers Reverend Robert Morrison and Reverend William Milne, who founded the Anglo-Chinese College at Malacca in 1818.

They were followed by several medical missionaries such as John Dudgeon, MB CM 1862, a medical scholar and a Chinese scholar, who published articles in English and Chinese on subjects from medicine to photography; and Thomas Cochrane, MB CM 1896, who having survived the Boxer Rebellion, was appointed by the LMS to rebuild its hospital in Peking (Beijing), which with support from other mission bodies and the empress dowager, became the Peking Union Medical College with Cochrane as its first principal. Its high standards were recognised throughout China and beyond, and in 1915 he negotiated the underwriting of its financial needs by the Rockefeller Foundation.

We estimate that between 1880 and 1965, over 240 students born in China came to Glasgow to study. The vast majority of students studied science or engineering (including naval architecture) with a smaller number studying medicine. The University welcomed its first Chinese student in 1886; Hok Tang Chain from Foo-Chow (Fuzhou, Fujian Province) studied Natural Philosophy and Chemistry. He was followed by the first Chinese graduate, Vivian Ernest Chang. The son of the Secretary of the Chinese Legation in London, Chang began his course of study in the summer of 1887 and graduated MBChB in 1895.

At the beginning of the twentieth century a reorganisation of China's education system was initiated, with English, law, maths, science and engineering introduced, and communications begun with educational institutions around the world. Some of the consequences of that fresh spirit of openness included the staffing with specialists from the University of Glasgow of the celebrated Medical School at the University of Hong Kong; the development by Glasgow staff and graduates of Moukden Medical College, now a thriving part of North East Medical Research Institute in Liaoning Province.

An example of the zeal for education can be shown with the story of Dr Hugh Shaw Dunn Garven, (BSc 1920, MBChB 1923, MD 1952). A distinguished medical missionary, Garven was appointed Professor of Physiology and Dean of the Faculty at Moukden Medical College from 1926-1941. In 1946 he returned to Moukden as principal of the College, but had to leave in 1948 with the Cultural Revolution.

Likewise, when the first generation of foreign educated Chinese students returned to China, they were instrumental in building modern colleges, with Glasgow alumni being part of this endeavour, therefore, the following Chinese completed their first degree in these modern Chinese colleges before embarking on graduate studies overseas.

From 1909 potential students could sit their English equivalent preliminary examination in Chinese, and the first external examiners were renowned sinologists Professor Herbert Giles and his son Lionel Giles of the British Museum. Such new regulations would have also enabled wider access to the University by Chinese students, which was reflected in the establishment in 1913 if the Sino-Scottish student society set up by students of the University. Their first President was Yee Yung Liu, BSc 1919.

Chinese students also increasingly came to the University as research students. In 1937 Su Ting was the first Chinese student to be awarded a post graduate degree with his PhD thesis on “Studies of the Scottish Shoreline”, becoming a prominent Chinese geomorphologist.

In the twenty-first century the University of Glasgow has continued to develop its strong links with China, establishing the Confucius Institute in 2011. The Institute aims to promote understanding of contemporary China through research and activities in the social sciences, arts, and business, which are delivered through the Scottish Centre for Chinese Social Science Research.