Can UK make a great leap in knowledge?

December 13, 2002

Claire Sanders looks at why Chinese studies is struggling in the UK when China is booming.

Oxford University's appointment of Cornell professor Vivienne Shue as its first professor of contemporary China sent a frisson of excitement through Chinese studies earlier this year. Dame Jessica Rawson, Oxford's professor of Chinese art and archaeology, trumpets the appointment as a significant coup for the university. "The flow of academics between Oxford and the US is often perceived as one-way. Shue's appointment shows that we can attract significant American names as well," she says.

But enthusiasm goes well beyond Oxford. Tim Barrett, professor of East Asian history at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, says:

"It is enormously good for morale to be able to pull someone back from the US when we lose so many over there."

The excitement reflects just how much of a struggle Chinese studies faces in the UK. China may have the largest population of any country in the world and be modernising faster than any country has ever done - but academics who speak the language and really understand the country are thin on the ground.

The overview report of the Asian studies panel in the 2001 research assessment exercise highlighted serious concerns that still need to be addressed, says Barrett, who chaired the panel. The report states: "Chinese studies... has been singled out for special support since 1996, but it still has not achieved the level of representation in British academic life reached by Russian studies 40 years ago." Lamenting the lack of separate panels for the different subjects within Asian studies, it acknowledges that there are too few researchers nationally to support such panels. "Numbers remain small because we have not been given a level playing field; the free publicity of teaching in compulsory education has been denied to us," it says.

The report also warns against cultural isolationism and arrogance. "Why are there so few departments in these subject areas? Because in times past they were considered related to places too far away and exotic, if not actually too culturally inferior, to merit attention."

Next month, the British Association for Chinese Studies will hold a conference at Sheffield University on the future of undergraduate teaching in Chinese in the UK. Stephan Feuchtwang, professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics and president of the BACS until earlier this year, says: "There are some exciting developments in teaching Chinese in schools, in particular the British Council initiative to bring in Chinese to teach in secondary schools. Undergraduate demand for Chinese studies seems to be holding up, but it needs to be boosted."

The British Council has brought over 30 Chinese teachers to teach Mandarin Chinese in UK secondary schools, and 25 others will arrive next year. A new curriculum for a GCSE in Chinese is being devised. This would broaden it from a qualification aimed at second-generation Chinese in the UK to one aimed at those with no knowledge of the language.

The council has consistently stressed the importance of encouraging people to speak Chinese. "The Chinese language has never seemed more likely than at present to emerge as a major international language alongside English in the next millennium," the council said in the mid-1990s. "The promotion of Mandarin throughout Greater China and in Chinese communities abroad, and the application of information technology to the written language, have reduced the main former obstacles to its adoption as an international language - dialect diversity and the difficulty and cost of manual or mechanical production of the Chinese text."

In 1997, a review of Chinese studies by the Higher Education Funding Council for England acknowledged the dearth of China experts and Chinese speakers in the UK. It was the fifth review of Chinese studies since 1945 - indicating that "measures taken to safeguard or develop academic provision following the earlier reports have not proved effective in the long term". The review was given added impetus by prime minister Tony Blair's visit to China in 1998, which heralded the large rise in the number of Chinese students studying over here.

As a result of the review, Hefce set aside an additional £1 million a year for five years to strengthen Chinese studies in a handful of centres. The universities of Cambridge, Durham, Leeds, Sheffield and the School of Oriental and African Studies all received £750,000 over five years. Oxford got £500,000, and Newcastle got £300,000. In 1999-2000, £50,000 was put aside to set up a database of experts in any area relating to China working in UK higher education.

The review said Chinese studies was well established in eight universities, with small pockets developing elsewhere. Funding was directed to the established centres because "a critical mass of tenured staff can help to secure the healthy academic development of a department in the medium to long term".

The focus was the study of modern China to aid business needs, and the money was aimed at masters level. "We need people with high-level skills in a broad range of subjects who can also speak Chinese languages and have direct experience of China's culture and its social and political system," says the chair of the review panel, Bahram Bekhradnia. "The UK is lagging behind other Western nations trading with China, which have built up their capability in Chinese studies and their economic interactions with the country to a level well beyond what the UK is achieving."

Shue, who started at Oxford this academic year, is part of this push to understand modern China. Oxford has been expanding and transforming its study of contemporary China since the mid-1990s. The new chair is funded from a £2 million award to Oxford from the Leverhulme Trust, aimed at fostering interdisciplinary research ranging from poverty and urbanisation to biodiversity and medicine.

"We are very grateful that the Leverhulme Trust has recognised the central role of China over the coming decades," Rawson says. "An understanding of contemporary China in depth is essential to Britain - and must not be neglected as a result of the concern to understand the Islamic world."

Shue, a social scientist whose expertise is in post-1978 China, first visited China in the 1970s. "My original interest was in Russia, but then I started travelling to China and became hooked," she says. "I made a number of visits in the 1990s and amassed material that I am now seeking to write up." Archival material is opening up in China, she says, and it is important to train westerners to understand China "in its own terms".

Shue is researching political legitimacy in China - how it is won or lost. "It is a cliche to say that China is facing a crisis of legitimacy. China is a much more stable country than many westerners realise. Many thought Tiananmen Square meant the country was on the verge of collapse - but that was far from the truth."

The drive to understand China can also be seen in other universities. Leeds used the Hefce money to set up the Centre for Chinese Business and Development. Delia Davin, head of the centre, says that running courses in Chinese business is very new and that although demand for the one-year MA courses has been strong, there has been none for the two-year courses. "We have undergraduates coming through heavily in debt, and it is extremely expensive for them to do a masters or a PhD. Especially in an area like this where the cost of travel is expensive and you need time to learn the language."

Barrett echoes this concern. "The Hefce money was fantastic, but ensuring that students can go on to PhDs is the next challenge." And he warns that classical Chinese studies must not be neglected in the effort to understand modern China. The RAE overview report states: "Classical Chinese is a language in far greater contemporary use than Latin: it is of immediate commercial importance to historians of art, and remains, for example, the dominant liturgical language of the whole of East Asia. Yet it is difficult to find a researcher under 40 who specialises in this subject, and most are so far in advance of that age as to threaten the continuation of its teaching in the UK over the longer term."

Barrett says: "It takes years to become confident in pre-modern sources. Our current education system simply does not allow for it. I studied for seven years to master the language." And although such study is expensive, it is worth it, he says.

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