For Beijing’s Tsinghua University, reopening an independent School of Humanities was the completion of a circle broken in China’s Communist Revolution 60 years ago.
But even at Tsinghua, China’s most prestigious higher education institution, academic freedom is constrained by the political system.
The ribbon-cutting at the School of Humanities in October marked the final step in Tsinghua’s efforts to establish itself as a truly comprehensive university. It also furthers its ambition to join a global elite that includes Oxbridge and the US Ivy League institutions.
“In some ways we have just come back to somewhere we have been before,” said Wan Junren, the former chair of philosophy at Tsinghua who is head of the new school. “We basically speak as if we have finished rebuilding the humanities and social sciences…Now you can say Tsinghua University is a proper comprehensive university.”
Established in 1911 as a prep school for students who would continue on to the US, Tsinghua opened the precursor to its School of Humanities, the graduate school’s Institute of Chinese Studies, in 1925. This blended Chinese and Western approaches and modern and classical styles, and it featured the “Four Great Tutors”: Chinese scholars Wang Guowei, Liang Qichao, Chen Yinke and Zhao Yuanren.
But that tradition was dismantled abruptly after the 1949 revolution. With the subsequent campaign of “thought reform” to indoctrinate the population and the reorganisation of universities on a Soviet model, Tsinghua’s social sciences and humanities programmes were disassembled in 1952 and its academic staff sent to other institutions, leaving Tsinghua as a polytechnic institute.
The return of Tsinghua, which is often referred to as China’s equivalent of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to a comprehensive university has been gradual. It began under Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening campaign in the late 1970s. Then, in 1993, a small, combined school of humanities and social sciences was re-established.
Today, the new, separate School of Humanities has four departments, 2,200 students and 240 academic staff, making it one of the university’s largest schools. It also houses an institute of Chinese language and culture to help foreign students at Tsinghua improve their Mandarin Chinese.
“I feel a little relaxed that we have finished the reconstruction of our humanities and social sciences education system. I do believe our president feels the same as I do,” Professor Wan said in an interview in English at the school in December. “At the same time, I feel a little challenged. Now we feel in some sense a little worried about how to improve our school in an international way and how to enrich our teaching courses system and improve our academic studies.”
Plugged in to the world
Officially named one of China’s top universities (it is in the C9 League of nine elite national institutions), Tsinghua qualifies for extra government support to attract both overseas Chinese and foreign academics. Its efforts to foster international links are accelerating. It runs exchange programmes with Columbia University, the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Hawaii, among others; in 2010 it opened the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy.
Another cooperative effort is translating key Western philosophical works into Chinese and making the output of China’s great philosophers available in English. Professor Wan said that a new volume published in New York or London today is likely to be translated into Chinese within three or four months, rather than the two-year lag of a decade ago.
A series of translations of the most influential Chinese intellectuals for Princeton University Press is being edited by Daniel A. Bell, the Montreal-born professor of political theory and director of the Center for International and Comparative Political Philosophy at Tsinghua. He was the first foreigner recruited to Tsinghua’s modern-day philosophy department eight years ago.
“The Chinese are so good at translating works from the rest of the world into Chinese; now the rest of the world is waking up to the need for translation of great Chinese philosophers into English,” Professor Bell said.
All the efforts at catching up are starting to bear fruit. In the 2012-13 Times Higher Education World University Rankings, Tsinghua was placed 52nd in the world overall; in Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Academic Ranking of World Universities 2012, it was in the top 200.
“Tsinghua has now returned to a full-blown university with a very international signature,” said Johan van Benthem, a professor of logic at both the University of Amsterdam and Stanford University, adding: “It’s a great tradition to connect to.” Professor van Benthem serves as distinguished foreign expert of China’s Ministry of Education. He is based at Tsinghua, where he acts as a liaison and gives guest lectures and seminars.
The university seeks out potential academic recruits by sponsoring international conferences and inviting foreign scholars and scientists. After hearing their lectures, it may make them an offer.
Compensation has also been boosted to try to make Tsinghua more attractive. In a city where the average annual salary is equivalent to just £5,600 a year, the university’s government-supported compensation packages are, according to Professor Wan, nearly Western standard. They include a housing allowance, international moving expenses and other stipends on top of the regular salary.
“If we can hire faculty from France or Britain, that makes great sense for our students, to get proper knowledge,” Professor Wan said.
There are, of course, other considerations to take into account. These include Beijing’s terrible air pollution; ingrained, strictly hierarchical teacher-student relationships that can discourage fruitful open debate; and the Communist Party-linked censorship board, which must approve Chinese-language journal articles.
The level of academic freedom varies by discipline, according to Professor Bell. The sciences are more straightforward, as is English literature. But political theory, he acknowledged, presents greater challenges. Publication in English, he said, is generally open, and the internet - despite China’s ever-strengthening Great Firewall - has improved access to resources as well as the ability to publish in alternative formats.
“It really depends what the subject matter is, and the forum in which you are doing it, and the language in which you are doing it,” said Professor Bell, author of China’s New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society, whose recent defence of the Chinese political system as a meritocracy caused some controversy. “Overall, it’s less controlled than it may seem to be on the outside.”
But all scholars, foreign and Chinese, walk a careful line. And although many working in the Chinese academy insist privately that the limitations at the top level are few, they are often reluctant to speak publicly about them.
An exacting dance
Professor Wan himself is careful in addressing the issue. In the philosophy department, he said, Mao is seen as China’s primary philosopher. The university also maintains a separate school of Marxist thought.
“Our leaders believe philosophy is like a ballet. Not everyone can do ballet - it is the top form of dance, the most beautiful. Only a few people can dance ballet,” Professor Wan said. “For one nation, if there is no philosophy, then there is no hope for this nation. But if there are too many philosophers, this is dangerous for the nation.”
Despite the limitations, the foreigners who have signed up with Tsinghua rave about the quality of students and their colleagues.
Professor van Benthem said: “[We have] access to highly gifted and articulate students, often with amazing personal histories that took them from remote country villages to China’s number one university. The kids that you see walking around on campus look normal, but they represent decades of effort and sacrifices.” He feels that he is playing a role in a place “at a cusp of history”, he added.
The ultimate goal, Professor Wan said, is to make Tsinghua into an institution like the world’s other top universities, to see it become a logical and desirable choice for PhD candidates and postdoctoral researchers around the world.
“Now you can find in almost every department in Tsinghua University some faculty [members] who have come from other countries,” he said. “Basically we want to have our school be no different from a school in other countries, like in America. We don’t want to do something different in this field.”