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Tea Time Chat — An Insider’s View of Chinese Universities

The Western Gate of Peking University. (idmac/Flickr)

Welcome to Tea Time Chat, a real-time discussion between Tea Leaf Nation writers about the issues that matter to them. 

With graduation day approaching at many universities, we took the opportunity to contributors who have attended Chinese universities to discuss their experiences there. This follows a Chat last week in which we asked Chinese students at elite American universities to explain why they chose to attend U.S. schools over their Chinese counterparts.

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Shelley Jiang graduated from Harvard College and studied at Peking University. She is originally from Beijing.

After graduating from Harvard, I received a scholarship to study at Peking University for a year. Having heard countless stories about the strictness of the Chinese education system, I was immediately surprised by how casual everyone was at the School of International Relations.

Students texted constantly (this was in 2007, when phones couldn’t do much else). Nappers sprawled carelessly across open books. Students announced meetings on applying for Party membership, as well as Friday evening lectures to help untangle the wily world of romance (“Who should be more forward in dating, men or women?”).

While science students piled into the library until closing time, the international relations majors shrugged nonchalantly at their assignments. The few class discussions and debates, spurred by professors, fizzled. The sanitized textbooks never missed an opportunity to proclaim China’s great bonds of friendship and love for its fellow Communist nations.

But one professor was different. Ostensibly teaching on philosophical thought and diplomacy, the professor spoke of an impassioned campus in the 1980s, when students stayed up all night debating ideas and dreams. He spoke of brief forays into religion, and argued fiercely for personal freedom and liberty to the impassive faces below. He spoke of the Square, where dreams ended.

It’s true that education in China is a luxury good to be used practically. Advertisements for GRE prep classes have replaced the posters and poetry calling for democracy in Sanjiaodi, Peking University’s public square. In a country where college admissions is highly competitive and many successful graduates are still forced to take low-paying manual labor jobs, this attitude is not surprising. Once you’re in the grist mill of the education system, you play by the rules in the hopes of emerging successful. With choosing the “right” major a strategic part of admissions, a college education becomes a set of rote courses – including Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping thought – and not the exploratory, discursive liberal arts curriculum we enjoy in the U.S.

The market is at least demanding change. A growing number of agencies (中介) are helping China’s middle-class students navigate the complex world of U.S. college admissions, from selecting schools to packaging the application materials (the very concept of personal essays and letters of recommendation is foreign to Chinese college admissions). Whether seeking a different education experience or better employment and quality of life, more Chinese students are arriving for college and even high school than ever before. At the very least, it seems like China’s top universities will have to take note of the overseas competition and decide on some changes.
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Hongxiang Huang is in the Columbia SIPA class of 2013 and received his bachelor’s from Fudan University. He is originally from Guangdong.

As I am pursuing a master’s degree at Columbia University, I won’t pretend that an international university is not life-changing. However, I would have regretted not completing my bachelor’s degree at Fudan University in Shanghai. Being a journalist, people might think that is because the Journalism School of Fudan is the best journalism school in China. But mostly, I could not bear to miss a traditional Chinese education, which includes Chinese history, literature and philosophy. That allowed me to go global while keeping some roots.

The class I appreciated most in journalism school was called News Reporting. But that class had nothing to do with journalism. The teacher was instead a master in Chinese traditional culture. Under his influence, I started to read about Confucius, Taoism, and traditional books like Zizhi Tongjian (资治通鉴) and Huangdi Neijing(黄帝内经). Similarly, I took classes with the Chinese philosophy and history departments, and those classes are still the most important subjects for me — not economics, statistics, or public policy.

I still remember at the end of high school, like many of my peers, I believed that Western knowledge was more appealing and more useful, while Confucius was something out of date. However, during my time at a Chinese university, it surprised me to learn that this is totally not the case. Traditional wisdom is a great heritage for Chinese people, but it is disappearing. Without those few classes at Chinese universities, we might have lost it.

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Laura Speyer just completed her third year at Yale University. She studied abroad at Peking University (PKU) last spring, and took language classes at Harbin Institute of Technology during the summer of 2011.

I feel very lucky that I get to attend an American university most of the time, but the Chinese university system is unfairly maligned in the American press. It’s true that Americans benefit from smaller class sizes, individual attention, and of course the chance to write what we believe. China’s system is flawed, to be sure, but American schools should try to learn from the areas in which the best Chinese universities excel.

First of all, the sheer industry and discipline of top Chinese students puts their American counterparts to shame. Last spring, I took a class with a few Yalies and a few Peking University students. The class had one major assignment: a term paper. On the night before the paper was due, one hundred percent of the Yalies stayed up all night, starting and finishing the paper. One hundred percent of the PKU students stayed up all night to keep us company, since their papers, full of far more complex data and economics models with difficult math, had been finished for weeks. All semester long, the Yalies bragged to each other about how little they had done so far, and commiserated about the unpleasant all-nighter coming their way, while the PKU-ers simply put their heads down and worked. Did I mention that the papers were all in English, so the PKU students had to write in their second language? Criticize the gaokao [college entrance exam] all you like, but learning to study hard pays off later in life.

Second, the Chinese system forces students to learn excellent English if they want to attend the best universities. At Yale, students try to get around the language requirement by taking notoriously easy “gut” courses. At PKU, everyone is required to take English every semester. The result, it must be admitted, is not universally perfect English, but most PKU students can read and write impressively well, and almost all students at top-tier Chinese universities have strikingly large vocabularies.

Finally, the aspect of “education with Chinese characteristics” that I miss the most at Yale is the universal respect for professors. My professors at both schools are brilliant, inspiring and well-spoken, but I can’t help thinking my American professors get short shrift. In Beijing, everyone comes to class on time, turns off their electronics, takes copious notes, and stays late to ask more questions about the reading, which every student has pored over as a matter of course. In the states, we pride ourselves on our ability to act as though we’ve done the reading when we’ve only looked at the back cover. We like professors who take us out for drinks and pass out As like candy. The most striking difference, though, is the intangible attitude of respectful interest that permeates the Chinese classroom. In an American lecture hall, 60% of the students are toggling between Facebook and half-hearted notes; I can’t imagine a PKU professor tolerating the behavior that is par for the course at Yale.

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Han Chen received her bachelor’s degree from American University and her MPA from Tsinghua University. She is originally from Tampa. 

As an American going to China for grad school, the academic appeal of the program was only one incentive. For me, the language and social immersion were just as important. It’s one thing to study China from afar, but another to arrive and be exposed to not only the realities on the ground, but also the Chinese perceptions of that reality – of history, gender, economics, ethnicity/nationality, etc. I wasn’t a Sinophile before arriving in China, so it was only after moving there that I started to appreciate some common phrases used over and over in the classroom: “democratic centralism,” the “century of humiliation” and the “re-rise/revival of China.” Americans can argue all we want about the accuracy of these terms – in fact, my friends and I did that often — in the dozens of expat bars in Beijing’s university district and in the expat hotspots on the east side of town. But accurate or not, these terms are valuable in understanding the lens through which some folks in China view the world.

In Beijing, I found enormous diversity among my own classmates – ambitious folks looking for an adventure, Anglo Americans who enjoyed the privileges afforded to them by China’s racial prejudices, members of the Chinese diaspora seeking business opportunities in a fast-growing market, friends from other developing nations leveraging their China experience for future jobs, and a surprisingly high number of civil servants from Africa on scholarships, all learning about “public policy” with Chinese characteristics.

From my classroom experiences, I could see why Chinese students want an American university, since it encourages open debate, which was not the case in most of my graduate classes in China. An English student of mine, a professor in Beijing, often lamented the lack of enthusiasm and creativity among the students he taught. But as time passed, I appreciated my experience for what it was – a space for meeting and interacting with Chinese classmates and academics that balanced the skewed perspectives on China I’d learned in America – often with skewed perspectives in the opposite direction. But, having had a rare opportunity to imbibe both perspectives, I could eventually arrive at a middle ground that acknowledged the existing misperceptions in both countries.

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Ning Hui has studied at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Dalian Maritime University. She is originally from Hangzhou. 

I didn’t manage to get into a top-tier Chinese university with my gaokao grades. My university isn’t located in Beijing or Shanghai, but in Dalian, a much smaller city in north-eastern China. And it’s a Maritime university where I studied Politics – yes the university has big ships, its own port and good name in maritime circles; but not really in the political science world.

For all the reasons one would already know, studying politics in China’s education system has its predictable flaws. But what did I know when I made the decision? I wanted a place far away from my hometown and I could not even imagine studying abroad at that time.

My experience in Dalian Maritime University, therefore, might sound very different from my fellow contributors’. First of all, my courses were never intensive, comparing to what I heard from students at the real top-tier Chinese or American universities, or from my later experience in the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Instead, I spent a large proportion of my time practicing in the journalism(-ish) field: local daily newspapers, a school magazine, TV stations, and of course, Shipping Journal. I skipped a lot classes to travel. The result, no doubt, is I do not recall much I learnt in classroom during my four years, despite a not-too-bad GPA.

One can benefit from such freedom; at least a lot of my classmates did. Some took advantage of the school’s close links to the shipping industry. Some became lawyers – without going through a law school – a few went abroad, studying tourism management or journalism.

Most Chinese universities that are not on the top list, — especially after enrollment expanded a decade ago — indeed lack  profound courses and professors, opportunities for exchange with foreign schools, or effective career advisors to their large amount of graduates. But just like most young people in other places, my university also made me conscious of my ignorance and pushed me to figure out my life, one way or another.

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Tea Leaf Nation

  • Hrosh

    And to the guy admittedly saying that “traditional Chinese culture” is way beyond the usefulness of “traditional Western culture” (the whole “antiquarian” look at history, based on the classification of differences, is so painfully Chinese). Are you kidding? Chinese “tradition” enforces conformism and Confucius is its prime example, whilst heavyweight and seminal western thinkers like Aristotle, Plato, or Socrates show you the way to individual freedom and rationality, not slavery. Most Chinese don’t know the basics of philosophy besides the compulsory CCP reading list (Mao, Deng, Jiang, Hu).

    • http://profiles.google.com/ryanmcfc Ryan Wilson

      Maybe you need to refresh your basic philosophy. Laozi, the concepts of taiji (yinyang) and countless other ideas of great inner connection of the universe, and the flow of all things, came out of ancient China. These ideas combined with Western philosophies about the individual’s physical and mental freedom are powerful. There is no one great philosophical tradition in any part of the world. The thoughts arise where men open their mind and think, and that can happen anywhere. Also, Kongzi (Confucius) was not quite the authoritarian he was later made out to be. His works were revised time and again to fit the ruling class.
      I think the part you are referring to in this piece was only saying that Chinese students are not aware of the great philosophies from the past in a meaningful way, and as a teacher in China I can see that very clearly. One system never excludes the other if you see the connection. So, relax and stop trying to paint the whole world with that broad brush of yours.

  • Littleme

    “In Beijing, everyone comes to class on time, turns off their
    electronics, takes copious notes, and stays late to ask more questions
    about the reading”

    Maybe at PKU and the “better” universities in China, but elsewhere it depends on the class/subject and the individual teacher/professor, and, of course, the students.

    “The most striking difference, though, is the intangible attitude of
    respectful interest that permeates the Chinese classroom. In an American
    lecture hall, 60% of the students are toggling between Facebook and
    half-hearted notes; I can’t imagine a PKU professor tolerating the
    behavior that is par for the course at Yale.”

    Once again, PKU and the better universities might be like that but not your average Chinese uni.

    • http://TokyoJim.com Jim Gottlieb

      True. At most universities I’ve visited, the professors are reading their notes in a monotone while half the class use their phones and the other half are fully asleep.

  • littleme

    “the intangible attitude of respectful interest that permeates the Chinese classroom”

    Top tier Chinese uni’s maybe; this is making a broad generalization based on very limited experience. Basically, it’s a bit silly……