So What Made You Want to Study Chinese?

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An article written for the 6oth anniversary of Chinese Studies at the University of Leeds, UK.

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang with a class mate at the Great Wall of China at Badeling. Summer 1986

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang with a class mate at the Great Wall of China at Badeling. Summer 1986

“You were before your time,” a barrister friend commented to me at a College reunion last year. “None of us could see the point in China is those days.”  How times have changed!  The opening of the new Chinese Studies Building at the University of Nottingham this week, and the celebration of sixty years of Chinese Studies at the University of Leeds in October 2013, has made me reflect on how Chinese Studies has changed in the UK over the last quarter of a century.

Going up to Oxford in the autumn of 1985 to read Chinese, I was one of the colossal new intake of ten students!  Numbers up by over 300 percent, the rooms in the Oriental Faculty struggled to cope!  No longer could two students be taught in a tutorial setting over a coffee in a professor’s study. Seminar rooms were required; an early sign, perhaps, of things to come.  But Chinese Studies was still, at the very best, a marginal subject.  Our common room companions were the other “Orientalists.”  There was a very elderly Indian scholar, who reminded me of my grandfather, and would always offer me the other biscuit from his packet of two, a rather wild looking gang of Arabist undergraduates, clearly influenced by Peter O Toole’s Lawrence of Arabia, and a saffron robed Buddhist monk, who wore no coat or socks in the snow, until I gave him some.

Sun Moon Lake Taiwan 87

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang as a student in Taiwan, 1987.

For Chinese Studies in Oxford, Cambridge and Durham had developed out of the missionary tradition of translation of The Bible, Chinese classics, and dictionary writing. My teachers, in general, had come to Chinese from Greats; the study of the ancient Greek and Roman world.  Day one, lesson one, was a translation Mencius’s Analects.   Of course, we learnt modern Chinese as well and it was in the study of modern Chinese that I found my niche.  I realised about half way through the first term, that all the grammar and rules I had learnt whilst studying European languages were irrelevant, that China and the Chinese language were a new world, and a clean slate was required;  a break through moment which I still remember with a feeling of exhilaration.

Thinking back, I admit, I was often frustrated by the old Oxford focus on the study of the classics, philosophy and early Chinese history.   As a young woman, perhaps, I had a sense of the changes that were to come, and was more interested in travelling round China and meeting and talking to Chinese people in their own language.

Yet writing now, over a quarter of a century later, I am grateful for the strong grounding given to me by my professors in all things pre- Communist.  For indeed many of these distinguished if eccentric old men had gone through the war and lived in China before the 1949 revolution.  I can see now that they imparted to me a rich sense of the Chinese civilization as a whole, not defined by any one political party or economic imperative and I am grateful for this.

Of course, the world has moved on, and it is right that it should have.  But asking the same question now, to many of today’s bright young things, “So, what made you want to study Chinese?” too often I get the answer, “I want to go into business,” or “I want to make money.”  I cannot help but feel just a little sad.

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang is a writer and author of the china historical novel The Woman Who The Woman Who Lost China CoverLost China.  She read Chinese at Oxford and has an LLB in Legal Practice. Her work is characterised by strong international themes and perspective and an interest in cultural and historical fault lines.