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HolyShazam

Studying Chinese literature at BNU

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HolyShazam

Hello all,

I'm a new poster to these forums. A few years back I remember reading several posts and even registering, but I never developed a posting habit. I've spent most of my time abroad in Taiwan, so I generally stick to Forumosa.com.

Anyway, I thought it would be useful to some readers here to try to share my experiences as an American on exchange to Beijing Normal University, taking classes in the literature major with Chinese people. I'm currently wrapping up my semester abroad in Beijing, and I've found myself in the mood for reflection, I'm just hoping I can keep it relatively short and to the point.

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I'm currently a double major in East Asian Studies and Chinese Language and Literature at George Washington University, I'm a senior this year, and will be finishing up (hopefully) with school in May. Last year I was lucky enough to obtain a one-time scholarship for study at Beijing Normal University, all expenses paid. At the time I had one-on-one Chinese classes (studying Tang poetry) with a professor who was the temporary head of the Chinese department. I have strong Chinese language skills, and we discussed what I could do with the scholarship, eventually deciding it would be an exciting challenge to simply study with Chinese students rather than take language classes that would be of little use to me. After a lot of hassle from BNU and GWU, I worked out all the details, and started school in September.

In the short four months I have spent at BNU, I have learned a lot, although little of it has to do with Chinese literature. Rather, I have found it to be a fascinating look into the workings of the Chinese education system, and to put it simply, I did not like what I saw. Here are the things I could gather from the classes I took (5 in total, adding up to 14 credits):

1. Class time also doubles as nap time.

I was amazed at the amount of people who would simply sleep through entire classes, or spend it chatting, texting, or reading materials for other classes. What always confused me even more was that none of my classes took attendance, although the smaller ones would call upon Chinese students. For the larger classes, it was straight lecture to a classroom with at least 200 people in it, with no attendance, and yet students would still show up only to put their heads on their desk and nap through class.

2. No one actually cares about literature.

This is definitely an exaggeration, but being the only white guy in all of my classes attracted a lot of attention, and many of my classmates would chat with me after class was out. I was looking forward to being able to discuss Chinese literature with Chinese students, and was really curious from which viewpoint they approached such things. However, none of the people I talked to really seemed especially interested in literature, with some actually straight out saying they hated their major. This is a problem, especially since switching majors is very difficult for Chinese majors.

3. Time intensive, but not work intensive.

Exchange students at GW can only transfer up to 15 credits while studying abroad, and being nervous about my workload, I stayed on the safe side, opting for 14, spread out over 5 classes. However, the Chinese students I spoke with were taking anywhere between 20-30 credits per semester. One guy in my class had a Wednesday that started at 8am, and went until 5pm, with an hour break for lunch at noon. He said that this was normal, and most of his days were along the same lines. Being accustomed to Western-style higher education, I was disconcerted with the small amounts of assigned reading given to Chinese students. I had only two classes where teachers asked students to read texts, and only one of those professors actually expected the students to read them (Tang and Song sanwen). What's even stranger is that most of the students never bothered with the readings, or would look up simple summaries (think Cliffnotes) online, in order to BS enough to answer a question if they were called on. It seems a bit silly to study literature and never actually read anything apart from textbooks. However, seeing as how they spend so much time attending class during the week, in so many different classes, if every class assigned as much work as the average American one does, they would never have time to sleep.

4. Class selection is nearly nonexistent.

When I went to pick out my classes, I was lucky enough to be able to pick and choose from different years. Chinese students don't have that luxury, unfortunately. There is a strict schedule that they follow from year to year, and the ability to choose classes, although improving in the later years, is still incredibly minimal, especially when compared to Western universities. My Korean roommate is here as an international student, and is in his freshman year, he was simply handed a schedule for the next semester, informing him of all of the classes he would be taking, and at what time. He said that the only kind of class selection he could do was selecting a teacher, but that was about it. From my understanding, Chinese students are the same way, with barely any ability to take classes outside of their major (except for computer class, physical education, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Zhang Zemin Thought class, etc.). All in all, Chinese universities resemble American high schools more than universities.

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Well that's about all I can think of right now, if there's interest in the thread I'll be happy to post more about my experiences. I also don't want people to misunderstand my post, I'm not blaming Chinese students themselves for sleeping in class, or not bothering to do readings, I think it's the fault of the Chinese education system, all the way from elementary school through high school, and definitely continuing through undergraduate level classes.

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gato
3. Time intensive, but not work intensive.

Exchange students at GW can only transfer up to 15 credits while studying abroad, and being nervous about my workload, I stayed on the safe side, opting for 14, spread out over 5 classes. However, the Chinese students I spoke with were taking anywhere between 20-30 credits per semester. One guy in my class had a Wednesday that started at 8am, and went until 5pm, with an hour break for lunch at noon. He said that this was normal, and most of his days were along the same lines. Being accustomed to Western-style higher education, I was disconcerted with the small amounts of assigned reading given to Chinese students. I had only two classes where teachers asked students to read texts, and only one of those professors actually expected the students to read them (Tang and Song sanwen). What's even stranger is that most of the students never bothered with the readings, or would look up simple summaries (think Cliffnotes) online, in order to BS enough to answer a question if they were called on. It seems a bit silly to study literature and never actually read anything apart from textbooks. However, seeing as how they spend so much time attending class during the week, in so many different classes, if every class assigned as much work as the average American one does, they would never have time to sleep.

Thanks for your interesting observations. I think having too many classes is the single biggest problem with mainland Chinese universities. The typical student has 10-15 courses per semester, which often means 30 or more hours of classroom time per week. Though this is university, most classes don't have any homework. I think it's because teachers know that students won't be able to do homework from so many classes. A typical college class in the US would require at least 10 hours of outside homework a week. If Chinese classes were the same, students would have 100-150 hours of homework per week, which is clearly impossible. College education in China therefore is a very passive experience. If the students had fewer classes, they could at least do more and learn outside on their own, even if the classes were horrible. But with the current setup, the students end up wasting a lot of time listening to typically not very helpful lectures.

Another issue you didn't mention is that university teachers' pay in the big cities is too low compared to the cost of living. A teacher starting out at a university in Beijing (like BNU) probably make RMB 2000 to 3000 per month, and it tops out at 5000 at some universities. A lot of teachers have outside jobs to supplement their income, taking time and energy away from what they might devote to their teaching. Many of students say that the teaching at their middle school is better than at college.

Since yours is kind of a rare experience (among people here in this forum at least), can you talk more about the content of the classes, the kind of literature that was taught?

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HolyShazam

Sure, the classes I took were:

古代汉语 - This was more or less a linguistic class. We read a few different classical Chinese texts, including some stuff from the Analects and 春秋。 It's a two semester class, and apparently the fall semester focuses more on the linguistic side of things, so we talked about the roots of Chinese characters, sounds of ancient Chinese, stuff like that. Overall a pretty interesting class, although slightly boring at times.

古代文学史 - This is either a two or three semester class. It's taught by a professor from the history department, but it's for literature majors. We went from oracle bones all the way up to Jin Dynasty writing. I met the professor randomly in Taiwan over the summer, he's a really nice guy, but his classes can be boring, the and the lectures have very little to do with the text books and what the test is based on.

现代小说 原著精选 - This was a decent class, although I've already studied a lot of what was covered. We talked about a lot of different "modern" Chinese authors (1911 until 1949), including (but not limited to) 鲁迅,巴金,沈从文,林语堂,郭沫若,曹禺,老舍,and 张艾琳。 The professor was well-informed, although I believe his specialty is actually Taiwanese literature, I was a bit disappointed with the play by Guo Moruo that we read, and the praise our professor had for it. If what I hear is correct, though, it's required of Chinese professors to discuss pro-Communist writers whose literary abilities may not be the best. There was discussion in this class, which meant that the professor would randomly call names off of the attendance sheet, and the student would have to stand up and give his opinion.

当代小说 - This would have been an interesting class, since I am not familiar with "contemporary" mainland literature, but I never received, or knew about a syllabus for the class, so I had no chance of reading any of the novels he discussed in class. The professor is apparently very well known, and is one of the leading experts on contemporary Chinese literature, however class was quite boring. It mostly consisted of him describing at length the plots of various novels, and every so often analyzing them. Some of the books I remember talking about were 青春之歌,红旗谱,兄弟 as well as various other novels by authors like 莫言,余华,and 格非。

唐宋散文 - This was probably the class that most closely resembled a Western-style teaching method. We focused on the so-called 唐宋八大家, but in reality we really only covered 韩愈 in any thorough manner. We had to read most of his famous works, including 原道,毁道,论佛骨表,送孟东野,etc. Towards the end of the semester we read a few texts by 柳宗元 and 苏轼。 The professor would call on people to discuss their opinions, but often the students didn't bother reading the materials. The professor chewed the Chinese students out (it was a 50/50 split between international students and Chinese) almost every class for showing no interest in actually READING literature for a literature major.

So those are the classes, more on the international students/Chinese students divide later on.

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anonymoose
4. Class selection is nearly nonexistent.

Actually I think the US is fairly unusual in the amount of selection that is possible. In the UK, class selection is fairly limited (essentially none for the first two years, and only within the scope of the subject area thereafter, for my degree course).

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gato

Take a look at this site for posting student evaluation of professors:

http://www.pinglaoshi.com/schoolId22

Seems that there are students who are interested in the subjects they are studying, even in 文学院 at BNU, but it's possible that they are in the minority. Because they have to select their majors while still in high school, many Chinese students don't know what they are getting into.

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HolyShazam

I've met a few seniors who are planning on studying in graduate school for literature, and they are clearly interested in the topic. But you're right, with the way high schools are situated, most students have very little choice in their selection of a major. It's sad really, but with so many people in China, and the increasing amount of those wanting to study at university, there probably aren't a lot of easy solutions. Making a full transition to a more sensible educational system would also be really difficult. They have made an attempt to do that in Taiwan, but they have only got halfway, I'd say, and the ideas of education ingrained in the older generations is certainly a problem.

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donneth

Don't know what western education institutions you went to, but this seems normal for any western university that I have had experience of (UK graduate with US post grad here).

Sure students nap through lectures (then catch up come exam time), use any shortcut texts they can to get round actual work, and don't talk much about their subjects outside of class time (who does?). This, plus a predetermined timetable seems typical of any undergraduate course I have experienced.

I have heard that the chinese primary and secondary education systems are a bit better than the rest of the developed world - mostly becuase of an ingrained culture (and parental pressure) to perform well to get to a good university, whereas higher education is pretty much on par/below average.

Send your kids to school in china but to the west for university :wink:

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HolyShazam

Perhaps my experiences in university is different from others. As I said, I'm a senior at George Washington University this year. I'm not going to pretend like I've been interested in all of my classes, or that I've never skipped lectures before, but there is certainly a difference in severity between China and the US. Most of the students I know in the US are at least slightly interested in the major they selected, or are at least interested in pursuing a career related to their major. We have the luxury of picking what major we want in the West, and changing it without too much difficulty if we don't like it.

It's a popular hobby in the US to lament the sorry state of our primary education, but I think we are unaware of all of the problems that the supposedly superior Asian systems are filled with. I spent a year at a Taiwanese high school as an exchange student before college, I've tutored many different junior high and high school kids in English, and last year I helped out with an English class at one of the top high schools in Taipei. Although they have been improvements made in the last decade or so, for most Taiwanese people, all of their hopes rest on their college entrance exam. This means that they spend all of their senior year preparing for one test, sleeping for 4 hours a night, going to 'cram schools' after class, and doing little of anything else. I had a friend in Taiwan who went to cram school for 6 days a week, her only night off was Tuesday. They spend none of this time writing essays, preparing speeches, or developing any sort of independent thinking so valued in the West. Instead, it's straight memorization: Chengyu's, passages from Classical Chinese, math equations, and whatever else might show up on the test.

And even in this regard, Taiwanese education is still a few steps ahead of their Mainland counterparts. This education system drains its students, and suppresses nearly any ability for them to develop as people outside of school. In high school I played on the soccer team, worked in a restaurant, and still had time to go out with friends. People focus too much on the fact that Asian students are more proficient at math than Americans, and not enough time considering all of the intangible things that they miss out on while hunched over a textbook. The product of Asian education systems are incomplete people, who have had their developmental years robbed of them, and it doesn't get much better in university.

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renzhe

University life differs a lot between countries and I wouldn't see it as a US vs. China thing.

When I studied in the UK, attendance was mandatory, you had a strict schedule (though you could pick some of the electives with approval from your supervisor), exercises were mandatory, everything counted towards your exam, which was taken on a specific date together with everyone else, and if you didn't show up for the exam, you failed. If you failed a mandatory course, you could take exactly one extra exam (at a specific time), and if you passed that, you would get the credit (but your grade would still count as an "F" for your GPA). You had 3 years for your bachelor, or you left without a degree. But it was coupled with very good tutoring, counselling, and people making sure you don't slip. Small classes, everyone knew you.

In Germany, attendance is not mandatory, many people don't attend at all. Others read newspapers during the lectures. Many of the courses are not mandatory. You can apply for an exam even without ever being in a lecture. Most exams are oral, with you sitting together with a professor for 20 minutes and the professor asking you questions and deciding on a grade. If you fail, you can retake the exam. As often as you want. You can attend the lectures of one professor, but take the exam with a completely different professor. 10 years later. You can tell a professor which textbooks you used to prepare, and what was covered in the lectures you took. We've had people not show up for an exam because their nerves gave out and were too scared to show up, they were allowed to take it at a later time. Some people study for 20 or 30 years, with full student benefits. Others will stop studying and resume university years later (from where they stopped).

Two nearby countries, but very different systems. From your descriptions, I'd say that they are random combinations of what you describe as the American system and Chinese system, and even far more extreme in some aspects than what you described.

Don't know if this furthers the discussion, but perhaps some food for thought based on my experiences.

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Meng Lelan

HolyShazam, amazing post you have there. Can I ask what you plan to do with your studies in Chinese Literature?

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HolyShazam

Meng: good question. I have considered studying Chinese literature more of a hobby than anything else, and my primary major is actually International Affairs. I graduate in May, and my plan as of right now is to find a job as a translator or consultant of some sort in the private sector. Chances are, I'll be going back to school in a few years, I'm just not sure what for. I have considered getting my doctorate in Chinese literature, but that's a really big decision, and I'm not looking to jump right into it. The trick now is trying to find a job...

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roddy

One of our other members, zhwj, did a postgrad in Chinese Lit at BNU - some comments from him here.

Thanks to the OP for taking the time to write the post up.

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gato

HolyShazam, have you heard of the classical Chinese textbook authored by 王力? If so, what do you think of it? It's based on the classical Chinese course Wang taught at Beida in the 1950s.

http://www.douban.com/subject/1072316/?i=0

古代汉语(校订重排本)

作者: 王力

As a literature major, I think you'll probably find douban.com interesting, by the way.

I've been working through a tutorial book for classical Chinese for Chinese high school students. See here: http://www.chinese-forums.com/showthread.php?p=115841#post115841

I've also started going through this annotated version of Eight Great Tang Song Essayist collection:

http://www.amazon.cn/mn/detailApp?qid=1231311451&ref=SR&sr=13-7&uid=168-8506789-3648254&prodid=zjbk353259

唐宋八大家散文精品译注(学生版)

作者:胡永生 吴云

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HolyShazam

gato: I'm familiar with Wang Li's textbook as well as his dictionary. Most of the textbooks in China designed for 古代汉语 borrow heavily from his work. The class I took here, however, was an extremely reduced version of Wang Li's, and unfortunately it's all in simplified (except for passages in classical Chinese), whereas as far as I know, Wang Li's textbook is written completely in traditional.

I have a different copy of the Great Tang/Song writers, but if you can get your hands on a copy of the Taiwanese 三民 publishing house, they put out these fantastic blue books of almost everything in Classical Chinese that you can think of. I've found the annotation and 白话 translations to be fantastic, and as a bonus to me, the pronunciation of all characters in the text are given. However, it's in the Taiwanese "bopomofo" pronunciation alphabet, which I can read, but I'm sure you could figure it out in a few days if you wanted to.

Here's an example of one of their "blue books"

http://www.sanmin.com.tw/page-product.asp?pf_id=99y155Z10T100e7c103K66R104G123cRDsDPt152CgJYlJ224r&cat=RMdMN184NZgTCe148&pos=PbXNhR81oHMlBB247QTfSKs&item=245OsFDuC122&kind=bETeQO204QBzF&no=Pn262QuUUhJ170qMW

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gato
I have a different copy of the Great Tang/Song writers, but if you can get your hands on a copy of the Taiwanese 三民 publishing house, they put out these fantastic blue books of almost everything in Classical Chinese that you can think of. I've found the annotation and 白话 translations to be fantastic, and as a bonus to me, the pronunciation of all characters in the text are given. However, it's in the Taiwanese "bopomofo" pronunciation alphabet, which I can read, but I'm sure you could figure it out in a few days if you wanted to.

They are wonderful. I bought a copy of their annotated 《古文观止》 when I was in Taipei a few years ago. I wish there was a pinyin version ;-)

I'm going to browse through Wang Li's 古代汉语 in the bookstore, I think. I feel like I'm hitting a wall with the other teaching materials, so this might help before I dive into 《古文观止》.

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朱真明

I wouldn't call it an asian education system, I would say it's a western education system with asians inside it.

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