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‘Global Chinese’ Conference and 30th Anniversary Celebrations at Sun Yat-sen University

“Eat in Guangzhou, Study at Sun Yat-sen University”



Sun Yat-sen University is named after Sun Yat-sen (1866 – 1925), the first provisional president of the Republic of China (founded in 1912) and first leader of the Guomindang (or ‘Nationalist’) Party (国民党). Sun Yat-sen is revered as the ‘Father of the Nation’ (国父) by persons of all political persuasions (communist and nationalist alike). He also founded the university in 1924. It was renamed Sun Yat-sen University after his death in 1926.

From the 18th to 21st June 2011 I attended a conference on Chinese language teaching  at Sun Yat-sen University (中山大学). The conference was titled ‘Global Chinese: Chinese Language Teaching in the Global Age’ (全球汉语教学研讨会). The conference was organised by the School of Chinese as a Second Language (中山大学国际汉语学院). The School was founded in July 1981 and was hence also celebrating its 30th Anniversary. It was one of the first such schools dedicated to the teaching of Chinese to foreigners to be established in the People’s Republic of China in the reform era. I had the privilege of going to study there in 1989/1990 and, at the generous invitation of the School, also took part in the celebration as an alumnus. The story of the thirty years of development and growth of Chinese language teaching and research at Sun Yat-sen University from a small concern with only a handful of foreign students to a major enterprise with over a thousand students from around the globe in a given semester also captures very well the evolution of China’s changing self-perception in the world and the projection of Chinese language and culture into the 21st Century.

San Yat-sen University is located in Guangzhou (广州) (known in the past in English as ‘Canton’) which is the provincial capital of Guangdong Province (广东省) one of the wealthiest and most economically advanced regions in China. It is also one of the most populous with approximately 80 million people.  You can see where Guangdong is located on Google Maps here. If you look at the map closely you will notice that Guangdong/Guangzhou are strategically located next to Hong Kong (or perhaps we should say that Hong Kong is strategically located next to Guangdong). It was in this region of the Pearl River Delta (珠江流域) that China’s first steps towards embracing global capitalism and stamping it firmly with ‘Chinese characteristics’ started in the late 1970s. If you haven’t been to Guangdong I’m at least 100% certain that you have handled or touched something that was ‘Made in Guangdong’ for just as China is the ‘world’s factory’ then Guangdong is ‘China’s factory’. And if you have ever eaten at a Chinese restaurant outside of China or gone to yumcha in Chinatown then I’m very confident that what you consumed was derived from the the rich heritage of Cantonese cuisine. Indeed there is a famous Chinese saying that goes ‘Be born in Suzhou’ (生在苏州)[because the people from Suzhou are very attractive], ‘Eat in Guangzhou’ (食在广州) [because the food is delicious], and ‘Die in Liuzhou’ (死在柳州) [because they make the best coffins!]. To the ‘Eat in Guangzhou’ part I would add ‘Study at Sun Yat-sen University’ (食在广州,学在中大). Why? Allow me to elaborate.

An image taken in 'Little Africa' (非洲村) in one of the original villages of Guangzhou which have now become 'urbanised' and are now known as 'urban villages' (城中村). I will be writing about my visit to 'Little Africa' on the blog in the near future.

All those years ago at the end of the 1970s and the dawn of the process of ‘reform and openness’ Guangzhou was a very different kind of place. You probably could have fitted all the foreigners residing in Guangzhou at that point in one room. There were certainly little or no provision for anyone to go to Guangzhou to study Chinese Mandarin. Now Guangzhou is home to tens of thousands of foreign residents some of whom, such as in the above image from the ‘Little Africa’ (非洲村), are concentrated into certain residential areas. The influx of migrants, both domestic and foreign, has generated some concern amongst local Cantonese residents who fear the dilution of their language and culture. In 2010 there were some demonstrations across Guangzhou in protest of the perceived loss of cultural identity. The New York Times has a brief report on this subject here.

A picture taken of the Pearl River from the new 'back gate' of the old campus. Back in 1989/1990 the back gate was a bit of a 'waste land' connecting the campus to the ferry. It was a great place to take a few cold beers and watch the barges go up and down the river. It has now undergone a significant facelift. From here you can also see one of the tallest buildings in Asia.

Many people erroneously believe that if you want to study Chinese Mandarin you should go to Beijing or Northeastern China where ‘Chinese Mandirin’ (普通话) is the standard spoken dialect/language. Yes, going to study in these places does have some advantages, but also to my mind some distinct disadvantages as well. Throughout the rest of China people speak different dialects of Chinese (and of course in many cases completely different languages). In fact most people in China do not have ‘Chinese Mandarin’ as their first language, usually it will be a local dialect and/or language (although this is changing as across China the younger generations with greater exposure to education and a unified national media increasingly prefer to speak Chinese Mandarin, which is part of the concern about the loss of language mentioned above). Spoken Cantonese (‘Guangdongnese’ – 广东话) and Chinese Mandarin, for example, are mutually unintelligible (the written script is the same and that’s the core thing that has kept Chinese people  united with common bonds of culture and text over thousands of years). What people don’t realise is that the university campus in China is a microcosm of the nation at large and includes people from across the country. In this case Chinese Mandarin is the lingua franca on campus and in the classroom. Of course when you walk out the gates you will invariably be confronted with the local dialect as you would in most places in China. I have personally found exposure to a dialect like Cantonese extremely helpful when it comes to understanding the many varieties of Chinese spoken around China (and indeed around the globe). It’s also quite handy when visiting places like Hong Kong and Macau where Cantonese is the main language (although that is also slowing changing) and the many Chinatowns around Australia and elsewhere where Cantonese can be heard.

Sun Yat-sen University is a comprehensive research-intensive university consistently ranked in the top ten of China's institutions of research and higher learning. In 2010 it was ranked as the fifth top university in China and within the top 200 universities (171st) in the world by Times Higher Education. The original campus is also one of the most picturesque in China and has retained a lot of character and heritage buildings.

The School held a gala event in which both the local Chinese and foreign students provided the entertainment. Professor Zhou, one of the comperes, is on the far right. 帅哥人!

Studying Chinese in China during the Maoist period (1949 – 1976) was generally limited to a handful of institutions in Beijing, most notably the Beijing Language Institute (now known as the ‘Beijing Language and Culture University). And the number of foreign students at any time was also very small by today’s standards. But with the launch of ‘reform and openness’ in the late 1970s the authorities realised China needed to encourage more foreigners to learn Mandarin. Sun Yat-sen University heard the call and established in 1981 the Chinese Training Center ( 汉语培训中心). Over time it became very clear to the teachers and leadership within the Center and University that Chinese Mandarin was going to become one of the most popular languages for acquisition around the world and they were wise enough to begin to develop key strengths in both teaching and research. In 2009, after having gone through a number of other name changes, the Center was renamed the ‘School of Chinese as a Second Language’ ( 国际汉语学院) and is one of the most active and significant centres for teaching and research in this field both within China and indeed globally. The Head of the School, Professor Zhou Xiaobing (周小兵), is one of China’s leading researchers in the field of Chinese language acquisition. It is probably worth noting that in Chinese the name for the School should be literally translated as ‘the School of International Chinese’ which is a strong indication of how the School views the kind of research it is undertaking, that is, it is no longer just concerned with the teaching and learning of Chinese within China but is placing greater emphasis on research into the teaching and learning of Chinese outside of China. And of course like many other such institutions in China the School now as cooperative links abroad via the establishment of Confucius Institutes. One of my teachers, Professor Zhang Shitao (张世涛), is currently the Chinese Director at the Confucius Institute at Ateneo de Manila University (菲律宾亚典耀大学孔子学院) in the Philippines. The School is also home to a national centre of excellence in Chinese language teaching resources funded by Hanban (Office of the Chinese Language Council International, the body which also oversees the Confucius Institutes).

Over the last 30 years the School has trained over 12,000 students from 152 countries, quite a remarkable achievement considering it only started with six students from the United States in 1981!  桃李满天下! What is most remarkable is that more than 60% of the total number of students trained has taken place in the 2000s. No doubt much of the interest has been generated by the growing strength of the Chinese economy. Originally most of the foreign students, with the exception of some students on Chinese government scholarships from Africa, North Korea and other such places, came to institutions such as Sun Yat-sen University to study Chinese for short periods (anything from one month to a year). But these days there are a growing number who also extend their stay to take undergraduate or postgraduate studies. I want to take the opportunity here to encourage anyone keen on studying Chinese in China to consider the option of degree studies, it’s a fantastic way to really deepen your knowledge and immerse yourself in Chinese society and if you manage your programme wisely you will come out ahead of those who just choose to study only the language.

Li Laoshi (Teacher Li) way back in the day. A very fine teacher who incidently is now conducting research on the cultural heritage of the Pearl River Delta. Summer in Guangzhou is brutally hot and humid and in early days we didn't have any airconditioning ... anywhere! One of my fondest memories is Li Laoshi (Ms Li, not pictured) constantly wiping her forehead as she took the class. 谢谢各位老师,你们辛苦了!The only respite we had as students back then was to ride our bikes downtown to the White Swan Hotel (which then was a newly completed five star hotel on the Pearl River) and sit in the air conditioned lobby.

It was really great to see my teachers and to learn about the development of the School. Like most other Chinese cities Guangzhou has undergone a dramatic transformation and the area around the campus (the original campus on the banks of the Pearl River) is unrecognisable (Guangzhou has also had a recent face-lift with the holding of the Asian Games). In the old days it didn’t take me too long to ride my bicycle and find myself passing through villages and fields, but now you have to ride a considerable distance, a feat made more difficult by the dramatic growth in traffic. I had a very enjoyable and productive time whilst studying in Guangzhou in 1989/1990. In those days Guangzhou was probably the most vibrant city in terms of economic development, it had a real buzz. Oh and did I mention that the food was incredible! Yumcha before class was a regular occurrence! I also learnt taiqi from a lovely little old hakka lady who could barely speak Cantonese let alone Mandarin, and I learnt some ‘southern fist’ from a nearby farmer (the village I think is no longer) who introduced me to the ‘underworld’ of Chinese martial arts in Guangzhou.

During my time at Sun Yat-sen University in 1989/1990 I was approached by advertising companies to do some modelling (yes, they were desperate!). Here I am modelling some piece of plastic crap with one of my fellow students from Germany (then West Germany).

I gave a paper at the conference titled ‘Exploring the Use of the Internet as a Method of Chinese Language Teaching: An Analysis of the QQ Social Networking Platform in Facilitating Cross-Cultural Communication and Second Language Acquisition’ (基于互联网技术的对外汉语教学的探索:QQ聊天工具在跨文化沟通和第二语言教学和学习的作用). I wrote this paper in conjunction with my colleague Zhang ‘Pearl’ Yingchun (张迎春) from China Jiliang University (Hangzhou). This is part of our ongoing collaboration exploring this use of digital technology in the teaching of Chinese and the prospects for using the technology to promote both language learning and cross-cultural understanding between students in China and Australia. You can read more about this project with China Jiliang Universtiy here. Unfortunately Pearl couldn’t be at the conference but she was represented by two very fine colleagues instead (Professors Guo Lanying 郭兰英 and Chen Hong 陈红). I was honoured to be able to introduce them to the delights of yumcha and to interpret the local Cantonese (see, it does come in handy!).

If you happen to have studied Chinese at some point at Sun Yat-sen University the Alumni Office is keen to make contact with you. Please email Professor Zhu Qizhi (朱其智) at: flszqz@mail.sysu.edu.cn