by Rhiannon Tsang.

“You were before your time,” a barrister friend commented to me at a St Anne’s College (Oxford University) reunion last year. “None of us could see the point in China is those days.”  How times have changed!  The opening of the new Si Yuan Building for the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies 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 went 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 sherry 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.

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 of Confucius’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.”  Good motivations, but just getting to know China and the Chinese should suffice too.

Rhiannon Tsang read Chinese at Oxford and has an LLB in Legal Practice. Her debut China historical novel, Temple of Ten Thousand Years is to be published in 2013. Follow her on Twitter @rhiannontsang and Email:

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors


  1. In my opinion , its very tough to read and write Chinese. But I am glad after reading your post and now i know that in Nottingham , there is a Chinese contemporary study centre has established now.May be possible that new techniques will be available soon for Handwriting Solutions in Chinese Language. I would like to learn this language as well.

    Finally it is an important post and i would like to say you Thanks a lot.


  2. I like to tell people that the reason I chose to study Chinese at Durham in 1979 was because I had incredible foresight, that I still retain and apply in the workplace today. However, a fascination with Chinese characters, a desire to visit the country and a stubborn-ness in the face of those who thought I was crazy were also key factors.

  3. Four reasons for me and 5 hidden bonuses that I can think of.

    1) An open mind and a desire to try something new and challenging.
    2) The woman of my life (I found out I am not alone on this one!)
    3) Varied and interesting course offerings within/over-and-above the overarching discipline/national language element.
    4) Scope for further language development – East Asian languages like Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, Tagalog, Bahasa, plus additional Chinese languages like Hokkien and Cantonese (spoken by 20+ million).
    5) Good value for money in the university I applied to and the time & opportunity to continue my business while studying, funding the course plus a lifestyle (not true now though at PhD level!)

    What I did not know is that there are many hidden bonuses from Chinese studies:

    a) Travel incentives and cultural immersion experiences.
    b) Business opportunities and networking opportunities.
    c) Great food and social benefits like parties, eating together, language exchange etc.
    d) People tell you all the time “wow. never a better time to do Chinese studies.”
    e) People seem amazed when you speak Mandarin/Cantonese/other Asian languages.

  4. Yes Sam. All of the above. In retrospect one of the most valuable things Chinese Studies gave me was time spent in another part of the world, and with it an ability to see the world from a non Judeo Christian perspective. “Zhongguo” after all. Invaluable experience. Good luck with the PhD!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *