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Classical Studies in Mainland China

Written by Simon Mahony |

Professor Simon Mahony, Executive Director of the Research Centre for Digital Publishing and Digital Humanities, Beijing Normal University at Zhuhai; Emeritus Professor of Digital Humanities, Department of Information Studies, UCL; Associate Fellow at the Institute of Classical Studies

My association with the ICS has been a long one stretching back to before my undergraduate years at King’s College London, when my evening study college had a very limited holding for classics. I have kept up the association in a variety of ways, particularly through the Digital Classicist as a sub-field of the Digital Humanities that I found myself drawn to. Following my retirement from UCL, with plans to sail off into the sunset sunk by the demise of my skipper, I fully intended to re-engage more actively with classics but was recruited to head up a new research centre in Beijing Normal University at Zhuhai, Guangdong, Southern China; this is one of the new twin-campus centres that are being set up in regional development zones and has equal status with Beijing.

I’ve been a regular and frequent visitor to China since 2014 when I first represented UCL at the China Scholarship Council Graduate Fair (CSCGF) in Beijing which brought me into contact with many students wishing to come and study in the UK in a variety of disciplines. One of those that stood out was classics and about which I was more than happy to offer advice. Over the years, I have built up many connections with Chinese universities and research centres in digital humanities which is a fast-growing field, attracting much interest there. Over the years, I have been invited to many conferences, events as well as to give guest lectures to both staff and students. One such invitation linked in with my Digital Classicist connection and asked if, as part of their digital humanities programme, I could deliver a lecture on digital classics; this prompted more in-depth research into the classics scene in China.

When looking for ‘classics’ in a university in mainland China (I’m using the University of Wuhan as an example as that is where I was invited to deliver the lecture), you will generally find the School of Chinese Classics.[1] These would include a comprehensive study of literature, history, philosophy, and art with additional research areas such as philosophical connotations, practical statecraft, textual research, as well as the art of writing. The college motto at Wuhan (a Confucian Analect – ch. 7 v.6) translates as ‘Set your will on the Way, have firm grasp on virtue, rely on humanity, and find recreation in the arts.’ This then is the study of Chinese classics, with sub-sets of Confucian Classics, Historical Classics, Classical Literature, Buddhism and Daoism, as well as Masters’ Theories. Similar to the ICS, Chinese scholars study the foundations of their culture and language(s) as well as the contemporary relevance of their past.

In the West we study Sinology, and there is significant interest in Western Classical Studies in mainland China. This is often seen as a way to understand the western world, western civilisation as a comparison to Chinese civilisation, and the different patterns of development. The universities of Renmin, Fudan, Nanjing and Shanghai Normal University offer such courses; these are the ones I am aware of and doubtless there are many more. These are generally found in History Departments, or those of Literature, Comparative Literature, and Reception Studies. Looking through WorldCat, there are many Chinese translations of western classical texts and secondary literature which can be found in the public libraries, including the Capital Library of China (the premier national public library located in Beijing), Shanghai Library (the second largest national library) and those of other major cities such as Guangzhou and Hangzhou, as well as many university libraries such as Wuhan.

The Shanghai Public Library has extensive holding of works of (western) classical literature, history, and reception studies, although these are held in the tower stacks to be ordered when needed (and so hence rarely accessed). Ancient philosophy, both Greek and Roman, however, is on the open shelves.


Shanghai Library
Shanghai Library


Shanghai Library - open shelves
Shanghai Library, Foreign Language shelves, Philosophy


Translating the western classical works into Chinese is often seen as a way of introducing them to students in history and literature faculties. Chinese scholars that I have contact with that work on western classical studies tell me that their interest started after reading Greek and Roman authors in translation during their undergraduate years. One that I first met at a CSCGF event has recently started a Postdoc at Tsinghua (ranked number one in China) on the cult of emperor worship after completing a PhD at Kings College London. Their starting point was language learning as an undergraduate at Renmin University followed by courses on tragedy, comedy, philosophy, history and medieval theology, exploring a wide range of interest before moving to Roman history despite the limitations of teaching and other resources. The differences between East and West became a motivating factor for pursuing doctoral study in the UK and the current Postdoc.

A colleague at my current institution had a similar experience but this time by discovering books on Western Historiography and (western) classical writers in their university library as an undergraduate which prompted a master’s programme in ancient world history, including language training. This led to the study of Virgil and other Augustan poets with a focus on the importance of culture within political movements. Their work after PhD took them away from classics which resulted in a move to the Centre for Historical Research at Beijing Normal University at Zhuhai, the study of Roman cities and a comparison of ancient Chinese and Western cultures. At this centre, three staff members list Roman History among their research areas. We made initial contact after I got in touch with our campus library to enquire about an extensive collection of the Loeb Classical Library volumes that suddenly appeared in the Foreign Books section. With their distinctive appearance, their presence was immediately obvious. The collection had grown as part of the library initiative to expand their holdings of physical books to be on the same level as the library in the Beijing campus; they share the same online resources but purchase physical books as and when requested by staff, apparently without any budgetary restrictions. Part of the plan for this scholar is to start a systematic translation of selected works into Chinese to stimulate interest in upcoming students.


LOEB Greek

LOEB Latin
Beijing Normal University at Zhuhai, Foreign Language section
BNUZH library shelves
Beijing Normal University at Zhuhai, Art and Culture section


The interesting thing with both these scholars is their wish to get more Chinese students interested in western classics and western classical culture. Both wish to share their passion for western classics and encourage future students to discover the world of Greece and Rome. The latter scholar has used the resources of the developing campus library to generate extensive (for a Chinese university library) collections of classical works in English, Latin, and Greek. Their long-term plan is to translate and publish as many as possible into Chinese to stimulate interest amongst the students together with offering courses in western classical culture; something I shall be watching and advising on. Both scholars wish to open up the world of ancient Greece and Rome to Chinese students as well as contributing to the study of classics more widely.

It is clear to me that although there are many cultural differences, the study of the ancient world in China has many similarities with that in the West. Both study ancient sources, canonical texts, manuscripts, and other cultural artifacts; examine how our culture has developed and, importantly, how that relates to us now; as well as the importance of understanding our heritage to link the past with the present and our future. Here, as in the west, classics are studied with a passion and a wish to share that passion as widely as possible.