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Western Classics as part of the Chinese Undergraduate Curriculum

By 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

This post follows on from an earlier one looking at the teaching of (Western) Classical Studies in mainland China [1]. This is my second year at Beijing Normal University at Zhuhai (BNUZH), and I now have more familiarity with teaching, learning, and the students here. I am often asked by colleagues back home in the UK what is meant by a ‘Normal University’, as it’s a term they are not familiar with, and it deserves a few words of explanation. Indeed, I asked the same question when I first visited. This seems to be a throwback to the colonial era and recalls the French École Normale as an institution of higher education that provides teacher training. In mainland China, this title has often been preserved as a sign of the institution’s longevity after developing into a public comprehensive university. The main campus in Beijing (BNU) has a strong emphasis on sciences and humanities (including Chinese Classics), teacher education and education science. The Zhuhai campus, which now has equal status with Beijing, retains this focus on training educators with this spirit embodied in their motto: “Learn, so as to instruct others; Act, to serve as an example to all.” It is seeking to be an institution “that excels in education, culture, health, and technology” [2]; this ethos is not limited to teacher training but implies that all graduates should instruct, if not directly as a teacher, then by example within the workplace and wider society. Nevertheless, many students here are on a pathway to become teachers at all levels from infant to adult. To be clear, what follows is not a systematic investigation into the Chinese curriculum, as it is limited to the BNUZH campus and to a survey of those students that I have contact with through a variety of activities. It is empirical by observation and indicative of what is clearly considered to be an important part of undergraduate education at a Normal University (Beijing Normal (BNU) is the highest ranked Chinese institute of education).

This research was prompted by the casual observation of books that were being read by students and then followed up with a survey of both students and the (very) few foreign teachers on our campus. Initially my interest was sparked by a student sitting across from me in the café reading what was instantly recognisable as the story of Odysseus and the Cyclops (in English) and then subsequently by a student helper in my office building with a copy of Cicero’s De Officiis (in Chinese but with a clear picture of Cicero on the cover along with the Latin title) on the reception desk. This raised the question in my mind about whether this was simply random, registering in my consciousness because of my academic background, or that Western classics were part of the wider curriculum at BNUZH. Being acquainted with both these students allowed the beginning of a conversation about these texts and whether they knew why they had been assigned. The former had been set passages from the Odyssey as part of their English language acquisition and practice course (they were on a programme training them to become a teacher of the English language) with a module option on Western classics and the latter (majoring in International Education of Chinese) for a general philosophy course.

Cicero teaxt
De Officiis (Cicero)

Note: all photos are the author’s.

For all the students surveyed, the texts set for reading, mostly in Chinese translation, were very wide ranging and came under a variety of courses and rubrics. For example, passages from Homer, both the Iliad and Odyssey, were common to many modules; the one mentioned above in language learning but also in literature classes with the Cyclops as an example of the uncivilised ‘other’ in contrast to Odysseus and his crew. There students were asked to read a few chapters and then think about and discuss what it meant to be civilised. The same tutor (from the UK) also set extracts from Sophocles’ Antigone asking students to compare the two sisters’ conceptions of the law and to see which one they sympathised with more. These were part of a general literature course (ancient to modern) with the tutor being a scholar of Kazuo Ishiguro rather than classics. Another Sophoclean tragedy widely set was Oedipus Rex. It was often unclear to the students why specific texts had been set and this one seemed to be employed in literature classes as an example of a dramatic play (the term ‘tragedy’ was not used and perhaps unfamiliar to them). Oedipus Rex and also the Iliad were set in English translation. It appears that most students are familiar with the story of Troy, although probably from the movie and TV dramas as they spoke about the wooden horse, with ‘the rage of Achilles’ being a repeated theme in their set readings.

The most common Western texts are works of classical philosophy with readings set as part of courses in ‘critical reading and thinking’ as well as philosophy. This includes a module named (in translation) Selected Readings of the Republic, where students were asked to discuss Socrates’ attitudes to ‘litigation and health’, how they might ensure ‘the reliability of the guardians in Socrates’ design’ and how convincing the arguments were.

Overall, the general philosophy courses are based mainly on Chinese Classics, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism but include many set texts from the Western classical tradition. One such course includes: The Republic, Phaedo, Nicomachean Ethics, Politics, On Duties, Meditations, Bible, and Koran. Here, in the words of one of the students, ‘the teacher wants us to master the following skills’: ‘to reflect on the evolution of Western culture and Western-centrism since modern times’; ‘to understand the 150 years of Chinese traditional culture in the collision between Chinese and Western culture’; ‘to study the essence of Chinese traditional culture for three thousand years’. When asked what they get from these readings, this student told me that they were learning some ‘basic principles of life’ although they did not yet know how to apply them.

The course titled (in translation) ‘Inheritance and Dissemination of Chinese Culture from a Global Perspective’ also includes The Republic, Phaedo, Nicomachean Ethics, Politics, and Meditations. It comes under the heading of the Excellent Talent Training Programme and so is presumably intended for high achieving students. This also includes some classics of Chinese philosophy such as Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi. A student from this course says that their understanding of the intention of the readings is ‘passing the wisdom and attitude of the ancients to the students’ and that they feel that they have ‘cultivated some new qualities’, particularly about different approaches to life. They added that their teacher commented that the purpose of the course was to develop the students rather to prompt research.

Meditations (Aurelius)   

The History of Greek Philosophy 3

Regarding the philosophy courses, other students commented that they understood their purpose to be: ‘to illustrate the timeless nature of the human condition’, to have them think about the ‘differences between China and the West in these stories of philosophy to broaden our horizon’; where religious texts were included, to consider the ‘different relationships between humans and God [the student’s use of capital]’ (although this doesn’t seem to be of interest in Homer). Understanding cultural background is clearly of importance in the teaching here as well as appreciating the cultural and ideological characteristics of these works. It is apparent in the comments from the students that they were not always clear about why the specific readings were set, sometimes there was a brief explanation and sometime none was given, but as always some felt that the specific texts had been set because they were the ones that the module tutors were most familiar with.

The Republic (Plato)

BNUZH is a ‘Normal’ and public comprehensive university in a Chinese development zone with a clear ethos of educating the educators of the future in whatever field they chose. All students here have training in English language, and some are on programmes learning to be teachers of English as a Foreign Language. All of them have some degree of grounding in Western literature and philosophy, some to a greater extent than others, but in their four years here all of them have exposure to Western culture and how that differs historically and philosophically from the Chinese. This then is a standard aspect of the undergraduate curriculum here. I have had many conversations with students here, undergraduate and graduate, about the cultural differences between East and West, and my understanding of how those impact on our lives. In every case it comes as a great surprise for them to learn that Chinese philosophy and literature are not a standard part of a UK education. It comes as a greater shock to learn that Western classical philosophy and literature are also not part of routine undergraduate teaching in the UK. A German colleague, teaching design, had the same reaction from students when explaining that when he was at school and university, he was never taught Marx, Goethe, or Schiller. Of course, if you study Classics, Ancient History, Philosophy, Comparative Literature these classical texts would (or should, unless deliberately avoided as options in modular programmes) be included, but here at Zhuhai they are on the syllabus, along with Marx and Mao Zedong, for all students including Engineering, Mathematics, and English Language teaching and acquisition. As additional evidence, I have included images of some of the books mentioned with obvious signs of wear, as I found them in the library, which can be compared with the many pristine (never opened) volumes on the library shelves. As noted above, this was limited research conducted on the BNUZH campus and may or may not be indicative of other institutions; similarly, there may be a stronger ethos of cultural understanding (including that of others) in a ‘Normal’ university.

Main library
The main library BNUZH

As a concluding thought, it would appear that those educated to university level in China (certainly at BNUZH) have a far greater understanding of Western culture and the Western classical tradition of literature and philosophy than we in the West have of theirs. This brings to mind a visiting professor from Shanghai who commented on and was very familiar with the tales from Homer depicted on the Marmor Homericum displayed in the South cloisters at UCL; he recognised the iconography and scenes therein. How many of us would recognise the significant details in an artwork based on Dream of the Red Chamber or The Water Margin? I for one, would not.