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2008.10.20 - China and Why We Are Needed

Professor Flemming Christiansen, the former Director of the National Institute of Chinese Studies, on the growing need for new research and new researchers on China.

In the big scheme of things, people in Europe and North America working in Chinese Studies find themselves propelled from a marginal and somewhat arcane position into centre field. In the 1960s and 1970s, China was largely irrelevant and most people felt that it was out of bounds, behind the Iron or Bamboo Curtain. People doing scholarly work on China were largely thought of as Orientalists (Sinologists looking at the ancient civilisation) or as romantic revolutionaries and fellow travellers of Chinese communism; in either case rather remote from the practical needs of society. Even if that caricature was totally mistaken it had broad currency.

Business failures, embarrassing incompetence and repeated misunderstandings cannot anymore be projected onto China with excuses along the lines of Chinese “inscrutability,” “backwardness,” and “lack of language skills.”

Today, the full scope of globalisation has dawned on politicians, business leaders and cultural elites; the rise of China as the most dynamic growth motor in the World, the fact that China plays an increasing role in manufacturing, international finance, regional and international politics, and in global culture, as well as the presence of old and new ethnic Chinese communities in all parts of the World as part of a new cosmopolitan society cannot be ignored. The astounding lack in the West of knowledge and insight about China, rooted in past colonialist and Cold-War arrogance, and the widespread inability to communicate in Chinese even among those who are professionally in charge of mission critical work relating to China are now haunting Western societies as a painful legacy. Business failures, embarrassing incompetence and repeated misunderstandings cannot anymore be projected onto China with excuses along the lines of Chinese “inscrutability,” “backwardness,” and “lack of language skills.” Secondary schools are now increasingly teaching Chinese language, and there is great competition for people with good Chinese language skills and knowledge on China.

This is where the National Institute of Chinese Studies comes in. A one-stop shop for the study of and research on China, it provides graduates with a strong grounding in Chinese language, Chinese area studies knowledge and skills, and high level research abilities spanning Chinese Studies and the disciplines. It is necessary to achieve competences at all levels in Chinese language and area studies knowledge. The BA degrees in Sheffield and Leeds have a long, established history, a variety of MAs at both universities provide combinations of language skills and area studies, and the PhD degrees provided through the White Rose East Asia Centre aim at the highest level of scholarship in Chinese Studies, where appropriate in a combination of disciplines and Chinese Studies. It is our role to consolidate Chinese Studies with the aim to provide society with cohorts of people who can work professionally on Chinese topics and with China, and who have the best possible skills to do so.

The National Institute of Chinese Studies incorporates some of the World's most renowned experts on international business, who entertain close links with the corporate world, people with expertise in China's social development who have a long established relationship with the NGO and development aid sectors, and researchers working with cultural institutions. Our constituent departments arrange outreach activities and taster classes for school children, and facilitate recruitment to major employers.

We work together internationally with major institutions, through the Worldwide Universities’ Network and EastAsiaNet.

By bringing together Leeds and Sheffield in this endeavour, we can draw on a critical mass of scholarship and a breadth of experience in teaching and research difficult to match.