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Courtesy of Lingling Ma

Lingling Ma is graduating with a double degree in psychology and Japanese literature from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Zhiyu Wang/MEDILL

Prof. Gerard A. Postiglione talks about China's experiments with liberal arts education.

Chinese see increased value in American humanities education

by Zhiyu Wang
June 04, 2013

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Zhiyu Wang/MEDILL

Yanli Li, who works for Renmin University, learns about the American higher education system at the University of Chicago.

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Zhiyu Wang/MEDILL 

Data: Institute of International Education

The number of Chinese students enrolled in U.S. undergraduate programs has increased in recent years.

graduate data

Zhiyu Wang/MEDILL

Data: Institute of International Education

The number of Chinese students enrolled in U.S. graduate programs has is up, but less sharply than the number in undergraduate programs.


When China meets liberal arts

The passion for general knowledge in humanities and social sciences plays into a growing debate in China about what universities should offer.

In fact, top Chinese universities are steering their style of education closer to their American counterparts.

One of China’s most prestigious institutions, Peking University, has undertaken an experiment with liberal arts education. Unlike their peers, students at the project called Yuan Pei Program at Peking University choose courses under broad categories of humanities and science and do not have to declare a major until the third year.

However, whether the U.S. approach would work is still up in the air.

“The U.S. social context is different. You could put those skills to use much easier in the U.S. context than in China at present,” said Prof. Gerard A. Postiglione, director of the Wah Ching Center of Research on Education in China of the University of Hong Kong. “But that’s an open question.”
Lingling Ma’s family was shocked when she told them she wanted to quit Shanghai International Studies University, one of the top universities in China, and apply to colleges in the U.S.

She was enrolled in Greek in SISU, a program whose graduate employment rate claims to be 100 percent, but that didn’t stop her from quitting just a few months into her college life.

“I don’t want to be just a translator. I wanted to learn philosophy, literature and everything, but if you major in Greek in SISU, you study Greek for four years. I mean just the language, you wouldn’t even learn Greek culture and history,” said Ma, referring to the lack of quality humanities courses and freedom to select classes in other majors at SISU.

Ma is graduating this month with a double degree in psychology and Japanese literature from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and will begin her masters in the humanities program at the University of Chicago soon.

Ma is not the only one unsatisfied with what Chinese universities can offer. Boqun Zhou still remembers the excitement he felt when he was sitting in the first class he took in the University of Chicago’s master of arts program in the humanities three years ago. It was also the first time he came to the states.

“My undergrad school didn’t have any humanities classes. The first time I ever encountered humanities classes was here,” said Zhou when recalling his graduate life. “That whole academic year, I was just very happy.”

In his nine-month master’s program, he took classes in religion, history and East Asia studies. It didn’t take long before he submitted the application for the doctoral program at the University of Chicago.

Like Ma and Zhou, many among the new generation of Chinese students studying abroad are choosing more diversified fields compared with their predecessors, according to a report released by the Center for China and Globalization in 2012. A fair number of these overseas students are now pursuing degrees in humanities, social science and law, while 20 years ago the majority of Chinese international students would choose engineering, the report says.

“The reason it’s becoming more popular is that there’s a sufficient number of engineers here in China at present,” said Prof. Gerard A. Postiglione, director of the Wah Ching Center of Research on Education in China of the University of Hong Kong. “There’s enough of a discourse now saying that the nation needs creative thinkers, needs more problem solvers, flexible types of curriculum that permit students to adapt to different situations. U.S. universities are known for that.”

Prof. Hung-Hsiang Chou from the University of California, Los Angeles, said the growing interest in humanities and social science has a connection with the change of mindset in a changing China.

“Before the open door policy in 1978, the government and the majority of Chinese were interested in economic development and science development,” Chou said. “Now that the economic situation is getting much better, people become more interested in the political system, meaning people are thinking about human rights, freedom and so forth.”

Chinese students enrolled in U.S. undergraduate and graduate schools increased nearly 22 percent to 162,945 in 2011-2012 from the prior academic year, according to Open Door Data provided by the Institute of International Education, a nonprofit that facilitates international education.

It’s no news that a large number of Chinese students are enrolled at American universities, but the solid focus on engineering is now giving way to a more diverse mix of fields.

At Cornell University, the master of architecture program has seen a sharp increase in the number of Chinese students from two in 2003 to 38 in 2012, said Elizabeth Ellis, director of communications for Cornell’s graduate school. There have been seven Chinese students enrolled in Cornell’s graduate program in philosophy since 2009, a program that had no Chinese students from 2003 to 2008, she said.

The young generation of Chinese students has more choices than their parents' generation could even dream of.

“We had only $30 when we got to the states,” said Wenxi Liu, who came to the U.S. 30 years ago. After working in a number of different jobs, Liu is now teaching Chinese at the University of Chicago. “The younger generation is different. Their parents are able to support their lives abroad. To make a living is no longer the biggest issue in their lives, therefore they have more choices.”

Choices are costly. Yuxin Qin’s parents paid more than $50,000 a year for her college education. Qin graduated from Boston University with a bachelor’s degree in history in 2012.

“I'm grateful that my parents support my decisions of studying what I'm interested in, since history and religion are not exactly some economically promising and practical majors, such as accounting or computer science,” Qin said. “They did not have the opportunity to attend college and they hope me to study what I love.”

The Chinese Returnee Entrepreneurship Report released in 2012 suggested the government encourage more Chinese who study humanities and social science to return to China.

“There’s a possibility.” Chou said. “They may bring some of the so called ‘free thinking’ and ‘human rights concern’ back to China.”

At least one is determined to do so.

Liang Xu, a Harvard Ph.D. candidate in modern African history said he would bring what he has learned back to China after he graduates. Liang received his first doctorate degree in international relations and affairs from Peking University.

“The need is huge,” Xu said.

For someone who has been exposed to both Chinese and American higher education, Xu thinks he knows where the difference comes from.

“In ‘60, ‘70s China studied Africa out of political motives, to show solidarity with the Third world, but there was very little down-to-earth academic research. And funding was miniscule,” he said. “Things are getting better, but it needs time. It was a pity that when I was in Peking University, I saw many students showing interest in African studies, but there was not enough resource.”

The strength of America’s higher education does not go unnoticed by the Chinese government.

Government-sponsored overseas study in humanities and social science programs are likely to increase in the future. The more a society develops, the larger the need for talents in humanities and social science areas, said HongCai Wang, vice general of Chinese Higher Education Theories Studies, according to

Renmin University, one of the top universities in China, is sending two or three administrative staff to the University of Chicago every year to learn all aspects of its education system.

Yanli Li, director of the Academic Postgraduate Education Management Office at Renmin University, came to the University of Chicago not long ago, and she has already talked to several graduate students and teachers in the humanities programs at the school.

“Departments and programs have a lot more freedom here, while in China usually the graduate school decides everything,” Li said. “But the whole system is different between the two countries, for example all universities are operated by Ministry of Education in China.”

In less than six or seven years, Ma, Zhou and Xu will all have graduated. Will this generation of overseas Chinese students who are more exposed to humanities and social sciences education in the U.S. initiate changes in Chinese society?

"There's a possibility." Chou said. "They may bring some of the so called 'free thinking' and 'human rights concern' back to China."