June 19, 2015, by Tony Hong

UNNC and (Post-)Coloniality: Western Education and China

By Flair Shi,

Currently Studying Comparative Literature (MA) at University College London,

Graduate of the School of English University of Nottingham Ningbo,

BA in English Language and Literature.

As my enthusiasm for postcolonialism, and the popularity of the discipline, seem to be ever increasing and intensifying since the first day my dear professor in the English Department introduced it to me at UNNC, I have always known that sooner or later I would apply this key concept, crucial to the analyses of any intercultural interactions, to my beloved alma mater. The issue with coloniality and the inequality within the global knowledge economy are pertinent to not only the origin but also the continued expansion and day-to-day life of UNNC, an overseas campus of a British university located in a former treated port, Ningbo, which was forced to open up for British trade after the First Opium War. Of course at least every student in Zhejiang is required to memorize “the Five Treaty Ports” in history classes, but during my three years at UNNC and among all the public events and discussions about China and Chinese nationalism I enjoyed, I had never heard any professor, teacher or student talking about this obvious historical fact and its significance for reflections today. And I am sure if you ask many of the non-Chinese staff at UNNC which are the five treaty ports, they will fail to tell you. As the discussions to come are bound to be very sensitive and complex, let me start with three simple anecdotes:

1. On my way with a bunch of UCL students to Warwick University to attend a conference about Franz Fanon, I introduced myself as an alumni of UNNC, and one of the students reacted: “that’s like a colony, isn’t it? I can see why you are interested in Fanon!”

2. At UCL I took a course in Modern Chinese Literature, and as I studied English Literature in my BA it was my first time studying Chinese Literature since Gaokao. In the class we had 12 students in total, 11 from China and 1 from Singapore (Chinese Singaporean) and our teacher is a white British woman who is supposed to be at least bilingual (though rarely did we hear Chinese spoken by her except a few phrases and all conversations with her during or after classes took place in English) and has only published a book in English in the UK. One day after class the Singaporean classmate told me: “isn’t it a bit weird that a British woman is teaching a class of Chinese Chinese literature in English in the UK?”

3. Several weeks earlier the UNNC students were sharing this article about the Chinese Culture course (中华文化课) at UNNC on WeChat. The Chinese Culture course is the only course conducted in Chinese that all mainland Chinese students at UNNC are all required to take in year one. Similar courses are also compulsory at other Zhejiang universities to make sure students “know their roots”. The author of the article talks about the inadequate quality of this course and laments the students’ casual attitude towards it as he/she deems the course especially necessary in a westernized educational environment at UNNC. While sharing the article, one of my WeChat friends comments: “we should feel lucky we are in this colony so we don’t have to study all that rubbish”.

Let’s unpack these interesting and highly indicative anecdotes one by one. The first anecdote concerns the international reputation of UNNC and situates its precarious identity in a growing tide of postcolonial movements in British higher education happening right now across the UK. Where international reputation is concerned, there are always two sides of the story (or much more): on the one hand, UNNC has always been marketing itself as an international/global university in China, and in its publicity efforts to attract more high school graduates every year it often uses the international ranking and reputation of the University of Nottingham in the UK to alleviate its own status; on the other hand, while UNNC is still trying hard to make its name known outside of Zhejiang, it remains unfamiliar to students and academics in the UK. I know this every time I introduce myself as a graduate of UNNC to people in the UK: UNNC is just a branch campus, and UNUK is still the trunk of the tree, no matter whether it is international reputation, academic resources or student aspirations. Students come to UNNC mainly because it is British, just as the self-marketing line goes: “it is studying abroad at home”, and when our students graduate they mainly go to study or work in the West or work for foreign companies in China. We can perhaps set aside the controversial debate about whether UNNC is in the strict sense a colony or not, its positionality within the global knowledge economy is nonetheless related to theories on dependence—the center and the periphery. Of course positively speaking there is the ideal that heterotopic spaces like UNNC do not have to be either, it is a unique hybrid, however we have to ask to what extent is this hybridity treasured in China and the UK and beyond? To what extent does this hybridity differ from the basics of the old colonial educational paradigm where Western colonizers used their language to teach groups of natives to help them better capitalize on the resources from the native country?

Franz Fanon is the Caribbean psychoanalyst and philosopher who bravely fought against the French, the people who educated him, for Algerian independence. His canonical work, Black Skin, White Masks, dissects the psychology of coloniality as it has been internalized by the colonized: the self-hatred the blacks inevitably confront in their persistent desire to be accepted as white. The conference at Warwick which sought to revive and reexamine Fanon’s ideas happened in a growing tide of postcolonial movement in the UK. Since last year, students across the UK, most notably in UCL, LSE and Warwick, have been organizing a series of campaigns and lectures in the name of “Why is my Curriculum White?”, through which they aim to challenge the power structure that dominates the field of humanities and privileges certain perspectives over others. For example, Dr. Nathaniel Coleman at UCL, who strikes out his surname to emphasize its association with slavery in his ancestral country Jamaica, has pointed out in several articles that “philosophy is about dead white men”. In such blatant criticism, what academics like Dr. Coleman seek to advocate is not a kind of reverse racism that puts the spotlight on the identity of the academics rather than their ideas, but our critical thinking about who possesses the power to advocate whose thinking to be regarded as legitimate and universal philosophies. For example, non-white philosophies from Africa and Asia are still mostly confined to the particular fields of Area Studies and if they have any presence in mainstream subjects such as Philosophy or Literature at all they usually are dealt with in specific modules, such as “postcolonialism” or “Chinese Thoughts”. In contrast, old-school enlightenment and modern philosophers are emphasized in such subjects but rarely with critical engagements with recent reflections on them: people such as Montesquieu, Kant, and Freud all wrote essays that display racist and homophobic ideologies.

A closer look at British academia surely reveals that it is no level playing field, and there is no egalitarianism among different languages either. Across the UK and especially in UCL, many teachers in European studies only have published in continental European languages (French in particular), however, where Chinese academics in Chinese studies are concerned, “publications in English are essential”. In fact you don’t need to have any Chinese publications at all! Now what does this say about the global knowledge economy and coloniality? And if UNNC is just an extension of such a system, what does this say about the coloniality of UNNC? Have we not our own Chinese Studies center? And have we not our own set of teachers, some of whom have not published anything in Chinese either? Is the knowledge we produce truly from cultural dominance and epistemic violence? What about Western-educated Chinese scholars and scholars-to-be like me? Are we not implicated in the perpetuation of such cultural/epistemic dominance as well if we claim to refuse to play in the Chinese system as we perceive it is unfair but instead we play similar games in the Western system to maximize our cultural-intellectual capitals?

With regards to the second anecdote, have we not got our own classes in Chinese Studies just like this one at UCL? Maybe sinologists, Chinese or non-Chinese alike, sometimes can be very used to the internationalization of this discipline and perceives such phenomenon in the positive light of cosmopolitan scholarship. However, the imagining of the reverse situation would immediately evoke the bizarre-ness embedded in such academic inequality. For this purpose, I quote a friend in the same Chinese Literature course at UCL as me who comments on the futility of current discourses around the rise of China: “A country like UK is strong not because of how many mansions and airports it can build in one year, it is because it possesses the power to make us come here to study Chinese literature in English; China can never truly rise if even we Chinese dare not imagine without a sense of ridicule the scenario where a bunch of white British people would fight to pay twice the tuition fee to come to China to study Shakespeare in Chinese from a Chinese teacher!” On this note, we have UNNC in China, and we have Confucius Institute in the UK too. However, following the same logic of reverse thinking, you can study Chinese society in UNNC, but British people do not go to study Shakespeare at Confucius Institute.

No matter what, UNNC did not choose to be part of this global knowledge system on its own. From the date of its birth it was bound to be implicated in the existing systems. And as far as Chinese pragmatism in such a cruelly competitive society goes, the Chinese are aware that no nations, languages, or even human beings are truly equal in terms of their participation and operation in the global capitalistic system. Just like the old treaty ports during the Republican era, the Chinese feel lucky to be living and doing business in an international environment, because even with the awareness of the fundamental inequality embedded in the everyday life of such environment, they can enjoy certain social mobility and more immediate benefits brought by this association. UNNC does not have to worry about its future expansion and popularity within and beyond China, but as an intellectual space, I wish it could be more reflective on the colonial histories and their significance for today. In the English Department I have seen many admirable efforts to diversify the curriculum and the backgrounds of academic staff. If it is an academic (neo-)colony as it has to be, I still feel lucky to have come from it and learned much from it; yet the fact that it cannot be free from the Western dominance of global knowledge economy makes it urgent to raise awareness and address this issue with its staff and students. Rather than making courses like “Chinese Culture” or “postcolonialism” compulsory, why not cultivate a postcolonial appreciation of our hybridity in concrete practices that truly value intercultural learning? Incorporate Chinese and global thinking and literatures into the curriculum, address the realities in China and beyond, treasure multilingualism and the ability to read and publish across borders, value the Chinese (and other) experiences students bring into the classes, encourage critical thinking against the injustice within China but also in the West, prepare the students for potential challenges they might face once they come to the UK…much has been achieved and much remains to be tackled. True cosmopolitanism might be a socialist dream, but the building of a better colony is certainly achievable.

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