UChicago Beijing Center Opens Cultural Doors for Students in Chicago and Beijing

  • Summer Language Program students at Tiananmen Square

  • Arts and Sciences in Beijing Program

  • Arts and Sciences in Beijing Program

  • Arts and Sciences in Beijing Program

  • East Asian Civilizations Program students at the Great Wall

  • East Asian Civilizations Program students at the Grand View Park

January 24, 2018

Throughout the four different student academic programs held in 2017, the University of Chicago Center in Beijing has served as a cultural gateway, helping UChicago students explore and experience China, as well as exposing local Beijing high school students to UChicago’s academic culture. The programs spanned the latter half of 2017, beginning in June with the Summer Chinese Language program and finishing in December with the East Asian Civilizations program.

In its 7th consecutive year, the Summer Language program welcomed students from UChicago and other universities to take one of three levels, whose curricula corresponded with the same year-long class sequences at the university. For eight weeks, UChicago senior lecturers Youqin Wang and Fangpei Cai taught a total of 20 students, with the support of four local graduate students who are specialized in teaching Chinese as a second language. Students were able to improve their Chinese not only in the classroom, but also in conversations with local native speakers.

“The classroom experience at [Chicago in Beijing] was incredible,” said rising 2nd year student Justin Skobe. "While it was a lot of work, I could feel my Chinese getting better every day.”

Rising 2nd year Brian Kaufman also felt similarly, as he recalled one experience from the program.

“One of my favorite moments of the entire program was when my language partner, Coco, told me that my Chinese had really improved,” said Brian. “It was really cool and unique experience to develop a special relationship with someone from another country while simultaneously improving my language ability.”

Beyond the classroom, students engaged in weekend excursions led by Fangpei Cai. The excursions covered many of Beijing's most famous cultural and historical sites, including the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, and the Temple of Heaven. Students supplemented these cultural excursions with their own, independently-organized trips to Beijing's urban districts. Students frequented areas like Sanlitun, Wudaokou, and other popular shopping and entertainment destinations. Additionally, students took advantage of Beijing's vast culinary offerings, ranging from authentic Peking Duck to fried scorpions at the Wangfujing night market.

Following the summer language program that exposed UChicago students to life in Beijing, the Arts and Sciences in Beijing Program let local high school students experience how a liberal arts class is taught at the University of Chicago. For 12 days in August, the 30 participating students were evenly split between two courses: Happiness in Western Thought, Art and Culture, taught by David Wray, Associate Professor in the Department of Classics; and Law and Economics (and Robots), taught by James Leitzel, Director of Public Policy Studies at the College. In addition to daily classes, which ran from 10am to 3pm, students and faculty went on excursions to the 798 Art District, the National Museum of China, and Purple Bamboo Park.

A 10th grader at Tsinghua University International School, Peter Zhang heard about the program from Due West Education, a company that helps Chinese students with U.S. college admissions. Peter decided to participate in the Happiness class, after learning what type of class it would be.

“After consulting a lot of people, I found out that this is the kind of philosophical class that I can put in my effort, sharing various ideas and discussing the definition of an object,” said Peter. “This is all I ever wanted, the most ideal form of class and a most interesting topic. The whole point of the class is to learn about the thought of happiness in the Western world. In order to pursue this goal, we read and talked a lot about a bunch of different philosophers. The professor led us through the famous written pieces by these philosophers and revealed the truth of the story for everybody. We also looked at ‘happiness’ in current view, using statistics, surveys and news reports.”

In addition to the course’s content, Peter enjoyed the class’s structure, which also gave him a positive impression of the university.

“The class was much more active, positive and open,” Peter said. “Everyone was free to share the best of their ideas, even when they were troubled, they also asked for help, and the classmates would solve the problem together and get the answer. The class was awesome. I was fascinated by the knowledge and the way it was presented. The main purpose of attending this program was to experience new things and ideas, absorb new ways of thinking and improve critical thinking skills. This project was my first contact with the University of Chicago. The project made me eager to be a qualified student who can study on such a great campus.”

Teaching the Law and Economics (and Robots) class, Professor Leitzel brought the spirit of a UChicago class to his students in Beijing.

“Every fall, I teach a law and economics class in Hyde Park,” said Professor Leitzel. “It’s an economics elective and almost all of the students that take it in Hyde Park are 4th year Economics majors. But in Beijing, the students are basically in high school. Except for the level of technical sophistication, the class was taught exactly as if I was teaching it in Hyde Park. Bill Hutchison, my co-teacher, had them read a novel, like a core class might do at UChicago. It was I, Robot by Isaac Asimov, and we coordinated it with the law and economics class. So robots came up in the law and econ class.”

By teaching the class like a UChicago course to local high school students, Professor Leitzel explained the importance of this experience, both for himself and his students.

“For example, I’m teaching this quarter at the University of Chicago. What if I wasn’t teaching this quarter? Well, students would take other classes. The economics term is ‘fungible’. It’s easy to feel fungible. If I didn’t teach, students probably wouldn’t suffer very much. You feel less fungible in this Beijing circumstance as a teacher. A class isn’t about the teacher, but primarily about the students. I think that it’s easy to believe that it would have been hard for them to go elsewhere and get something that they would have responded as positively to. The feedback I got from the parents was very generous. It’s another source of my belief that the education experience that the students got for those two weeks in Beijing was just unique for them. It was something they would have had trouble getting elsewhere. That makes me feel good, because it’s generally a positive experience for them.”

Immediately after the Arts and Sciences program, the Pre-Orientation program hosted 17 incoming UChicago 1st year students, giving them a taste of what classes in Hyde Park will be like, as well as exposing them to culture and life in Beijing. For two weeks, students took two courses, Beijing: From Imperial Capital to Global City and Chinese Ways of Knowing, taught by Professors Kenneth Pomeranz of the History Department and Judith Farquhar of the Anthropology Department, respectively. Although the courses were ungraded, students rose to the challenge of the courses’ demanding nature, as Professor Farquhar, who is also Faculty Director of the Center in Beijing, recalls.

“I taught a little course called Chinese ways of knowing, which took up such things as ancient cosmology, medicine, and political authority. The readings were sometimes difficult, but in-class discussion was very lively and rewarding.  I think the students were quite good at stitching together the ideas in what they read with the architecture and history of places we visited.  The students were very respectful of their classmates’ points of view, but they also took up a variety of positions on the philosophical and historical issues Professor Pomeranz and I tried to put on the table.”

To supplement their courses, the program took students to visit several locations in the city, such as the Dongyue and Baiyun Guan temples, the Urban Planning and Beijing Capitol Museums, among other trips.

“I especially enjoyed taking them to see a senior Chinese doctor in a clinic near Wangfujing, where the doctor lectured to them in Chinese in a way that they could really hear because of the reading they had done that morning,” said Professor Farquhar.

“Professor Pomeranz, the staff and I also took the whole group to an old town in Shanxi, called Pingyao for a two-day trip. Several hundred years ago, Pingyao was a financial center with a lot of wealthy families, and much of the old architecture is still there.  It’s a great place to soak up history, and the students proved to be very good at it. We all learned a lot on that trip.”

As the final student program in 2017, the East Asian Civilizations program welcomed 17 UChicago undergraduate students to spend the autumn quarter in Beijing to complete their Civilizations core requirement. Taught by Professors Ariel Fox, Michael Bourdaghs, and Paola Iovene, all from the East Asian Language and Civilizations Department, this year’s courses included both a China and Japan focus. Students not only learned about late imperial Chinese history and issues of social inequality in modern Beijing, but also experienced the different historical artistic representations of Tokyo as an urban center. In addition, students took Chinese language courses, according to their respective levels, taught by local Renmin University lecturers. To help students practice their Mandarin, the program paired them with language partners, who were current Renmin University students.

Given its location in Asia, the program aimed to supplement the students’ courses with site visits and excursions. Beijing trips included the Great Wall, the Grand View Garden Theme Park, and several museums, such as the National Museum of China and the Culture and Art Museum of Migrant Workers. With one course that focused on Tokyo, the students spent a week in Japan, visiting Tokyo and Kyoto, led by Professor Bourdaghs.

“I taught a course that focused on artistic representations in a variety of media of the modern city of Tokyo,” said Professor Bourdaghs. “After reading about and looking at visual images of Tokyo in Beijing, I wanted to bring students to the actual locations. We were lucky to have a number of local artists and scholars available to guide us through various neighborhoods. For example, organizers of “Tokyo Heterotopia,” an ongoing art project that started as a site-specific theatrical performance piece and has morphed into an online participatory event with literary and digital components, guided us to six rather obscure Tokyo locations associated with contemporary immigrant communities that are part of the project, where students encountered short literary texts written for the project that I translated for the class. Another day, we walked through the Harajuku and Shibuya neighborhoods with Mike Nogami, a photographer who shared with us photos he’d taken in those neighborhoods over the past five decades. The final two days, we went back in time to visit Kyoto and Nara, centers of traditional Japanese culture.”

In her own course, Beijing on the Edge, Professor Iovene sought to explain the ongoing changes in Beijing, combining readings of literary works and films with discussions of current events, such as the fire in November that led to the eviction of thousands of migrant workers and the demolition of many areas where they live.

“I really wanted to emphasize the open concept of ‘being on the edge’, physically on the edge, meaning in the periphery, and temporally on the edge, in the moment of transformation,” said Professor Iovene. “So seeing transformation in what was surrounding us, and bringing in awareness of ongoing transformations. Every year you have a younger generation of students who of course don’t know what was Beijing before. It’s very hard for them to imagine the incredible changes that the city has undergone.”

Professor Iovene also used written works of migrant workers to expose students to issues of social mobility and inequality, even inviting one writer to speak with students.

“I wanted to add the voices of migrant workers themselves, so I included this essay written by a nanny, Fan Yusu, which was translated into English this year. We also invited her to talk to the class. For students, it was really interesting to find out that someone who grew up in the countryside in the 1980s had access to a wide range of publications, books, and journals. It was a chance to think about the opportunities for education and social mobility for people who grew up in the countryside in 1980s compared to now. Talking to her led us to this question. Another aspect that emerged from the conversation was gender dynamics. The students were able to see that in her essay she very much emphasized relationships of solidarity with her mother and other women. These relationships were very important to her.”

The program’s presence in Beijing also played an important factor for several students personally. For Henry Li, a 3rd Year studying Economics and Computational Applied Math, his family heritage was one reason he chose to study in Beijing.

“I had several factors that made me choose the Beijing Civ program over others,” said Henry. “First of all, the relevance of Mandarin as a language to me was very important. I grew up in a Chinese-American family. However, I wasn't the best or most fluent Chinese speaker. I wanted to improve my Chinese fluency to a point where I can consider Mandarin as one of my professional languages. Another reason was being able to see my relatives who still live in and around Beijing.”

A 3rd year studying Public Policy, Nate Lewis cherished his experiences outside of the classroom, which have influenced what he plans to do after graduation.

“My favorite experiences from the entire quarter were my interactions with my language partner and other local people. My language partner and I had amazing discussions that provided me with insight into Chinese culture, and their perspective on America. I also had many other interactions with other locals, including a homeless man I took to dinner, the manager of a restaurant who ate lunch with me, a woman I met at the Fa Yuan Temple whom I was able to practice my Mandarin with, and all of the smiling locals at the English corner who gathered every Friday night in Renmin University to practice their English. These interactions provided me with the opportunity to learn so much about the culture, religion, desires, fears, wants, needs, social changes, philosophy, international views, and personal stories of all these different individuals, who all had so many similarities and differences to and from people whom I have met in America and in other parts of the world.

“My immersion this quarter with local people was truly the best part of the program. It allowed me to find my best friend in the whole world, a local Beijing resident whom I continue to talk with every day, and it has inspired my desire to return to China post-graduation in order to learn more about how I can help those who live halfway around the world.”

By helping students on both sides of the Pacific Ocean to get to know each other, the University of Chicago Center in Beijing acts as the main connection for local students interested in Chicago, the United States, and the rest of the world, and it acts like a home for the many UChicago students branching out to understand China.