A Road Less Travelled

SZU campus

SZU campus

For many second-year students of Sinology at Leiden University the exciting and nerve-wracking period to apply for China scholarships is about to commence. The lucky few who are granted a year’s study in China will most likely go to one of the big universities in Beijing. Because it is the capital city, I suppose it is a logical choice for most students, but I can’t help but wonder why there are not more students who decide to study in other parts of China. I can understand the appeal of being near Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, and at the centre of political power, not to mention Wudaokou. Beijing has its own peculiarities and charms, such as the hutongs and pirate Putonghua, but there are also many disadvantages to living in Beijing: pollution in the capital is some of the worst in China, winters are freezing cold, while summers are scorchingly hot, traffic is heavily congested, and public transport is overcrowded.


The lake at SZU

Of course, my primary reason for studying in Shenzhen is because I can combine it with my research at Shenzhen Museum. But even if I would be in China to only study the language I would probably have come here. For those who have heard of Shenzhen, their views are generally quite negative about this city. The city is supposedly sterile, unpleasant, unsafe, and it has no history. In the seven years that have been coming to Shenzhen, I have certainly had a different experience. Being one of the largest migrant cities in China, Shenzhen is a fascinating place. It is also a good place to practise your listening skills, because you are likely to hear accents from all over the country. It is a planned city, so can feel a little like SimCity, but is also very green and spacious.

The campus of Shenzhen University is a city in itself, which is about as large as the city centre of Leiden. The university is right next to the Hi-Tech Park, where large companies such as Tencent Technology (QQ, WeChat) have their headquarters. Although the buildings are a little old and worn out, the campus grounds are really beautiful. It feels like you are in a botanical garden. Cute open mini-buses take you around the campus.

Eventhough the university canteens serve about 20.000 students every day, they still manage to serve freshly made food. What's your excuse Leiden University?

Eventhough the university canteens serve about 20.000 students every day, they still manage to serve freshly made food. What’s your excuse, Leiden University?

There are nearly fifteen types of Chinese cuisine to choose from at one of the twenty canteens. There is an Olympic-sized in- and outdoor pool, with matching stadium, lakes and forests, and even a golf course! You could probably spend your entire studies on the campus without ever leaving as everything is provided for. The teaching level is rather good, at least in the advanced class. We have comprehension and spoken Chinese classes three times a week. Additionally there are classes on Chinese writing, reading newspapers, history and society, and language and culture. There is no special listening class, but then, keeping up with what the teachers are saying will give you plenty of practise. Furthermore, in the higher level classes the Westerners are hugely outnumbered by Koreans (there are only four non-Asians in my class), which means you are less likely to switch to English during the break, or after class. The university has set up a programme with local primary schools where foreign students are invited to give a talk about their country and culture, which not only is a great opportunity to practise your speaking skills, but you even get paid for it.

Beijing is not the only place in China where you can get a good language education. It is definitely worth considering universities in other cities, especially when you are an aspiring Sinologist. You might be surprised what you can discover whilst taking a road less travelled.

Hi-Tech park as seen from Shenzhen University. Tencent Headquarters prominently in the centre.

Hi-Tech Park as seen from Shenzhen University. Tencent Headquarters prominently in the centre.

6 thoughts on “A Road Less Travelled

  1. (Eh, I seem to have forgotten to post my comment and closed the page. So here we go again)
    I studied a year at Shandong University, because back in the day, Beijing was not an option for the Leuven students. We were found all over the PRC, and it doesn’t seem to have done us any harm.
    Also: I notice from the pictures that the air quality must be significantly better than Beijing. It is worth thinking about if one is to spend an entire year breathing in fine dust…


  2. Having studied at BeiYu in 07/08 I can second your assessment of Beijing, both the good and the bad (and the ugly =) On a round trip through China I visited Chengdu and I think it was there that I realized how different north and south China can be. Beijing (or Jinan) is grey and dusty, while Chengdu is green and spacious. One problem, I think, is the relative ignorance of students prior to their first China visit. We all know Beijing and Taibei, and since scholarships used to take you there it makes sense to prepare for those cities, but now that Leiden University has less influence on the scholarship procedure it is perhaps time to prepare students for the rest of China. Nanjing has a rich history and is much more welcoming than Beijing. Europeans have studied Chinese in Xiamen since before the fall of the Ming dynasty. Chengdu is green, has a sizable expat community for those who care about that, and, of course, pandas!

    Still, the road less traveled can be lonely. Not all of us want to speak Chinese during the break 😉


  3. Pingback: A Road Less Travelled | CleverJots

  4. I’m not saying students shouldn’t go to Beijing, but there are plenty of other options that I think students don’t even consider. Especially when you have a particular interest, it’s worth going to a city that is relevant to that interest. If I wouldn’t be in Shenzhen I might have gone to Changsha or Lanzhou. I’m a sucker for Lanzhou lamian and Hunanese cuisine. But also in terms of history and culture these places interest me.
    Sander, as for speaking English during the break, it does happen. It’s not hard to find expats in Shenzhen if, as you say, you are into that 😉 But I have also found that it is very easy to make Chinese friends (both English-speaking and not). Whether or not you get lonely when you venture out on your own also depends largely on your personality.


  5. it is only because Leiden university made agreements on credit recognition with certain universities in Beijing, that everyone started going there. when we went in 1994, we were the first batch to go to BeiYu with credit recognition for the language classes. before that year, everybody went everywhere in the whole country. but without credit recognition, students ended up travelling all over China. also a good way to learn the language of course. when students needed their credits more, they changed it. well, this is my impression / memory. i am sure a teacher from Leiden can confirm or deny this 🙂 It all depends on what you are looking for. And why not Taiwan for that matter.


    • Taiwan is certainly an option too. I didn’t mention it in the post, because I think most students are generally more aware of that possibility. As for mainland China and credits: for second year students, going to a university outside Beijing is no longer an issue – not where Leiden University is concerned. You can no longer get credits at all for language study outside of the BA programme. The 120EC China Studies MA students are however bound to Shandong University, which does indeed have to do with the transfer of credits and the structure of the programme. I think it is quite telling that many students don’t sign up for this programme even though you have a more or less guaranteed China scholarship. They don’t want to go to China if they can’t to Beijing.

      As a ResMA student, I am fortunate to be able to combine my fieldwork and language studies here in Shenzhen, and get credits for both.


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