THE Bodleian Library received its first Chinese book in 1604, though it was 80 years before anyone arrived who could read it. Now many of the Bodleian’s China books have a new home—in the library of the new £21m ($34m) Oxford China Centre at St Hugh’s College, which opened on September 8th. The centre is inspired by the Fairbank Centre at Harvard, and aims to be, in the words of Rana Mitter, its director, “the most exciting place to work on China in the western world”, bringing all academics with a China interest under one roof. The new building, largely paid for by Dickson Poon, a Hong Kong tycoon, is part of a much-needed revival.
Oxford’s first professor of Chinese in 1876, a former missionary named James Legge, was typical of those who oversaw China studies during the British empire. Others were former colonial administrators. But with the demise of the empire, the study of China became stuck in the past. In America, the cold war brought funding to modern China studies that enabled its universities to dominate the field. Some important research was done in Britain—notably at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)—that might have been difficult in the fiercely anti-Communist atmosphere of America in the 1950s and 60s. But many British universities remained better known for their strength in Chinese classical poetry than in Chinese foreign policy.
Now several universities—including Nottingham, Sheffield, Manchester and Cambridge (see article)—are producing more research on modern China, even as the number offering degrees in European cultures declines. SOAS recently established a new China Institute.
Mr Mitter wants the centre in Oxford to maintain the university’s strengths in history and philosophy, while beefing up social sciences and economics. He also wants it to inspire more British undergraduates to study Chinese. Michel Hockx, professor of Chinese at SOAS, says only a third of the top 100 faculty members in Britain’s Chinese departments were educated in Britain. He is Dutch; holders of named chairs at Cambridge, Oxford and Edinburgh are Belgian, Dutch and German.
The uptick has already begun. A recent survey found that 78% of universities now offer Chinese-language teaching. Between 2010 and 2013 the number of students applying for Chinese studies as a single honours degree increased by 8% (the number applying for French and German degrees fell by 23% and 24% respectively in the same period). Many more study Chinese with another subject—partly, Mr Hockx suggests, because they believe it will help them get a good job. These days 17% of state secondary schools offer some Chinese to their pupils. In the private sector, the figure is 45%.
Britain has a long way to go to catch up with America and now with Australia and other universities in Asia. But with growing funding and a new desire to look at what China is, rather than what it was, British universities could become world class in modern China studies, just as they are in science, medicine and the arts.