China’s long and continuous culture has survived from ancient times, with an influence that has spread beyond its own borders and contributed to the shape of the cultures of Japan, Korea and the whole of East Asia. The BA Honours course in Chinese at Oxford is designed to give students an understanding of both traditional and modern China, based on a knowledge of the classical and the modern Chinese languages.
The modern Chinese language forms the basis from which one can pursue any aspect of Chinese studies and is given high priority throughout the course, with students being taught not only the skills of reading and writing, but also spoken Chinese with a focus on dialogue, interpreting and oral presentations. A training in Classical Chinese, which is not only a key to understanding traditional China but a significant element in the modern written language, is another central component of the course.
The Chinese course lasts four years, and is structured in two main parts, with important University examinations at the end of the first year (Prelims) and the fourth year (Finals). Students spend the whole of their second year studying in China or Taiwan.
The main emphasis in the first year is on building a sound basic knowledge of contemporary written and spoken Chinese, which involves at least ten hours a week of classroom and tutorial teaching, including language laboratory work. A further three hours a week are devoted to the study of the language of Ancient China. By the end of the first year students are ready to tackle intensive reading of both modern and classical texts. Throughout their first year students also attend lectures and receive tutorials on the history, institutions and culture of China, involving extensive background reading and training in essay writing.
Following the Prelims examination, all undergraduates will spend their second year attending a course at National Taiwan Normal University which has been especially designed for Oxford’s undergraduates. Living and studying in a Chinese environment enables students to make rapid progress in all aspects of the modern language. Meanwhile, the course also continues to build on the first year training in the Classical language through the study of Tang poetry and early philosophical texts. For more information on the Year Abroad, which may also be taught at Peking University, please refer to the course handbook.
After returning from China at the start of the third year, students begin the second half of the course, the aim of which is to provide:
linguistic skills. In addition to the oral examination, language ability is tested in three papers; Modern Chinese prose composition, unprepared translation from Modern Chinese, and unprepared translation from Classical Chinese. Students receive instruction in interpreting, newspaper reading, prose composition and listening comprehension, all taught in small groups, often with the use of the Language Laboratory.
detailed study of texts. This part of the course aims to give students an expert understanding of specifically prescribed; source material. Two translation papers test classical texts, and a third paper is devoted to Optional Texts, works which students have studied from an area of their own choice. The subjects on offer include modern society and politics of China, modern literature and film, art, linguistics, ancient, medieval and modern history, or alternatively Japanese, Korean or Tibetan texts,as part of the subsidiary in those languages. (Please note that not all subjects are available every year). A separate essay paper examines the subject matter and background of the Optional Texts.
a broad understanding of Chinese society. This is begun in preparation for the Prelims paper on the history and civilization of China, and is continued in the Optional Text essay paper. In the Finals there is also a compulsory paper covering modern China which is taught in a series of lectures and tutorials.
independent study. Students are required to submit a dissertation, which may be on a topic relating to any area of Chinese studies, such as literature, art, religion, or an aspect of contemporary China. In addition, there are a series of projects as part of the year abroad, and those taking any option other than a subsidiary language also submit a long-essay in the field of their option.
further language training. For those wishing to take an additional language, the subsidiaries in Japanese, Korean and Tibetan offer the possibility of studying another language to intermediate level. In addition to the study of the language and texts, another course focuses on the history and culture associated with the relevant language.
We welcome applications from candidates with a wide variety of backgrounds. The course assumes no prior knowledge of Chinese. However, we do require at least one GCSE in a foreign language, or other demonstrable success in studying a foreign language.
The Oxford degree in Chinese is not designed as a vocational course leading simply to a career requiring functional language skills. It should be regarded primarily as a chance to study a great society and civilization remote from the European tradition, and to gain an educational experience which is valuable for its own sake. However, a special knowledge of China and its language does give advantages in certain careers, for example, diplomatic work, international finance and commerce, and journalism. The Oxford course also provides a good foundation for further academic work and possible career opportunities in universities, museums and libraries.
Rather than listing individual titles, we suggest looking for works of Chinese fiction, poetry, and philosophical works, many of which are available in paperback. For more general surveys on China’s culture and language consult:
- The Cambridge Illustrated History of China, ed. Patricia Ebrey, 1996.
- A Cultural Atlas of China, Mark Elvin and Caroline Blunsden, Oxford, 1983.
- The Search for Modern China, Jonathan Spence, New York, 1991, 1999.
- Chinese, Jerry Norman, Cambridge, 1988.
For further information please download a copy of the Undergraduate 2021-22 Handbook.
Some examples of work by recent students on the course:
HOW TO APPLY