Exclusive Interview with Professor Li Xu, Dean of the School of Foreign Languages and Literature of Tianjin University
Tianjin University, formerly known as Peiyang University, was founded on October 2 of 1895. As the first university in Chinese modern history, Tianjin University is one of the first 16 national key universities designated by the central committee of CPC, one of the key universities among the first batch of the “211 project” and “985 project”, and has been selected into the “construction of world-class universities”. The establishment and development of the School of Foreign Languages and Literature, an important liberal arts school of Tianjin University, signals that the revitalizing liberal arts strategy of Tianjin University has started on a new track.
“Although Tianjin University is a traditional engineering university and recovery of its liberal arts started late, I regard that liberal arts and humanistic spirit are essential to a university. The School of Foreign Languages and Literature resumed enrollment in the year of 1981 and reached a certain scale in the early 1990s. Boasting of natural late-starting advantages, the School is of great strategic significance to Tianjin University’s discipline layout featuring interdisciplinary integration and coordinated development,” said professor Li Xu, Dean of the School of Foreign Languages and Literature when a reporter of China’s Foreign Trade visited the School on the Beiyangyuan Campus of Tianjin University.
Learn through Chinese and foreign cultures and carry forward ancient and modern cultural essence
When approaching the building of the School of Foreign Languages and Literature, you’ll first see the school motto engraved on the wall “learn through Chinese and foreign cultures and carry forward ancient and modern cultural essence”. Professor Li Xu explained, “the School has two disciplines — foreign languages and Chinese. We hope that the students here may learn through the Chinese and foreign cultures to carry forward the ancient and modern cultural essence. In the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, China should attach importance to cultural exports, but cultural imports should also not be neglected. Importance should be attached to absorbing the essence of foreign cultures and from this perspective foreign language education is of great importance.”
Walking into the teaching building, you’ll see a huge wall with the portraits of western great masters like Aristotle and Shakespeare, sending out a strong humanistic atmosphere. Stepping up the stairs to the second floor, you’ll see a striking photo wall on both sides of the corridor, which depicts group photos of graduates since the very first year. Skimming over the young faces on the old black-and-white photos or the newer colorful photos, I feel like I am traveling through the long history, and like the spirit of Tianjin University has passed down from one generation to the next.
The architecture features of the campus of Tianjin University reflect the tradition of “round sky and square earth”, and the teaching building of the School of Foreign Languages and Literature is in the shape of Chinese character “hui”. An outdoor garden in western style is surrounded by buildings. Li Xu introduced that this was jointly donated by the alumni of the English major teacher class of Tianjin University in the 1960s and was named “Chunhuiyuan Garden”. In 2017, the alumni donated an RMB 6 million education fund to award excellent English talent. Both undergraduates and postgraduates with an English major or other majors are eligible to the fund. Each year 30 students with excellent English competency may apply for a RMB 8,000 scholarship.
Talent cultivation purses excellence
The School offers both English and Chinese Language and Literature majors for undergraduates, and Chinese Language and Literature and Foreign Language and Applied Linguistics for master programs, and a professional master program in translation major. The School establishes six teaching units (English Department, Chinese Department, College English Teaching Section 1, College English Teaching Section 2, Postgraduate English Teaching Section and Japanese Teaching Section), two research centers (Language Science Research Center of Tianjin University and Translation and Intercultural Communication Research Center) and two research institutes (Taiwan Research Institute and Slavic institute). The School now has 120 faculties, among which 104 are for teaching and research, employing 12 professors, 44 associate professors. Among the teachers, about 40 have experience studying abroad or are senior teachers also giving lectures abroad.
In recent years many colleges have expanded their enrollment, Li Xu pointed out, “enrollment at our School is quite different. For the undergraduate program, they insist on not blindly expanding enrollment and continuing with the existing liberal arts teaching with controlled enrollment. In terms of academic masters and professional masters degrees, the master program is gradually expanding enrollment year by year based on the requirements of discipline development. Over 60 candidates are enrolled each year for the professional master program.” When speaking of why they are adopting different policies, Li said, “undergraduate education is the most basic higher education and only with a solid foundation may students may continue to pursue excellence. Just as Tianjin University’s secretary of the party committee Li Jiajun expects, the School may explore a development mode for liberal arts with Tianjin University characteristics in the course of construction and development, rather than copying the development mode of other colleges. Thus, the School will continuously enhance academic levels, realign their academic research direction and construct a ‘very delicate, high-level and distinctive liberal arts school’.”
According to the introduction of Xu, the School has several multi-media classrooms, among which some are for public course teaching and some are specialized for undergraduate English and translation postgraduate teaching. Hardware of the School is of a world-class standard. In multimedia classrooms, students may simulate UN conferences and international economic and trade forums, and four-language training can be conducted at the same time in the simultaneous interpretation classroom. At international events such as the Davos Forum and Belt and Road business conferences, many students from Tianjin University take charge of reception and translation work.
The School does not only have completed teaching facilities, but also comfortable leisure facilities and communication space, such as a teachers’ lounge, a labor union’s activity room (billiard parlor and fitness room), a reading corner and negotiation table. “We hope to provide a cozy working environment for teachers and create a relaxed learning atmosphere for students,” said Xu. “Prime Minister Li Keqiang previously mentioned the entrepreneurship and innovation spirit, which I think it not only refers to start-ups businesses, but also to innovation in terms of philosophy and thinking pattern. Students’ anxiety to achieve quick success and get instant benefits should be avoided and we have to focus on cultivating students’ social responsibilities. We hope the School will pursue excellence, as well as cultivate more high-quality and innovative talent,” he added.
“I always regard that undergraduate education is the first step for general education and is to cultivate students’ comprehensive quality. I never worry about students’ future occupations, as many students have at least two degree certificates when they graduate,” said Xu confidently. “This is mainly attributed to the fact that students of our School have good English scores when they’re enrolled. To broaden knowledge scope and cultivate versatile talent adapting to the economic construction and social development of the innovation-oriented nation, many students also minor in other subjects besides their own major during undergraduate education. For instance, English majors also minor other subjects like law, financial management and engineering management and graduate with two degree certificates. Some graduates choose to study abroad or are selected by companies, most of whom are engaged in international engineering and construction related work.”
Laying the foundation for Belt and Road cultural communication
Apart from the teaching plan within the School, the School also takes charge of all foreign language teaching work of the university. “To respond to the national Belt and Road Initiative, the School started to plan three years ago to achieve teaching in ten foreign languages at the same time. So far, the School has started English, Japanese, German, Russian, French and Spanish. We plan to open 10 language teaching classes at the same time next year,” Li Xu said.
According to Xu, many majors of the University are engineering related. All these majors satisfy the nation’s engineering construction need and most graduates are active on the front line of Belt and Road construction. “Infrastructure construction not only requires engineering knowledge, but also requires knowledge of foreign language. In the meantime, we should also be aware of communication barriers in terms of culture, which is why the School sets up language courses,” Li told the reporter.
“I hope that by virtue of our cultivation students may develop the habit of paying close attention to foreign cultures and get to know foreign cultures via language learning,” Xu regards. “The School has connected traditional classroom teaching with online classes. With multiple languages, the School has made lots of attempts in teaching. For instance, the local customs and cultural conventions of the nations along the Belt and Road are involved in courses to broaden students’ knowledge and horizons.”
“Most colleges only set up English course to non-English majors as foreign language course and the students in Tianjin University are surprised to find that they can choose other foreign language courses. At the beginning, for setting up these foreign language courses, we prepared that one foreign language may only have one student. However, now it seems that our students are receptive and these courses are highly popular,” Xu shared. “We hope that our students may convey China’s voice and we are doing this work now exactly to lay foundations for these cultural communications.”
In addition, the School has set up the course “talking about Chinese culture in English” in the year of 2018. This course adopts excellent teaching materials and integrated in-and-on class teaching platform. Students in different majors are able to choose this course to learn about the philosophy of dealing with people and affairs.
“Culture cannot be explained in one or two sentences, particularly for expressing cultural connotations and thinking patterns. For instance, it is difficult for us to understand Shakespeare’s sonnets; similarly, translated versions of Chinese poems and prose never convey original artistic meanings,” Xu says. Each year lots of people go abroad for exchange, including dozens of students studying abroad. They are normally confronted with cultural exchange barriers, but many cultural misunderstandings can be avoided.
Xu said, “in the past 40 years since the reform and opening up, dramatic changes have taken place in China. We should enable the world to see China’s changes and spread China’s stories. We are supposed to be aware of these demands in advancing Belt and Road construction. By virtue of language and culture related courses, students in the science and engineering majors may learn languages and cultures of other nations, and they will truly make our voice on behalf of China heard once they are on the international stage, no matter whether this is on the forefront of infrastructure or in the international institutions. I think this is also an important approach for China to go global and enhance influence.”
(Gao Sai and Nie Chang contributed to this article.)