Julie Chen’s inaugural speech at Uni. Helsinki

I participated in Julie Yu-Wen Chen’s inaugural speech on 25th May. It was truly insightful and I am glad that I was there. Before going to the lecture hall, I have no idea what does Chinese studies mean, and I have no idea if there’s a difference between Chinese studies and China studies and Sinology.

Julie’s discipline is political science.  Therefore when she conduct Chinese research, she does not only look at China. Rather, she always look for scientific theories that can explain the Chinese societal phenomenon and to put it into the international comparison context. Her most famous research is about minorities in China. I find it really great because I can see how my research talk with her research.

Julie commenced her presentation by making a distinction between ‘Chinese studies decades ago’ and ‘contemporary Chinese studies’. She justified this distinction by making the argument that there’s no undisputed one and neutral Chinese research. She argues that having different discipline, cultural background and being educated from different time period and location will determine where you see what counts as central component of Chinese studies. Basically she wants to introduce the concept that the Chinese studies you know might not be the one and only way of doing Chinese research. She did it in two ways. First, she contrasted the differences of central components between ‘Chinese studies decades ago’ and ‘contemporary Chinese studies’. The former includes classical literature, linguistics and phonology; where the latter includes sociology, political science and economics. In the eyes of the older generation of Sinologists, commenting on the political issues of China can be superficial because that’s what politicians and journalists do, not scientists. Of course nowadays the situation has changed and social science as a whole become more relevant in Chinese studies. The second way she made the point of versatile Chinese research is provoke you by asking whether we are treating Chinese studies as

  1. with rich cultural heritage
  2. socialist country
  3. authoritarian and backwards

With different choices mean that you take different orientations in dealing with Chinese studies. This choice also influence your field research location between mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong/Macau or Singapore. In short, she wishes to stress that we need to be mindful about the perspectives of generational divide and disciplinary divide. With important agents such as Asian studies, Confucious institute, she hopes to create and construct a unique Finland’s Chinese studies with distinctive characteristics.


Julie Yu-Wen Chen, professor of Chinese Studies at the Department of World Cultures at the University of Helsinki. Source: her tuhat database profile

Her presentation made me reflect on my encounter with Chinese Studies at the University of Helsinki. Three years ago when I just started my studies in Helsinki, I was very interested in whether I can find a TA or RA or engage in any way with the Chinese studies (and/or Confucius institute). The plan did not go well because Confucius Institute told me they were only in charge of Chinese studies at the moment and they have enough people to teach. My personal experience showed me that the University of Helsinki was not ready to utilize the human resources of native Chinese speaker. I tried to participate in the ALICE (Academic Language and Intellectual Exchange) program and University of Helsinki’s Course Assistant Program as a native Chinese speaker. However neither of the plan worked out. I asked the coordinator why Mandarin Chinese is not included in the Course Assistant Program:

As a Mandarin Chinese speaker, I find myself a strong candidate to share my culture and assisting the class for Chinese language courses. I love to help people with their language learning and I am passionate towards language learning. If it’s not terribly inconvenient, would you recommend what needed to be done so the university would include Mandarin Chinese as one of the targeted language enlisted in the programme? 

The answer from the coordinator was that there were only two courses per academic year so the need was low. Therefore the need for assistant is low, too. Here is her answer:

We have indeed Chinese courses in our language offerings, but only two courses per academic year. The first, beginner’s level course is in the autumn semester and the second one continues from that in the spring semester. Since there are only these two courses there hasn’t been a huge need for assistants so far, but now we are piloting this in our Chinese teaching as well.

I hope this will change in the future with Julie’s inauguration! For more information, see the blog of Chinese Studies at the University of Helsinki and Julie Yu-Wen’s website.

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