What do Chinese students think of Britain?

Published: 25 June 2007

Huge numbers of young Chinese are being educated abroad. There are over 50,000 Chinese students in Britain alone. What do they make of us?

There are over 50,000 Chinese students in Britain. Not so long ago China was a closed society with its population wearing Mao suits and waving little red books. Now huge numbers of young Chinese, children of the elite and most influential groups are being educated abroad. It is the biggest educational movement in history. So what do they make of us? And what ideas do they take back to China?

A new report - published today (Monday 25 June) by Professor Greg Philo of Glasgow University's Media Group, in conjunction with the British Council - examines this 'Cultural Transfer' in depth for the first time. Extensive interviews with Chinese students currently studying in British universities reveal some surprising results.

Before they came to Britain, the students' beliefs about the country were overwhelmingly positive. It was seen as a country of 'gentle' people and gentlemen. Umbrellas, suits, walking sticks and even top hats came to people's minds. These traditional images came largely from classic books, Sherlock Holmes, Pride and Prejudice and the stories of Dickens. But these great expectations were soon shattered when Chinese students actually came to live in Britain. They were shocked at the behaviour of young people, who were seen as drunken and out of control, and fearful of streets unsafe to walk in. Some gave examples of discrimination, which included abuse and physical attacks (p9). As one student put it: "Gentle country not true, too many drunk people, terrible young people everywhere."

But older British people were seen as polite and friendly. They 'treated you nicely' and 'smiled at strangers'. They even took you where you wanted to go when you asked directions! (p12). This was the culture the students surveyed wanted to take back to China. One Chinese boy described his amazement when a car paused to let him cross the street and said: "If you stayed by the road for ten years in Shanghai no car would stop for you."(p12) They were also surprised by the multi-culturalism of Britain. As one put it, "there is no 'British' people but a community of different races and cultures."

Author of the report, Professor Greg Philo, Glasgow University Media Group said: "What they liked most about our country was the relaxed attitude to life. Chinese people worry all the time, they said, but the British really know how to enjoy themselves (p13). The British were at ease because they had good pensions, social welfare, free education and health, while many of these social structures had collapsed in China with its new free market.

"In Britain, elderly people could be dignified and even older women looked good, they said. In China, a woman is under big pressure to be married by the time she is thirty (p14-15). There is a well known Chinese saying: 'A man of 30 is like a blossoming branch, a woman of 30 is like old bean shells'. So a lot of the female students took careful note of what was happening here."

Most of the Chinese students in Britain are female, the report highlights, which is unusual for a developing country. At Glasgow University, for example, amongst students from Pakistan, just 14% are female, but the figure for Chinese is 60%. The cause is China's one child policy. China is still a very male dominated society and boy children are often preferred. Some of the students described how men are given preference in jobs (p15). One said how her grandmother had even wanted to throw her off the roof so her parents could try again for a boy (her mother was furious and never spoke to the grandmother again) (p 30). But one positive consequence of the policy is that if a Chinese parents do have a girl then they feel they have to give her the very best chance possible because she will have to compete with the boys. One option is to pour money into her education.

But as more Chinese women study abroad and experience the culture of another country, it is likely to produce big changes in China as women demand more equal rights in careers and relationships. The traditional Confucian notion of the 'Virtuous Wife', whose role was largely to support the advancement of the husband, may be challenged by returning graduates. One student described the effects on herself: "When I came to Britain, I began to change my orientation from just to a family, to a future husband or to children towards sometimes being good to myself." Another commented that: "I don't mean that I want to be special but at least I think women should have their own space and world." (p30).

Overall the students seemed to like Britain, the report found. There were some complaints about their education, especially of big classes which were full of other Chinese students. They said it was like being back in China and that their English had actually got worse since they lived here (p21). But mostly students praised British Universities and an approach to learning which was creative and made them think hard (p26). They even expressed a liking for our politicians: "British government has clever politicians, no corruption. Nice law system, everybody has got the same right, everybody is equal in the law." (p22).

But for at least some of the Chinese boys, what they most wanted to take back was all the beautiful British women they had seen. This attraction, which must have taken their minds off their studies, came from 'watching too many American movies' as teenagers (p24). The Chinese women weren't far behind, one describing her ideal British man as, "Tall, humorous, good accent, well mannered, generous, nice eyes like a deep lake." (p24)

Asked what was the most important thing they had learnt studying in Britain, many students concluded that the similarities outweighed the differences between Chinese and British culture. As one student put it: "Human beings are more or less the same. They want their children to go to university, everyone wants to travel, to struggle for money, to have fun, to develop a sense of humour ? I also saw the same couch potatoes! I saw many things in common between Britain and China." (p 26)

The full report is available on the Glasgow University Media Group webpages Cultural Transfer.

Martin Shannon ( m.shannon@admin.gla.ac.uk)

Further information: Professor Greg Philo, Glasgow University Media Group

Telephone: 0141 330 5983 or 0771 207 9568

Email: g.philo@socsci.gla.ac.uk

First published: 25 June 2007

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