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Course and Year Abroad

The BA in Chinese Studies

The BA in Chinese Studies at Cambridge is a single-subject course and may not normally be taken in combination with another subject. The course is taught by scholars and teachers who are actively engaged in research and publication and by native speakers of Chinese. Its overall aim is to train undergraduates in both the modern and pre-modern forms of Chinese, and to give them a well-informed understanding of China through learning its language, literature, religions, history, society and politics. The course gives students an understanding of both traditional and modern Chinese society and how China’s past has informed, and continues to impact, much of its present, and provides students with a skill set that enables them to analyse China through its own language(s) and sources. The course has five main components and aims to obtain the following learning outcomes:

  1. An advanced linguistic proficiency in both modern Chinese and literary Chinese;
  2. To gain a broad understanding of Chinese society through lectures and the detailed study of texts, including visual sources (history, religion, philosophy, literature, politics and society);
  3. To be exposed to advanced knowledge on a specific subject area through the choice of a special option paper, research assignments and a dissertation;
  4. To gain independent research skills and the core competences needed for further learning, both in language and disciplinary content;
  5. To gain first-hand experience of China through the Year Abroad.

                  Students in Dr. Chau's Chinese studies      Students in Dr. Chau's Chinese studies seminar

Admission Requirements

The Chinese language is taught from scratch at Cambridge, so the course requires no prior knowledge of the language. A GCSE or A-level in Chinese may give some indication of your motivation and commitment to the subject, but it is by no means a requirement. The course comprises a wide range of cultural, historical, and literary papers that require analytical skills beyond basic language training.

For those applicants doing A-level, Chinese can be one of the three A-level subjects, and the A* can be in any of the three subjects.

Once offered a place in our programme (normally sometime in January of the year of matriculation), it is important for you to do some exploratory reading about China, which will make it much easier for you to assimilate the enormous amount of information with which you will be presented in your first year (and you will soon find out that the efficacy of your language-learning is very much heightened by your knowledge about Chinese history, society and culture).

What if you have performed well in A-level Chinese or have taken quite a bit of Chinese before coming to Cambridge (especially since many secondary schools now offer courses on Chinese as a foreign language)? On very rare occasions, we have tested the student’s Chinese abilities and decided that she or he could begin with second-year Chinese (Part IB). However, in most cases of students with some substantial prior exposure to Chinese (still a minority amongst our students but increasingly common) they will still begin with the first-year course (Part IA) and find it challenging and interesting. This is because there are so many other components in the first-year course in addition to modern Chinese. They will do the East Asia history survey paper (EAS1) that involves reading (lots of reading!), lectures, essay-writing, seminar discussions and supervisions; they will begin learning classical/literary Chinese in the Lent term (i.e. the second term); they will have to learn how to recognise and write in both simplified and non-simplified (i.e. traditional) characters. Even in modern Chinese learning they will find their advantage over those starting from scratch quickly disappearing in the first year because of the quick pace of the language course. Another scenario could be that such students can skip some of the first-year modern Chinese language papers (C1, C2 and C3) but will be challenged and kept busy by alternative language training, special supervisions and projects all the while taking the other essential first-year papers (East Asian History and Literary Chinese). 

Please note that the BA in Chinese Studies is not suitable for native speakers of Chinese.

You are advised to put only one subject (i.e. Chinese Studies) on your application form. You cannot combine Chinese Studies with Japanese Studies (because such a combination is only considered under special circumstances) or with any MML subjects.

The Tripos System

The course is four years in duration, and is divided into two parts. Part I, lasting two years, will provide you with a thorough grounding in reading, writing and speaking modern standard Chinese (putonghua), in reading literary and classical Chinese, and in Chinese and East Asian history from ancient to modern times. In Part II, you spend your third year in China. In your final year, you continue with intensive language work in both modern and literary Chinese and concentrate on a special subject (contemporary society, modern literature and film, modern history, dynastic China, linguistics, politics). You will also work on a 12,000-word dissertation on a topic of your choice.

The Supervision System

One of the distinctive strengths of Cambridge teaching is the supervision system, in which you have the opportunity to test out your ideas with a member of academic staff. We see this as a critical part of the pedagogical process, and expect you to participate in a genuine dialogue in which you should feel free to challenge us as much as we, inevitably, will challenge you. In the first year you will have supervisions for language and for history, usually in pairs or small groups. Unlike larger subjects that are well represented in the colleges, we arrange supervisions centrally through the Faculty to ensure that all students reading Chinese Studies receive an equal amount of attention, regardless of what college they are in.

First Year (Part IA)

During your first year, the main part of your time will be spent learning modern Chinese. You will have covered its basic grammar and have acquired a substantial active and passive vocabulary. You will also receive an introduction to East Asian history, from antiquity to the present, with break-out sessions zooming in on topics specific to China. This course is taken by all students studying Chinese and Japanese. In addition you will start learning literary Chinese through reading classical texts from the pre-imperial and early imperial period, mainly (but not exclusively) focused on philosophy. In addition, you will prepare for an examination in spoken Chinese. The following are the compulsory language papers: Modern Chinese Translation and Writing 1, Modern Chinese Texts 1, and Literary Chinese 1.

You may expect to receive around seventeen hours of teaching per week at the Faculty, in the form of lectures, seminars, and supervisions.

Second Year (Part IB)

During the second year, your intensive training in modern Chinese will allow you to start tackling original material (so-called ‘authentic texts’), including extracts from novels, newspapers, and other forms of literary production. You will have the opportunity to delve more deeply into Chinese history through a paper in pre-modern and modern history (one of which is compulsory, though both can be taken).  In literary Chinese you will learn to read traditional Chinese poetry, and have a taste of fiction and historical writing from dynastic China. There is also provision for you to choose from a number of other content courses.

You will take the following compulsory modules: Modern Chinese Translation and Writing 2, Modern Chinese Texts 2, Literary Chinese 2; plus two of the following: History of Dynastic China*, Globalisation in China, 1850 to present*, Japanese History, Japanese Literary Modernity, Japanese Society, Japanese Politics, Cinema East, Structure and Meanings (from the Modern and Medieval Languages Tripos) (* Denotes papers where at least one must be chosen).

You may expect to receive up to fifteen hours of teaching per week at the Faculty during your second year.

Please note that, while core papers will always be available, the Faculty reserves the right to suspend any elective paper in a given academic year.

Statue of mythological animal in front of Sun Yat-sen University's Department of Anthropology, photo by Adam Chau

Third Year (Part II: Year Abroad)

You will be required to spend at least eight months in China during your third year, attending courses at either Peking University in Beijing or the Ocean University of China in Qingdao.

The object of the year abroad is to increase fluency and understanding of the language, and to provide the opportunity to start work on a dissertation, which must show evidence of a substantial use of Chinese language sources, whether oral or textual.

Fourth Year (Part II: Dissertation and Finals)

When you return from China for your fourth year, you will have a core curriculum in both modern and literary Chinese, and a number of special subject options. These options reflect the expertise of the teaching staff, and they give students an opportunity to study a particular period or subject within Chinese Studies in a far more focused manner. Options available include papers on modern literature, modern history, dynastic China, China’s role in the international order, contemporary society, and language and linguistics. Note that not all options will be available in a given academic year but you will always have a choice of a minimum of three. A dissertation of 12,000 words is also a requirement, giving the students the opportunity to engage in original research and the challenge to produce a substantial piece of scholarship (individually supervised by a dissertation supervisor). Dissertations can (but need not) be connected with one’s special subject paper, or they can simply be on a topic of interest not covered in depth elsewhere.

You may expect to receive up to twelve hours of teaching per week at the Faculty during your fourth year. There will also be supervision meetings with your supervisor on your dissertation research.


The Chinese Studies course is demanding and intensive. Given the nature of the Chinese language, it requires a strong commitment to continuous, and often time-consuming, language work that includes a substantial amount of memorisation. You should expect having to work a minimum of 20 to 25 hours per week outside your classes, lectures, and supervisions. But think of the pleasure and satisfaction that come with, and after, the hard work!

Adding Japanese Language

According to existing faculty regulations, it is possible to combine Japanese with Chinese Studies at Cambridge (but only in exceptional circumstances and with permission of the Faculty Board). Chinese is already a very challenging language, and we would prefer our students achieve a high level of Chinese proficiency (vernacular and literary) as well as adequate exposure to Chinese history, culture and society rather than graduating with only an intermediate-level competence.

If you decide to combine Japanese with Chinese Studies, you will have to forego your study-abroad experience in China in the third year and do introductory Japanese in Cambridge. Not spending a year in China and spending most of your third year studying Japanese (which is also a very difficult language) would inevitably mean that your Chinese proficiency will suffer, and you will also miss out on personally experiencing Chinese society and culture in an intimate and sustained manner. [Since some of the students leave for China in early July and come back to the UK in late September the next year they can be spending as many as 15 months in China, which often include extensive travels in the country and/or volunteering in NGOs and doing internships.] If you combine Japanese with Chinese Studies you will also be deprived of the pleasure and challenge of researching and writing the undergraduate dissertation on a topic of your choice.

You are advised to put only one subject (i.e. Chinese Studies) on your application form. Though we would of course encourage our students to pursue the study of other languages and cultures in their spare time, we strongly believe a dedicated and focused approach to Chinese Studies will yield the best outcome. Please note that currently Japanese is the only language that can be combined with Chinese Studies according to existing regulations. You are not able to study Korean as an option (Japanese Studies students have the option to study introductory Korean because Japanese and Korean are grammatically cognate languages).