By: Elizabeth Wheat
Birmingham, in the West Midlands, is 5000 miles from Manchuria. After graduating with a PhD in Assyriology from the University of Birmingham in July 2013, I left the UK to travel to China, undertaking a position as Foreign Expert at the Institute for the History of Ancient Civilizations (IHAC) at Northeast Normal University in the city of Changchun in Jilin Province. My dissertation was on maps in ancient Mesopotamia, but the journey to China was still long.
Established in 1984, IHAC is one of the few Chinese institutions that specialises in Ancient History, offering programmes in Assyriology, Hittitology, Egyptology, Byzantine Studies and Classics. In addition to the permanent faculty, the institute also employs a number of visiting Foreign Experts who work in parallel to their Chinese counterparts, teaching history and language courses to MA students in the medium of English.
My only teaching experience before arriving in China was at the University of Birmingham, and I had to quickly adapt to working with students who were part of a very different teaching environment to that of UK Higher Education institutions. Many Chinese students are less familiar with the seminar-style teaching favored by British universities at postgraduate level, for example, and some initially struggled with the much more interactive teaching methods that formed the bulk of my previous experience.
Added to this was their apparent shyness with a native English speaker and lack of confidence in their own oral language skills, particularly when faced with an academic – not to mention Assyriological – English vocabulary that they had not encountered before. After a short period of adjustment on both sides, however, I found the students highly receptive to new teaching methods. Indeed, they quickly became accustomed to the peculiarities of my Welsh-British idiom and began enthusiastically offering their ideas and opinions in seminars and lectures, generating some of the most interesting group discussions I have experienced with postgraduates.
The students at IHAC also excelled in ancient language classes, their knowledge of multiple writing systems providing them with strong tools for tackling cuneiform. The study of Sumerian, led by scholars such as Wu Yuhong at IHAC and Yushu Gong at Peking University in Beijing, is particularly well-established in China and, as the students informed me, the similarities between Chinese and Sumerian make this area of study a natural fit for Chinese Assyriologists. Though Sumerian was by far the most popular part of the MA program for the students I taught, they also developed a deep interest in Mesopotamian mythology and wisdom literature, and their comparisons between the cultural traditions of the ancient Near East and China offered perspectives that are very rarely considered by students and scholars in other parts of the world.
Students of Assyriology at Chinese universities are perhaps disadvantaged compared to their counterparts elsewhere, however, by the lack of Near Eastern museum collections in China, and access to material culture and cuneiform writing remains largely book-based for many postgraduates. Yet this situation is steadily improving with the digitization of museum collections around the world, providing teaching and research tools that have made a significant impact on the ways in which students are able to interact with the material they study. Such projects may well prove decisive in the development of Assyriology in China, where the up-take of the subject in universities remains relatively small in comparison with other areas of historical study.
This situation could also be improved by greater engagement with prospective Assyriology students earlier in their university careers, since the undergraduate history degrees offered at many Chinese universities tend to be rather general, with few opportunities to specialize in ancient history and languages. Offering more students the chance to sign up for modules in Assyriology as part of their undergraduate degrees would almost certainly secure more graduates willing to commit to a three year MA program in a subject they already have some knowledge of, which will no doubt happen as the subject grows and more positions are reserved for Assyriologists in Chinese history departments. The lack of general history works written or translated into Chinese and aimed at a non-academic audience is also essential for raising the profile of Near Eastern studies in China, and this is a task that will likely become a priority for Chinese Assyriologists in the coming years.
Overall, the future of Assyriology in China looks increasingly positive, as Chinese universities seek to forge links with foreign institutions, creating opportunities for new research to be shared between China and the outside world. As the number of trainee Assyriologists in China grows, there will also be greater diversification among Near Eastern specialists, with archaeologists and historians as well as philologists creating a more rounded platform from which the next generation of Assyriologists will emerge. More and more students are also traveling abroad to study, supported by newly-established grants and scholarships from a Chinese government keen to boost its country’s international profile in the arts and humanities. Many of them will no doubt return to their native country to continue the development of Near Eastern studies there, securing China’s place in an increasingly global Assyriological community.