Experiencing China

Students (facing page) take in the Great Wall. Students (above) visit Tencent, a Chinese investment holding company in Shenzhen.

PIIRS Global Seminar Exposes Students to Contemporary Life in a Complex Country

By Leda Kopach

“To understand China, you have to be there; you have to experience it. The Global Seminar in China is a realization of that perspective,” says Yu Xie, a prominent sociologist, who led a group of students last summer to China during his inaugural PIIRS Global Seminar focused on “Contemporary Chinese Society.” Xie is the Bert G. Kerstetter ‘66 University Professor of Sociology and PIIRS and the director of the new Center on Contemporary China, which will be officially launched at Princeton in February.

Fifteen students from Princeton and 12 from Beijing’s Peking University participated in the six-week course that was taught primarily in Beijing and included excursions to western and southern China. The course examined China’s growing wealth and social disparities, the impact of fast-paced economic growth on society, and the regional differences in the culture and traditions of China. According to Xie, exposing students, both from Princeton and China, to the geographic, economic and social diversity of China was critical for the students to gain a better understanding of its complexity.

“You may assume that the students from China would know and understand the diversity of their own country, but they do not,” Xie explains. “Peking University is an elite institution. The students are privileged and have limited exposure to all parts of China; they don’t have a comprehensive understanding of Chinese society. The Princeton students brought their own experiences and perspectives of China to the seminar, and both sets of students learned tremendously from each other.”

Xie used much of his own research to develop his course curriculum, which covered topics such as work organizations, the education system, the urban/rural divide, migration, social inequality, marriage and family, ethnicity, and religion. The course emphasized understanding Chinese society through historical, cultural, political and economic contexts.

“Teaching this seminar was incredibly rewarding to me and my work,” Xie says. “It’s not only an opportunity to share my research with my students, but it also helps my research. The students asked tough questions that stimulated my thinking, and it was interesting to learn what intrigued them most. They were especially taken aback by the inequality in China,” he continues. “China is much different from the U.S. — socially, politically, culturally. Chinese don’t have the same sense of freedom, and they don’t see things such as private property in the same way as Princeton students. Our students couldn’t understand why changes couldn’t be made through policy.”

Throughout the course he shared data that he and his colleagues at Peking University have collected as part of his landmark China Family Panels Studies, a multi-year survey project that documents the social changes that are currently taking place in China. The surveys are conducted primarily in person and continually collect information from a sample of individuals, households and communities. Xie travels to China about six times per year as part of this project in his role as Visiting Chair Professor of the Center for Social Research at Peking University.

Matt Wie, a senior Near Eastern studies major from South Korea, says he participated in the seminar to deepen his understanding of China and to practice Chinese, which he has been studying since adolescence. “I was encouraged from a young age to study and learn as much about China as I can from my father, who saw China as a growing world leader,” says Wie, who also participated in the Princeton in Beijing immersive language program the summer after his first year. “While the entire seminar was wonderful — from the classroom discussions with Professor Xie to our many excursions — my favorite part was talking to the Chinese students and the others we met on our travels. I loved discussing issues like the Danwei [employment] system with the Chinese students, since their point of views are so different from ours. We would have had much different conversations if it were just Princeton students talking together about issues in China.”

Like Wie, sophomore Samuel Rasmussen was returning to the area where he had spent time after serving as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan when he took two gap years before entering Princeton. “While in Taiwan, I learned Mandarin Chinese and more importantly fell in love with Chinese culture, history, food and people,“ he says. “I wanted to go on the Global Seminar to further my understanding of China and its culture, particularly through comparing and contrasting it with Taiwan. Since we had the privilege of taking the Global Seminar with 12 Chinese students and because I am able to speak Chinese, each day’s classroom learning was supplemented by observing and interacting with people who have been both shaped by and are actively shaping contemporary Chinese society.”

While Wie and Rasmussen speak Chinese fluently, not all students did. Language instruction was offered at three levels to accommodate everyone’s abilities.

In addition to classroom lectures with Xie, the students met with experts from Chinese culture, business and academia. Former CEO of Google China James Mi talked about the high-tech industry in China, and Jet Li, a film actor and expert martial artist, shared his passion for public welfare and answered the group’s many questions about his career. Debra Yu ’86 organized panel discussions on the medical and health industry, as well as a panel on entrepreneurship and legal and intellectual property. The students also met with Stanford University’s Andy Walder, a political sociologist, and Scott Rozelle, an economist, who discussed poverty and child development in China.

“Our goal is for our students, both those who went on a Global Seminar and those at Princeton, to have a deeper understanding of China,” Xie says. “They all need to be China scholars. Inevitably, they will deal with China in their profession or industry.”

At the Center on Contemporary China, Xie teaches courses and invites scholars to give talks. He also plans to send students to Peking University to broaden their understanding of China, as well as to invite researchers to Princeton to continue their work. Xie envisions the center as a model for other American universities engaged in the study of China. “There are dynamic changes occurring within China, and we all need to have a deeper understanding of life in China,” he says.

Read more about the Center on Contemporary China at Read more about Yu Xie’s research at