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2019 Tsinghua International Summer School - Experiencing China

Date:27 August 2019
Author:Thomas Veenstra
The Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China

This year I had the fortune of being one of the 200 participants of a summer school hosted by Tsinghua University in Beijing. I received the scholarship provided to me by Tsinghua University through the University of Groningen. This summer school was aimed at providing a preliminary experience of China and Chinese society, as well as China’s contact with the foreign world. I was thrilled and prepared to go to great lengths to go to Beijing. This meant that I had a lengthy visa application and a 10-hour flight ahead of me. In hindsight, it was more than worth it. I had an overall wonderful two weeks filled with academics, good food, and new insights into China.

            In preparation of these two weeks, we had to pick one out of seven tracks to participate in. I chose the Architecture track, and thus focussed on traditional- and modern Chinese architecture. Further tracks included Creative City, Environment, Gender, Industry Frontier, International Relations, and Urbanisation. Each group had about 25 students, and I have become good friends with many of the 24 other individuals in my group. Each of these tracks sought to provide a glimpse of China in a different light, culminating in a plenary expo, where everyone could present their own findings. In preparation of this expo, there were keynote lectures, normal lectures, group discussions, academic material, and many field trips. These field trips in Architecture ranged from the Forbidden City, Beihai Park, the Olympic Park, the Lama- and Confucius temple, to the Great Wall of China.

            My experience was specifically aimed at studying the role of symbolism and preservation in Chinese architecture, with a sub-focus on the role of animals in Chinese architecture. Whilst it did provide me with a deeper understanding of the elements of Chinese architecture, it also showed me how the Chinese way of restoration is connected with its society and many of these traditional buildings still fulfil its original use as a temple or a garden. It was explained to us that there is a hierarchy and uniformity of architecture in Beijing, heavily underpinned by Confucianist thought. This entails that the layout, the roof styles, the colours, and the animals used signify the importance of the building, its role, and its inhabitants. For example, the use of the dragon motif in Chinese architecture signifies that the building is imperial of nature and of the utmost importance.

            During the first few days, I experienced a hefty culture shock. There live 22 million documented people in Beijing, on only a third of the size of the Netherlands. The size of the city is very awe-striking for someone who grew up in a rural area. Secondly, the completely different diet meant that I had to adjust. Thirdly, most beds I slept in had a very thin mattress and toilets were often squat toilets. Lastly, I was surprised by the relatively little amount of pollution in the air. The pollution had improved noticeably in recent years, partly due to the explosive increase in electric vehicles and the planting of more green in the city. After a few days however, these ‘shocks’ became normalcies. I learned how to deal with traffic, got used to the amount of people, started eating with chopsticks, slept like a log after a few days, and only wore a mouthpiece on bad days. With this, I had a lot of guidance from my student ambassadors and fellow students, of which I cannot thank them enough. I even missed eating with chopsticks when I got back home!

            As a student of International Relations, one tends to disregard architecture and instead focus on political structures of power, normativity, social constructs, interlinkages, and cooperation. I have noticed however that Chinese architecture, and especially traditional Chinese architecture conveys these structures as well, and serve as a blueprint on how to organise society. You may or may not agree with the contents of this blueprint, but it does serve as a gateway to better understand China, even in today’s terms. The mausoleum of Mao Zedong fits nicely into the layout of Chinese architecture, even if its stylistic elements are more Western. It is also located at the basis of Tiananmen, signifying the importance of Mao Zedong as a central figure for the People’s Republic of China. This showed me that there is continuity in China between pre- and post-imperial times. The second keynote lecture was focussed on the Belt and Road Initiative, a global Chinese infrastructure strategy/initiative, and forging connections between China and the rest of the world. As someone who had prior knowledge, I could tell that some of the lecture was overly selective. It was nevertheless extremely interesting to see how it was worded and my fellow classmates from different academic areas reacted. Some were critical and asked questions, others entered more from a cultural perspective, and asked for advice, and finally there were some who wondered about the long-term economic implications, whereas I would focus more on the long-term political implications.

            My two weeks at Tsinghua University can be characterised by its international, fun, and informative character. It will be an experience that will stay with me for a very long time. It was organised in a very well manner and we were received very well. Nearly everything was taken care of, and we could always turn to the student ambassadors for guidance. This programme offered an entryway into life in China and into student life at Tsinghua. We got to experience Beijing night life, just as well as early morning trips. Overall, I also felt very safe, comfortable, but a bit nervous, as there were security and cameras everywhere. Living together in the student dorms fostered a great environment between me and my fellow students. I learned a lot about different countries and academic majors, as well as how these people adjusted to China. The programme offered enough free time to exchange stories and view the city, which I highly recommend doing.                                                                        

            In conclusion, attending the ‘Experiencing China’ summer school is a great entryway into Beijing and China, no matter what you study. In two packed weeks, you will get acquainted with China, inspiring you to visit other parts of this huge and important country. I am extremely grateful to the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen and Tsinghua University for providing such an opportunity. It provided me with a better perspective on China, facilitating my studies and friend circle. To each and every one who is considering visiting China, or even the same summer school, do it! You will not regret it.

About the author

Thomas Veenstra
Thomas Veenstra studies International Relations at the University of Groningen. He was selected to participate in the 2019 Tsinghua International Summer School hosted by Tsinghua University in Bejing.


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