Legend has it that around 400 years ago the Ming Dynasty Wanli Emperor sent a letter of goodwill to the Russian Tsar but the missive simply sat on one side, ignored and unread for five decades, as there was no one at the Russian court to translate it. Even if this tale is apocryphal, it is clear that the situation today is somewhat different.
Over the past few weeks I have been studying for my exams in the language of the world’s largest economy, but one thing I have allowed myself during study breaks was a reflection on the broader educational links between Russia and China. Not only is this topic timely in light of widespread discussions of Russia’s expanding eastward links, but also I wanted to explore it given my wider interest in education and multilingualism as a vital tool for success in international business.
As it happens my own alma mater, St Petersburg State University, was among the first Russian universities to start teaching Chinese in the mid-nineteenth century, and in the modern age was also the first Russian university to open a Confucius Institute back in 2005. Since then the country’s academic links with China have become well established, with Russians certainly no less keen than students elsewhere to get to grips with the complexity of Chinese. But a true mark of how committed many of my compatriots are to opening up the possibilities offered by greater familiarity with Chinese and China in general is revealed by how many Russians are studying in the country itself.
Xinhua reported last year that by 2012 the number of Russians studying in China had already reached 13,000, more than any other European nation and proportionally more than the US. Moreover significant numbers go beyond learning the language by attending courses in technology and economics, as well as the arts and humanities. It is clear that many Russian students in China are equipping themselves with the combination of sophisticated knowledge and cultural sensitivity which can prove to be deal-makers in business. These ties will prove very profitable for Russia in the coming years and especially when plenty of Chinese students are going in the other direction too. The two countries have recognised this, signing an agreement that by 2020 the total number of students studying in the other country will reach 100,000.
Although potential for external factors to intervene mean one can never be entirely sure whether such grand ambitions will come to fruition, an article which caught my attention last month confirms that things are certainly moving in the right direction. According to Moskovsky Komsomolets a deal has been struck for the establishment by Moscow State University (MGU) of a joint Sino-Russian university in Shenzhen, the free economic zone in southern China bordering on Hong Kong. Even if my natural loyalties mean it rankles a little that it is MGU rather than a St Petersburg institution which is launching this venture, I can only applaud the smart business sense behind it.
Using a combination of MGU’s academic expertise alongside local skills in getting this sort of project up and running quickly, the university will train students trilingually in Russian, Chinese and English. Whilst this detail alone presents an exciting prospect for advocates of multilingualism like myself, it is also clear that the overall project will reflect another trend I am keen to advocate, namely the shift towards a education guided by the needs of business – something I wrote on at the end of last year. According to the article, there are even plans to govern the place by means of a board of directors rather than a single rector; an innovation which should appeal to anyone with good business sense.
With the university planning to take on students as early as next year as well as a location on the edge of Asia’s financial hub, this new university certainly has exciting potential. And for the ever-increasing numbers of Russians studying in China, or learning Chinese elsewhere such as I do, this institution could serve as a worthy source of inspiration, as well as a means of ensuring that contact between these two neighbours meets with none of the communicative setbacks which bothered the Wanli Emperor.