10 Reasons Why You Should Apply For Yenching Academy

BEIJING - I am as excited as you are that the new Yenching Academy of Peking University (PKU) [北京大学燕京学堂] has been successful established and is now recruiting its first 100 graduate students. This will be the opportunity of a life-time for you, and I strongly encourage any up-and-coming China scholar to apply for this program. You will only regret if you didn’t send your application form:

“The Yenching Academy offers a 1-year Master of Chinese Studies program (in English) designed to prepare an elite class of future leaders to meet the challenges of the 21st century global landscape.” –PKU


Your author had been a visiting student at PKU from 2004 to 2006, and returned for his doctoral studies from 2007 to 2012. Back then, there was nothing like the Yenching scholarship; academic poverty was a big issue (it still is for many Chinese students), letting alone PKU’s guerrilla bureaucracy (graduation procedures required eight signatures and seals). There was also the existential threat of sky-rocketing rents outside campus (now exceeding $1,200/month for a one-bedroom apartment). As to the interview process, we didn’t even use Skype back in 2006, so there was a lot of traveling back-and-forth (obtaining visa was much easier then, though). Luckily (for the new generation of students), Peking University has addressed the issues of funding, housing, and guidance by creating this first-class residential scholarship program.


So, here are my personal 10 Reasons Why You Should Apply For Yenching Academy of Peking University:

1.   Peking University is the leading institution of higher education in China.

2.   Yenching Academy awards the prestigious ‘Yenching Scholar’ title on top of the usual Peking University Alumnus status (both are life-long privileges). Tip: Do a research on name and origin of “Yenching” to understand its historical significance.

3.   Beijing is China’s political, cultural, and financial capital. It has 21 million citizens, more than Australia’s entire population. The student district in the north-west, Haidian, hosts 168 universities. The intellectual atmosphere and sheer concentration of talents will blow your mind.

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4.   Full scholarship is offered, which is rare. Also, expect “quality” accommodation and teaching facilities, at least relative compared to the majority of the other 20 million or so students enrolled at Chinese universities. This program is so selective; you will feel like a Chosen one, an X-Men, a Confucian ‘Junzi’…

5.   Meet some of China’s most renowned scholars, cultural masters, and famous intellectuals from around the world, letting alone world leaders, businessmen, and top politicians. (PKU recently asked visitors Michelle Obama, the America’s First Lady, and Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, to write endorsements for Yenching Academy, which they did!)

6.   A degree from Peking University is a door opener in China and the world, comparable to a degree from Harvard, only better.

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7.   The PKU campus is one of the most beautiful in China –lots of gardens (incl. the old Yan Yuan, Minghe Yuan, Jingchun Yuan, and Langrun Yuan, lakes (incl. the Unnamed Lake), plenty of historical spots, histories, and traditional architectures. The Academy is located at the very center of the university, with newly renovated facilities. PKU has over 30 restaurants/canteens, several hotels (including the 5-star Lake View Guesthouse), a theater, several supermarkets, bookstores, a post-office, banks and ATMs, print services, sport facilities, a hospital. Wudaokou, where PKU is located, is brimming with thousands of cafes, fitness clubs, and book shops. Yes, it also has a vibrant night life. What is more, Zhongguancun, the Silicon valley of China, lies just 1 km to the south, boasting New China: electronics, lavish boutiques, shopping malls, 3D cinemas, and hundreds of towering apartment blocks stuffed with start-up companies.

8.   Eat Chinese food every day; or try a new restaurant every day. Your scholarship allowance will make this easily affordable. Also, travel during the semester breaks. There is great food everywhere, and of fantastic regional variety. Try Tibetan and Muslim food!

9.   Make valuable connections or “guanxi” that will last forever. Your classmates will be “future world leaders” by definition (and program requirement). Register for think tanks in town such as ThinkInChina –a EU-China initiative. Also, don’t forget you are studying among the Chinese elites at PKU. Have you ever felt intimidated by the academic aptitude of East-Asians in general? Well, PKU is their mother-lode! Getting into the Yenching Academy program is like winning the social lottery. [harrumph…].

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10. The time is right for China; and so it is for you: China has already surpassed the United States in terms of GDP adjusted to inland prices. It is determined to create a super-elitist education that puts China in the center of global academic excellence. Being the spearhead of a new era in world history, international relations, global culture, and economics, China is the best place to be right now.

Here are some survival tips that you may want to consider before embarking on this program at Peking University:

  1. The program is taught in English, so you will have less opportunity to master your Chinese. Also, your classmates (and the expat community) may be more “interesting” people (from the point of view of your “international” career), BUT, remember, they won’t help your Chinese skills much. Also, mingling too much with the expat community in Beijing may be fun (the parties, the activism, the hubris, the snobbism, the arrogance), it can easily become a Faustian pact of Anglophone complacency –in particular for those among you who would rather like to emerge completely in the Chinese culture for that year (Remember, the program is essentially humanities-centered). It may help to arrive in Beijing weeks before the program starts and/or plan for a longer stay after it ends.
  2. China censors a lot of information. Sign up for a VPN (Virtual Private Network) before you leave for China, so that you can access US internet monopolies such as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, etc. which are blocked in China. On the other hand, well, try the Chinese services like Baidu, Sina Weibo, Tencent WeChat, Tudou, QQ, Renren, Taobao, and many more. This is highly recommendable anyway, since it will improve your Chinese skill and knowledge incredible fast.
  3. Get your hands on a copy of The East-West Dichotomy –available in book shop and internet stores in China everywhere. Just saying.
  4. Plan ahead. A one-year fast-track master program, even at Yenching Academy, is too-short (your peers at PKU normally spend 3 years in a Master program, just so that you know) – so you will have to apply for job opportunities or a doctoral program during that year. (If you want to get your “boshi” (PhD) degree in China, this is the perfect opportunity for you to approach the professors.) In addition, visit the PKU Stanford Center, the Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies, and the brand-new Worldethics Institute Beijing, and mark global events such as the Beijing Forum in your calendar. Once on campus, find out about important public lectures at lectures.pku.edu.cn (works only with a PKU-account).
  5. Beware of the bombast. That is easier said than done. Even Harvard University at times looks whimsical and provincial compared to Peking University. Europe, meanwhile, with the exception of Oxbridge in the UK, has no answer to Chinese elite universities. Moreover, China is an autocratic society where its top leaders are accountable to no one, meaning they can and will throw splendid ceremonies and conferences which you probably never experienced before (and will always want to come back for). To the savage critics, phrases like “nationalism” and “ethnic chauvinism” easily come to mind. To be true, the cultural engineers and faculty of Yenching Academy are first and foremost celebrating and congratulating themselves: “internationally reputed academic luminaries,” “most renowned and influential,” and “fellows with worldwide recognition.” Effectuating Xi Jinping’s notion of ‘conference diplomacy’, PKU’s president Wang Enge and his sages are obsessed with inviting foreign celebrities and super-scholars (only world leading universities qualify) to witness the spectacle of China’s cultural rejuvenation -anxious and aghast. “Why don’t we have 5 star hotels at our university?” or “Why can’t we build world-class programs like this overnight?” –those are common reactions from German, Japanese, and Australian professors your author gathered. [Read this critical account by Professor Shigeto Sonoda] It is the Who-is-who of China scholarship that attended several precluding international symposiums, donation ceremonies, and conferences leading up the inaugural ceremony on May 5, 2014. Already, the academic world –especially in the Pacific region- is enviously comet-trailing Peking University, trying to book seats in the front row. Will the expectation match the pomp? Who knows. One thing is for sure, once you are accepted here, there will be a lot of prestige, name-dropping, status-anxiety, and valuable insights into China’s psyche that will put you out of your humble orbit permanently.
  6. Ah, and yeah, if you feel lost and overwhelmed in this country-sized city, read some Beijing Survival Tips from Kaiser Kuo and Ryan McLaughlin. (Works even better in hindsight.)

Image credits: east-west-dichotomy.com


Thorsten J. Pattberg, Peking University (2013)

Dr. Thorsten J. Pattberg (裴德思 Pei Desi) is a German writer, linguist, and cultural critic. He graduated from The Institute of World Literature, Peking University, and is the author of The East-West Dichotomy (2013), Shengren (2011), Inside Peking University (2012), and the forthcoming Knowledge is a Polyglot (2014). He is currently a Visiting Fellow at The Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia, The University of Tokyo.

To keep up to date with the news you can also follow me on Twitter: @worldethics; at Big Think: Dragons and Pandas; or my other blog: You’ve Heard About It.