Celebrating 70 years of education and research: NUS Department of Chinese Studies caps year-long 70th anniversary events with an evening to remember

A dinner to mark the NUS Department of Chinese Studies’ 70th anniversary saw some 260 university and faculty members, cherished alumni, as well as prominent members of the Singapore Chinese cultural, education and media landscape coming together to celebrate the Department’s past, present and future on 23 September 2023.

The Department’s deep roots trace back to 1953 when the former University of Singapore’s Department of Chinese Studies was founded. Since then, it has grown to be recognised as one of the leading institutions in the field of Chinese studies and Chinese language globally, as well as a major centre in the Southeast Asian region.

Professor Ong Chang Woei, Head of Department of Chinese Studies and an alumnus, said “The Department’s evolution is intrinsically intertwined with Singapore’s history, and it has drawn from this rich heritage to shape its vision and developmental trajectory across the decades. We firmly believe that as an integral part of Singapore's Chinese language education ecosystem, the Department of Chinese Studies at NUS must continue to play a role in leading society towards the future at the academic and intellectual levels.”

Today, the Department’s academic rigour combines the strengths of classical and modern Chinese studies to promote research and study in such key areas as Chinese linguistics, Chinese literature, Chinese history, Chinese philosophy, and Chinese-English translation.

Drawing on examples of how the Department has expanded over the years, Prof Ong said it now offers elective bilingual and English courses, as well as interdisciplinary courses such as those combining economics and history, and works closely with various institutions and organisations to design courses that allow students to gain a deeper understanding of the local Chinese community.

The dinner also saw the announcement of a special project entitled “A Rejuvenating Department: Memories, History, Direction – The 70th Anniversary of the Department of Chinese Studies at NUS” that charts the Department’s key developments and milestones. Historical photos, news clippings and documents, as well as close to 70 hours of oral interviews with 14 former department heads, teaching faculty and alumni, were meticulously compiled and condensed into a new publication and website to give the public impressive insights into the Department’s 70-year history.

Among those who participated in the oral interviews was Mdm Tan Chin Hwa, who is an alumna and former Head of Department of Mother Tongue at Hwa Chong Institution as well as former Chinese Language Curriculum Specialist at the Ministry of Education. The project, she observed, is a significant endeavour, as it “offers a panoramic picture of an important chapter in our history and can be viewed as a valuable resource to shed light on the impact and development of Chinese language education in Singapore’s history.”

Guests were also treated to a trip down memory lane with a video montage of the Department’s key milestones and events. Reminiscing about her time in school, Mdm Tan shared, “I remember enjoying Chinese Studies sessions in a cosy classroom filled with lots of memorable and joyful moments. Featuring an array of subjects ranging from philosophy, and history, to classical and modern Chinese language and literature, these knowledgeable sessions painted an impressive picture of Chinese culture and civilisation.”

On what the future holds for the Department, Mr Shaun Choh, alumnus and Curator at the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre, said, “Throughout my time working in the Chinese arts and culture industry, I have observed that many of the most astute thinkers and influential movers hail from the NUS Department of Chinese Studies. Their unique blend of global perspectives, married with deep-rooted Chinese sensibilities, has enabled them to shine in diverse arenas. My hope is for the Department to persist in moulding individuals who not only make waves in Singapore but also resonate globally.”

The anniversary dinner underscored a remarkable year for the Department during which a series of thought-provoking conferences was held to mark the anniversary. These included “Looking Ahead: New Technology, New Society, and Chinese Language Education in Singapore” in March as well as five impactful seminars between March and August by distinguished professors that covered interesting areas such as Chinese linguistics and translation studies, classical Chinese literature, and Chinese social and intellectual history.

Concluding the series at the end of the year is the international conference “Popular Nanyang: Rethinking Chinese Cultures in Post-war Singapore and Malaya/Malaysia” in November, and a symposium on developing Chinese Studies from a Southeast Asian perspective in December.