NUS Department of Chinese Studies marks 70th anniversary with year-long slate of events

There is an old Chinese saying, ren sheng qi shi gu lai xi, which means it is a rare and precious thing for a person to live till the age of 70. The same applies to institutions. The NUS Department of Chinese Studies, which turns 70 this year, is marking the momentous milestone with a year-long series of events.

One such event was a symposium on the future of Chinese education in Singapore, and how it might respond to technology and other trends. Social media, talking robots and Artificial Intelligence (AI) chatbot ChatGPT were some topics that loomed large at the event attended by 337 people at the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre (SCCC) on 4 March.

“In the past, discussions about Chinese education in Singapore have largely revolved around Singapore becoming a predominantly English-speaking society,” said NUS Chinese Studies’ Department Head Professor Ong Chang Woei.

“It’s important to discuss this, of course, but today we want to see if any fresh perspectives and thought-provoking insights might emerge.”

One of the main themes of the discussions was the view that the online world, bolstered by AI, could help people improve their language skills. “(Many) parents don’t speak to their children in their mother tongue, so we'll have to depend on the robot to do it,” Madam Heng Boey Hong, Director of Mother Tongue Languages at the Ministry of Education (MOE), noted wryly. MOE is working with research institute AI Singapore to create robots that can speak to pupils in Mandarin, Malay or Tamil, said Mdm Heng, one of a dozen academics, educators and members of the media who spoke at the four-hour symposium.

Besides AI, another trend is Singapore’s changing demographics, given that new immigrants form an increasingly large group of the country’s Mandarin speakers and the impact this would have on Chinese education, said Prof Ong, speaking at the Chinese-language event organised by his department, the SCCC, Wan Boo Sow Research Centre for Chinese Culture, and The Society of Chinese Education Singapore. “In these circumstances, what should Chinese education be like?” he wondered.

But even as we move towards using technology to aid teaching, the role of humans in the instruction should not be left aside. “As robots become more like humans, we shouldn’t be teaching humans to be like robots,” said Dr Kang Ger-Wen, who chairs Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s Chinese Studies course. Equally vital is teaching students to be nimble, to enable them to bridge different domains, for example.

While there were no simple solutions to many of the questions posed at the symposium, the stimulating discussions served as a promising starting point. “Hopefully at the Department's 140th anniversary, we would have answers to these issues,” said Prof Ong.

A rich history

The symposium is part of a series of celebrations this year that will mark the Department’s 70th anniversary.

The roots of NUS’ Department of Chinese Studies can be traced to two institutions. One is the former University of Singapore’s department of Chinese studies, which was founded in 1953. The other is the department of Chinese language and literature at the former Nanyang University, established in 1955. When the two universities merged in 1980 to form NUS, their Chinese departments, too, became one.

Today, the Department at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences runs more than 50 courses a year for BA and BA Honours students, in areas including Chinese linguistics, Chinese literature, Chinese history, Chinese philosophy, and translation. It also offers PhD and MA programmes, as well as Continuing Education and Training (CET) certificate courses.

Its anniversary celebrations kicked off in February with a lecture by Oxford Professor and National University of Singapore Society (NUSS) Visiting Professor Tan Tian Yuan on the “literary worlds” of the Kangxi Emperor’s tours to southern China. Over the next few months, there will be dialogues on topics such as translation, the classics, and Chinese intellectual history.

Other highlights include a dinner banquet in September; a conference in November titled Popular Nanyang: Rethinking Chinese Cultures in Post-war Singapore and Malaya/Malaysia; and a symposium on developing Chinese Studies from a Southeast Asian perspective in December.

More details of the Department’s 70th anniversary activities are available here.