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Stepping Out of the Box
How one teacher is bringing East and West together
By Li Fangfang | Web Exclusive


Professor Hugo De Burgh gives a lecture about China’s image in the Western world in November (LI FANGFANG)
British professor Hugo de Burgh dons a flowery T-shirt as he sits comfortably in his office at the China Media Center, which is affiliated with the University of Westminster, where he told Beijing Review there are many things about Chinese society that attract him.

First among them, he said, are the strong family relationships, something he thinks English and U.S. societies have abandoned in recent generations.

“We are very conscious of our failure in this area,” he said.

Flexibility is another admirable trait De Burgh attributes to Chinese people. In his opinion, English and U.S. people are very often bound by rules and conventions.

“These are good when they're useful. But if you're only able to think inside rules and conventions and cannot escape and be flexible, then you're not very smart, I think,” he said. “Chinese people are infinitely flexible. This also has its disadvantages, but I think this is the pragmatism and flexibility of Chinese thinking.”

“This is why China is so successful economically,” he added.

De Burgh started his exploration of China as a reporter in the 1970s, making him the envy of many Europeans. At the time, however, China left him with an impression of being very slow.

“The drivers drove slowly, everybody bicycled slowly. Everything was slow and nobody was really interested in helping or doing anything, completely opposite to today, because then they had no hope,” De Burgh told Beijing Review.

This impression lasted until the 1990s when he went back to school to study Chinese media, a subject that attracted few scholars at the time. With more access to China, he became more interested in the immense country and in 2005, he started the China Media Center.

Multiculturally nurtured 

Usually, De Burgh starts his day by spending about an hour watching Chinese TV programs and reading Chinese novels to practice his Chinese. And then, the English part of his day begins.

Besides English and Chinese, Professor De Burgh can also speak Italian and French, which offers him multiple angles from which to see things. Language can open doors to a totally new world.

De Burgh said he thinks he’s lucky because he learnt to adapt to different cultures ever since he was young. He spent his early childhood in Turkey and Italy, where he began to realize there were great differences between people from different countries.

His Italian wife also forced him to learn how to deal with opposite views around many things, from how the family should be run to politics.

“I slowly learned that there were different ways of looking at the world. So when I started to become interested in China, I suppose what I tried to do was to understand that the Chinese view of the world was just as valid as an English view of the world, or Italian or Turkish view of the world, and that you have to make an effort to step outside of your own box that you've been raised in to understand,” De Burgh said.

For Derek Conway, former British Minister of the Crown, who has known De Burgh for eight years, he not only appreciated De Burgh’s immense knowledge of China, but also his interesting take on how that should affect the future relationship between China and the UK.

“He has a very deep understanding of Chinese culture, it’s not just about the political or commercial system, it’s also about how Chinese people live, the fashion, how China is functioning today in the modern world. That intersection is shared by very few academics in London and even fewer from the political and media class,” Conway told Beijing Review.

“So people like Hugo are a very important part of our understanding in the UK about how China thinks and how it’s developing and what the future of the two nations can be,” Derek said.

De Burgh’s doctorate student Vivien Marsh said that she thinks her teacher is a very provocative thinker and that some academics do not share his views.

“What Hugo does very well is to challenge people’s preconceptions about China by making them question whether the British way of thinking is the only way to think,” Marsh said.

A gap 

“English people tend to see the world in the English way, you know, they assume that their way of doing things is the best way and their thinking is the best way. And they cannot imagine that anything that is different is any good,” De Burgh said.

As globalization has grown deeper over the past several decades, it has opened up some people’s mind but has also strengthened other people’s fears. Some 25 countries polled in a recent Pew Research Center survey on people’s differing views of China, a median of 45 percent had a favorable view of China, while 43 percent held an unfavorable view.

When there are negative views about China, De Burgh said, they tend to emanate from politicians and journalists who can be very hostile, particularly in the United States.

“There were quite a number of hostile journalists and politicians in the UK, but they have become less influential as people understand more about China and as relations between the two countries improve,” he said.

But Marsh, who worked for the British Broadcasting Company for about 12 years as a journalist, editor and producer, doesn’t quite agree with De Burgh on this point.

“This gives the impression that it’s normal for journalists and politicians in the UK to be hostile toward China, when it’s more likely to be true of journalists who haven’t lived in China or who have just arrived and see the world in binary terms,” Marsh told Beijing Review.

“Those who stay in China for many years and learn the language, make friends and travel, are generally not hostile, although they may still be critical of some aspects of life there. Many are very fond of China even though there are some things they don’t like, as is true with any country,” she added.

The UK is China's second largest trading partner within the European Union (EU) and China is the UK’s second largest non-EU trading partner. Trade volume between the two countries hit $79 billion in 2017, up nearly 6.2 percent from the previous year, with UK exports to China increasing 19.4 percent. 

Meanwhile, during the 2016-17 academic year, over 95,000 Chinese students studied in the UK, by far the biggest international student cohort. By comparison, the UK's second-largest overseas student cohort, from the United States, was 17,580, according to China Daily. 

“The Chinese students are respected for their hard work and industriousness. And the ordinary Chinese people who come to live in the UK are also liked because they contribute to society, they are not a burden. So for these reasons, British people are very positive about China today,” De Burgh said.

However, U.S. political leaders are becoming increasingly hostile to China. “If you start off with the idea that everybody should speak English and that the world is going to become American. Then you will not learn anything by going to Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia or China,” De Burgh said.
On the other hand, people who start off with the idea of understanding other people, probably because they studied another language at school, will become more aware, he added.

Students in British prep school Kensington Wade, co-founded by professor Hugo De Burgh, learn Chinese characters (LI FANGFANG)
Facing the future 

To open more doors for children at an early age is De Burgh’s solution to facing the future. He hopes younger generations can grow up to be more culturally aware and grasp more opportunities. That’s why he cofounded Kensington Wade, a Chinese-English bilingual prep school in 2017.

The immersive dual language school aims to marry the best of the two countries’ educational cultures to help youngsters in London be educated in two cultures and educational systems from an early age.

About 1,000 British schools currently offer Chinese as an optional foreign language for older students, but the independent Kensington Wade is the first school in the UK to teach all of its lessons in Chinese as well as English.

Moreover, the school also immerses children in Chinese culture by including martial arts, calligraphy and the Chinese learning technique of mathematics mastery, which entails a collective approach to learning where the entire class learns a single mathematical concept in depth, relying on standardized textbooks. This is in marked contrast to the usual Western approach, where teachers explain a concept and then students work individually to practice a lesson.

Currently, there are 37 students at Kensington Wade divided into three classes. At the nursery level for students 3-4 years old, children play games with teacher’s guidance in Chinese. Some children will ask teachers questions in English but teachers answer in Chinese. In the first year class, students learn Chinese characters and are able to answer questions in fluent Chinese.

“They are not just learning the Chinese language, they also see how Chinese people interact with each other, how we define what we respect and what our customs are at an early stage, so they can see it without any bias. They will see it’s just different, it’s not superior or inferior,” Wang Jing, one of the Chinese teachers at the school, told Beijing Review.

Wang is very proud to be working with Kensington Wade and receives positive feedback from the school’s parent committee. “If you have more opportunities to interact with a person or thing you really don’t know about, it may help you alleviate your fear toward it, so you can communicate instead of build a wall,” Wang said.

The school’s achievements over the past year were rated outstanding in all areas recently by Ofsted, an independent organization that reports directly to the UK Parliament on standards in education, children’s services and skills.

Meanwhile, De Burgh was surprised that the majority of parents who wanted to send their children to the school were other Europeans from bilingual families and not British ones.

“It’s logical, however, because these parents are very open. They are already multinational. In their work, they deal with China and they visit China. So they are conscious of how important it is to speak Chinese,” De Burgh explained.

(Reporting from London)

Copyedited by Rebeca Toledo 

Comments to ffli@bjreview.com 

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