Bo Hu smiling as she stands in the grounds of the University of Oxford China Centre

Philanthropy Report 2021/22

A legacy for the future of Chinese at Oxford


Chinese Mandarin language teaching at the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies has been significantly enriched by a generous legacy gift.

‘The courses we offer here are run in small groups,’ says Bo Hu, lecturer in Chinese Mandarin. ‘It’s all student-centred, communicative and intensive, with plenty of time to practise due to that special Oxford tutorial-based teaching system. Because everything is very small, personal and attentive, we can get to know our students well, and provide a more tailored learning environment. It’s how we attract the best students – but it’s also expensive.’

Bo has taught Chinese Mandarin at Oxford University for more than 15 years, but the variety of temporary, often part-time, contracts under which she was previously employed were dependent on grants and gifts that guaranteed funding for posts only in the short term. Bo explains: ‘In 2012, for example, there was a lot of change in how funding worked at universities, and some large government grants supporting non-mainstream language teaching, which had been in place since 2007, came to an end.’

Bo Hu sits smiling surrounded by trees and other greenery outside the University of Oxford China Centre based at St Hugh’s College
Bo Hu at the University of Oxford China Centre. Photo by John Cairns

A philanthropic gift saved the instructorship in Chinese Mandarin just at the right time. Mary Lackey OBE was Under Secretary of State for Trade and Industry during the 1980s. Even before taking on that role, she recognised the emergence of China’s influence, which ultimately led to her support of the teaching of Chinese at Oxford. ‘I couldn’t believe that the gift was earmarked for languages and specifically for Chinese,’ says Bo. ‘Mary didn’t want any fuss or publicity about the gift so I wrote a letter to her with pictures of me teaching, just to say thank you and to tell her what was happening.’ For around five years, an initial gift from Mary covered the costs of the instructorship post. Then, in 2014, Mary bequeathed her entire estate to endow the post, providing long-term security.

‘There are not many full-time Chinese language instructor posts in the UK,’ says Bo. ‘I think the whole situation is very precarious in terms of language teachers so I am incredibly grateful to have this post from a personal perspective.’

The content and scope of teaching Chinese and East Asian languages have evolved significantly at Oxford over recent decades. The Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies has introduced a range of MPhils since the turn of the century, as well as a variety of subsidiary languages for undergraduate students – by the end of their course they might be fluent not only in Chinese, but also Japanese, Tibetan or Korean.

The MPhil in Traditional East Asia was introduced in 2013. ‘“Traditional” because there is a basic component in classical languages like classical Chinese, classical Japanese,’ says Bo, ‘but with the opportunity to study other languages as subsidiaries. In fact, there are more than 25 languages taught in the faculty and 12 degrees, would you believe? Chinese, Japanese – both in their modern as well as classical form – Arabic, Persian, Egyptian, Hebrew, Turkish, Korean, Tibetan, Sanskrit, Yiddish and Akkadian… Having more language teachers and resources is very important for all these courses to keep on running.’

‘In the past, with the Japanese applicants, you always saw how much they loved mangas or you saw the K-Pop influence for those studying Korean. Now we see applicants telling us what they think about Chinese shows and music. I'm quite amazed by it, actually’

Bo Hu

Crucial to the success of the courses offered are the content and the methods of delivery, which need to be developed to meet students’ changing backgrounds and expectations. ‘It was interesting when I started to work here,’ says Bo. ‘The students all had quite similar reasons for studying Chinese: they had a Chinese neighbour or classmate or friend and thought: “this is interesting – I’m going to learn it.” The level of Chinese and their familiarity with China is so different now, proving how popular China has become and how much information people can find out about China – and demonstrating exactly what Mary Lackey could see happening years ago.’

Without Mary Lackey’s donation, Bo does not think they would have the resources to cater for students’ needs. ‘It’s all about the digital age for young people. And the backgrounds of the MPhil students, of which we have eight to twelve each year, are particularly interesting. Previously, they might have come to Chinese from a first degree in politics, economics or international relations so that they could use their degree for job opportunities in China. Now we have more people from different backgrounds and pathways – people who did music as a first degree, or English literature or Classics, who then go on to work anywhere from think tanks, consultancies and academia to journalism, translation, or even the art industry, as well as in the public sector.’

‘When they join us, students now speak Chinese well. They watch Netflix to help them learn Chinese! This proves China’s soft power. It’s like the pop culture of America influencing the world’

Bo Hu

Bo recognises that the world is changing – that the students are changing – and language instructors need to keep up. The security offered by more endowed language tutor posts will be key to making teaching sustainable in the long term. The development of digital learning materials is also key: Bo’s most recent research in this area has been based on YouTubers talking about Chinese art and film.

‘I definitely learn a lot from my students,’ says Bo. ‘They tell me anecdotes about their experiences in China and about things that I have not heard of. My teaching methods have changed so much – I have started to be more open-minded, and that is the right thing to do. My students are such interesting people – I do feel quite privileged teaching them. Being inspired by the students is my favourite part of my job.’

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