Prof Gregory Lee of the Department of Chinese Studies Founds Cantonese Studies Archive

Updated: Mar 9

The University of St Andrews’ Department of Chinese Studies is offering students a unique program for the study of Cantonese Culture. The Department for Chinese Studies is also founding a Cantonese Studies archive to preserve Cantonese cultures for future generations and historians in the wake of recent crackdowns by the Chinese Communist Party. Prof Gregory Lee founder of the department told The Saint, “From the perspective of the Chinese authorities now they want everything to be uniform, but Cantonese is spoken by around 100 million people in Hong Kong, Macau, Guangdong and around the world, so you just can’t snap your fingers and say that’s gone.”

On starting the archive Prof Lee continued, “After the imposition of the National Security Law we decided we had to get some of this material: newspapers, books, even podcasts which were going to be taken down.”

The archive is made up of donations including books documenting protests in Hong Kong, which are now almost impossible to find in China. For instance, one book in the archive details a photographic history of the 2019 Anti-Extradition Law protests. Stacks of newspapers which have been closed down and banned in Hong Kong document the struggles and protests against the authoritarian rule of the Communist Party.

The boxes and piles of books which make up the archive are not just a record of the news but full of stories and memories of the past which celebrate Cantonese culture. Despite the value of the archive and the “exceptional” work, the library will need financial support in order for the archive to expand and continue. Prof Lee explained that maintaining a book was like having a dog. It has to be fed, taken for walks, and looked after, with financial assistance being integral to the project’s future.

The department's focus on teaching and protecting Cantonese cultures contrasts that of the Chinese state sponsored Confucius Institute, and Prof Lee praised the University’s decision not to have a Confucius Institute here in St Andrews.

He said, “The approach of the Confucius Institutes is beginners’ Chinese, and to transmit an image of China that the Chinese government wants us to have, and that’s not good enough if you’re an academic. And only having one narrative is just not good enough.”

The University’s department of Chinese Studies is also reacting to the new immigration from Hong Kong as a result of the British National Overseas visa scheme.

Prof Lee said, “We are thinking about their children down the road and we want Chinese studies to be as inclusive as possible and not just represent the people’s republic of China in the 20th century, but to address that whole period of the history of Hong Kong from the 19th century to today and I think we need to do that.”

Prof Lee was unable to speculate on whether the University’s program of Chinese Studies would attract more migrants from Hong Kong to Scotland. He cautioned that some migrants from Hong Kong may choose not to settle in Scotland due to fear about their national status in the event of a referendum of independence.

He called on Scottish political parties to “make a declaration that British resident status would be automatically extended to migrants from Hong Kong in the event of an independent Scotland.”

St Andrews academics are working with their counterparts in San Francisco and Vancouver to foster the study of Cantonese language and culture. This network is allowing academics to share their expertise and experiences teaching Cantonese. Dr Lee said the University’s course had a “breadth of vision which allows people to look at other Chinese languages and the diversity of Chinese which universities like Oxford and Cambridge are not offering.”

To facilitate this the department will be offering an “Alternative Second Year Language Programme” for students with a prior learning of Chinese, who constitute 25% of the intake.

This will include the learning of written Chinese, as well as the opportunity to learn a second Chinese language, such as Cantonese or Hokkien. The latter is a language spoken in Taiwanand communities throughout Southeast Asia. This is working in conjunction with ex- change programs to Taiwan and Hong Kong, COVID permitting.

Third year modules on Pearl River Cultures: Guangzhou-Hong Kong-Macau, and Hong Kong in Art and Visual Culture: Creativity and Contestation, aim to enrich understanding about Cantonese culture. Furthermore, on Friday, 4 February, the department also welcomed Vivienne Chow, an art journalist who specialises in the Hong Kong art scene.

Beyond the university level, connecting with local schools and communities is a key part of the vision of the department. As part of this the depart ment seeks to introduce knowledge about China and Chinese cultures into a large number of Scottish schools.

The new department despite only being a year old is blazing a trail in British universities’ teaching and conception of Chinese Studies. Later in the year, the department will have its official grand opening, previously delayed due to the pandemic.


Image: Prof Gregory Lee

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