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Regular version of the site

‘The Orient Enchants’

This year the recently created HSE School of Asian Studies will begin accepting the first entrants to its undergraduate programme. Aleksey Maslov, Head of the School, told us how to train Orientalists the right way and what examinations these students will have to pass.

— Aleksey, what are the specifics of studying Asian countries?

— First of all, we should agree on the terminology. Asian Studies is a separate science which doesn’t study just Asia: traditionally, we also include research of Africa in Asian Studies. Asian Studies as a science originally developed from linguistics, and in the 18th and19th centuries its key areas of interest were Oriental languages. Generally, interest in the Orient had an ethnographic character. But later it turned out that it’s impossible to be limited merely to the study of oriental languages: the Orient has its own specific way of thinking, its own psychology, practices of life, trade and human relations.

What is special about Asian Studies? You can have perfect knowledge of the Chinese language, but totally fail in some important negotiations with partners from the East, and there have often been such precedents. You could know Arabic superbly and yet still fail to land a billion dollar governmental contract, and again, such precedents have also happened. This is because the language itself is only a communication tool, an important tool certainly, but not the only one. No less important are a knowledge of ethnic and ethnographic characteristics. That’s why Oriental studies, in addition to language, includes history, literature, archaeology, specifics of social and economic relations, formal and informal connections in politics and business, practices of diplomatic relations and other aspects of Oriental culture.

— What aims did you pursue when creating the School of Asian Studies at the HSE?

— For a long time Russia, as well as its predecessor, the Soviet Union, was a rather closed country. Relations with the East were built on similar lines to those with other socialist countries of the Third World: the typology of interactions was simple, and we did not need many experts on the East. But now we have found out that there is a catastrophic lack of orientalists. The situation was that our relations with China, Japan and Arabic countries were developing much faster that the education of professional experts in this area.

Within the higher education community, there were numerous attempts to fix this situation. The studying of Oriental languages was introduced at various faculties – Law, Economics and Political Sciences. But it was self-deception. It’s impossible to prepare qualified experts on the Orient only by teaching languages. One could be an excellent economist, but without a knowledge of Chinese clan structure or the specifics of internal interrelations in Japan, it’s impossible to carry out a serious economic project there. The creation of the School of Asian Studies at the HSE is an attempt to compensate for the lack of experts in this sphere.

— Who your graduates will be able to be? What kind of professionals will they be?

— Firstly, they will be people who immediately after graduation will be ready to work practically, so to say, in the Eastern direction. They will have a good knowledge of languages for professional as well as everyday communication. Such experts could be of use in public service, for example, in the President’s administration, governmental offices or expert organizations. Secondly, they will be employees of large public and joint stock companies, such as Gazprom, Rosneft and Lukoil, which are actively working in the Asian markets. Thirdly, they will be mid-level employees of analytical centers who usually prepare analytic materials for the abovementioned large corporations. Finally, they will be able to work in academic science. I’d like to stress the fact that we prepare classically educated orientalists: our graduates, generally speaking, will be able to read Confucius in the original as well as discuss contemporary trends in Chinese economic development. And finally, we shall train people to work in information agencies where they will be able to professionally cover and analyze events taking place in Asian countries.

— How broad will the language programme be at the School?

— This year we have launched three languages: Chinese, Japanese and Arabic. These are the ones currently in most demand, and we can’t ignore this. Here we have one specific feature which we must mention. It is not so difficult to launch the teaching of an Oriental language, but the problem is in another area: the level of country studies should be at least as good as in other universities. So, the methods we have developed for teaching and the structure of courses on China, Japan and Arabic countries lets us provide students with the highest level of preparation, comparable to that of the British school which is traditionally considered the leader in training orientalists.

— Is it true that the School is not planning on training experts on Africa in the first year of its work?

— This is true. Generally, this direction is very promising, since Russia is trying to strengthen its interest in African countries, where the presence of China is also increasing considerably. To become competitive with China, we shall need our own experts, but we cannot ignore the demands of the market which does not yet demand specialists in African studies.

— What basic courses will be offered to the students at the School of Asian Studies?

— You know, recently, the mother of one of the prospective students asked me the following question: ‘You are under the Faculty of Philosophy – does that mean that you’ll only study Oriental philosphy?’ In reality, we are ‘under’ the Faculty of Philosophy only because it initiated the creation of our School. But we train experts not only on philosophy, but in line with internationally recognised Asian Studies standards, and the training is split into a number of blocks. The first block is historical and cultural, and includes a general history of the Orient and the history of the country of the language being studied, as well as its culture, literature, art, calligraphy and visual arts including modern cinema and theatre. It also includes the study of cultural traditions, ethnology and ethnopsychology of a country. The second block is philosophical and theological. It makes up about 15-20 percent of the whole set of disciplines, and includes classical Oriental philosophy, Confucianism and Islamism, including their modern trends. We also study Buddhism. The third block is socio-economic, including trends of economic development. But we do not limit ourselves to, for example, today’s GDP or labour productivity indices. We also study the history of development of traditional economic and social structures in Asian countries, as well as the microeconomics of those countries and the role of Asian economies in the global economic process. The fourth block is socio-political, including, among other things, the study of the system of power realization and political hierarchy. It is very important to understand that authority in the Orient is not just powerful – it is, unlike in Europe, sacred. And finally, we introduce our students to the legislative systems of specific countries, a knowledge of which is essential for writing an international contract for launching and registering new enterprises.

— What special courses does the curriculum include?

— They will cover those aspects of life which our graduates might meet in those countries. I shall list only a few course titles: Nationalism and Revolution in the Orient, Foreign Asian Diasporas and Migration, The practice of Diplomatic Work in the East, Practices of Contemporary Communication in the East, Prognostics and Development Models of the East, Clan and Social Elites in the East, etc.

— Aleksey, you said that the School graduates will have the opportunity to get advanced knowledge of an oriental language. What will the process of language training be like?

— We are planning to create a methodology which will allow our language training to be in line with international standards of testing. I’ve often seen situations when Russian students who know Chinese well, arrive for internships at Chinese universities and fail to pass attestation for education in non-language courses. This happens because of differences in required standards. Students who graduate from our courses will not have this problem.

For language training at the School, we shall actively use multimedia and modern technology; It is impossible to learn an oriental language in the same way as you learn English or French, it is essential to feel it. You cannot succeed if you just memorize phrases, that’s why our language studies will be closely connected with the cultural aspect, and many lecturers who teach language courses will at the same time be read courses on culture. Another specific of our methodology is splitting a language courses into ‘interlapping’ subcourses which will act as separate modules. At any one time, a student will have to study two subcourses, for example, the practice of everyday communication and practice of business communication. It will let him simultaneously be in several language environments, which is very important since an oriental language changes depending on the environment and the situation. Put simply, the language you use to speak at a conference, the language you speak behind the scenes and the language you use at a dinner in a restaurant are three different languages. If you fail to feel this difference, you will not be perceived as a part of this cultural environment.

— But it is very difficult to understand Chinese or Japanese language and culture without direct communication with representatives of this culture...

— That’s why one of the key elements of the language studies at our School will be language internships which will be obligatory and will be regarded as practical training and receive credits. We are currently in the process of signing contracts with some of the largest universities: The University of Tokyo, Waseda University in Japan, The People's University of China and Foreign Language universities in Beijing and Shanghai. We shall also launch a series of summer and winter courses in the countries of the studied language as well as in German and British universities where our students will have the opportunity to listen to a course of lectures on the latest trends in Oriental Studies.

Our School will expand over time. We are planning to open a number of new departments, but they will be introduced gradually. The same is also true about increasing the list of the studied languages. If current and prospective students have a need, it will not be ignored. Contact us and we will always respond.

Oleg Seregin, HSE News Service