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Intensive Chinese Program or Manchu Language Program?


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Hey guys, I'm a masters student studying Chinese History. In particular, I am studying Manchu identity in the Qing dynasty. My goal is to continue on to the Ph.D level, and ultimately find a tenure-track job. I'm currently finishing up the third year of Chinese language classes and have an important decision to make this summer. This summer, I have been accepted to two language programs. The first being TUSA which is an almost fully funded two months immersive Mandarin program in Taiwan. The second being a one month Manchu language program in the US, aimed at getting scholars with no prior experience to document reading level. Unfortunately, the Manchu program has no funding, and in total will likely cost me 5000 dollars out of pocket ( including housing, transportation, and food). So far people have told me that Manchu language is such a rare skill, that having it on my C.V. will help make me highly competitive for top-notch Ph.D. programs. So my questions are which program should I choose? Does the benefit of learning Manchu outweigh a  prestigious and fully funded Mandarin Program? Is Manchu language really the secret to acceptance at a top-tier program?  I'd appreciate any advice you guys can give.

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I was notified of my acceptance today, so I haven't had the opportunity to discuss it with my committee yet. I plan to meet with them over the coming weeks but would also like the insight of graduate students who are further along in their careers. In the past, they have said that Manchu language would be very valuable for any Qing historian because it will sperate me from the mass of applications. My thoughts so far have been that even if I do a summer Chinese program, there will still be more than a few applicants who are better or fluent in Chinese. Manchu, on the other hand, could potentially give me a competitive edge against them. 

Edited by Larnith
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59 minutes ago, Larnith said:

So, I actually haven't studied classical Chinese yet. At my university, classical Chinese is only available for students at the fourth year level or above. 

Then you will need to focus on getting classical Chinese under your belt if you want to do Qing history.

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So while I agree that classical Chinese will be necessary to studying Qing history,  I was hoping that given my current Chinese level,  I could study it over the first two years of a future Ph.D. program. My current options for the summer, however, are either taking the full ride to Taiwan to focus on improving my Chinese or paying my way to learn basic Manchu document reading. I'm not sure which will be more attractive to Ph.D. programs.

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I'm afraid it doesn't work like that. You can't expect to study Classical Chinese once you're in a Ph.D. program. Working knowledge of Classical Chinese is pretty much a requirement to get into any Chinese history Ph.D. You will be expected to submit a writing sample that will demonstrate your knowledge of your primary language of study. If you don't know any Classical Chinese, what will you do about your writing sample? The language issue will come up when your documents are reviewed (my Classical Chinese was self-taught and during interviews, I was asked why I didn't take any Classical Chinese courses in undergrad). Furthermore, even if you get in, you will lag behind others who already have good knowledge of Classical Chinese. Manchu is an important language for studying the Early and High Qing, but the majority of your sources will still be in Chinese and you will be required to read a lot of Chinese secondary literature. Discuss it with your advisors, but I would suggest you work on your Classical Chinese first.

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I'm in general a big Manchu proponent - indeed I taught it at Harvard last year. And I first took Manchu from the person who will be teaching the program you would be doing (assuming you're doing the one at Berkeley that I've seen advertised), who is a wonderful instructor. I think Manchu is an extremely important language, and lordtiandao is underselling how much you would use it to do a dissertation project dealing with Manchu identity.

That said, I have to agree with the other posters that Chinese is a more fundamental skill, and more important to your PhD applications. It's definitively not true that you won't be able to continue studying Chinese (Classical or Modern) after entering a PhD program. I took 2nd year Classical Chinese after starting my PhD (though I did have a year coming in), and that was not seen as weird at all. But it is true that better Chinese will do far more for your PhD applications than a year of Manchu. It's also the case that you will need good Chinese skills earlier in a PhD program than you will  Manchu skills, which you probably won't be using extensively until a couple years in, whereas Chinese will be necessary for your coursework. Given the stage of Chinese you're at now, lordtiandao is right that you will struggle to produce a good writing sample using Chinese sources next year without the boost from the summer program. In addition, I'm guessing that if you're only at 3rd year level now, you've never spent an extensive amount of time in China (or Taiwan). PhD programs are likely to see that as important - I know I was asked about the extent of my experience in China by potential advisors when I was applying.

Here's the good news - you will have more opportunities to learn Manchu, and probably cheaper ones. It's certainly not formally taught all that many places, but an increasing number of Qing historians know it and can instruct you in it (the good PhD programs at which you could learn it as a PhD student definitely include Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Michigan, Georgetown, Pittsburgh and the University of Washington, at the least. And if you ended up at, say, Columbia, it would be reasonably easy to commute to Princeton to study it). And any potential advisor who is interested in a student who wants to work on Manchu identity is pretty likely to be in the group that knows Manchu. I think it's great that you're enthusiastic about starting Manchu, and I certainly hope you continue in that path, but it's not worth the rather large additional expense to do it now. There will be more opportunities! Feel free to get in touch with me if you have more specific questions - I'm always happy to do what I can to encourage Manchu study.

Edited by pudewen
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45 minutes ago, pudewen said:

I think Manchu is an extremely important language, and lordtiandao is underselling how much you would use it to do a dissertation project dealing with Manchu identity.

Definitely not trying to undersell. I recognize the importance of Manchu in studying the Early and High Qing. There are a lot of Manchu language documents that are going to be indispensable when writing the dissertation. Still, at this stage, he needs Classical Chinese more than he does Manchu.

 

45 minutes ago, pudewen said:

It's definitively not true that you won't be able to continue studying Chinese (Classical or Modern) after entering a PhD program.

Sorry, I should rephrase so it's clearer. You can absolutely continue Chinese courses in PhD, but I think the keyword should be "continue". Since OP would like to get into a top program, he needs to know Classical Chinese right now, and if he gets in, then continue, rather than know zero Classical Chinese and start from scratch once he is in the program. I don't think that's good for him.

Edited by lordtiandao
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I'll also add; save the Manchu program for when you are actually in the PhD program.  You can then apply for grants and FLAS in your university to help cover the costs of attending a Manchu program.  No need to go into unnecessary debt.  I would heed @pudewen and @lordtiandao's advice.  Also I know you can apply for a full-ride Mandarin immersion program at Middlebury too if you need more Chinese.  I'll also agree on the basis of secondary source literature.  I'm discovering it for myself now as I'm reading up secondary literature for my dissertation which engages with China (although Chinese history isn't my main field).  It would definitely have been a bit useful to know some Chinese to assess the scholarship over in China on my own rather than rely on book reviews and newly published books in English.

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I think the many 前輩s in this post have already raised some really good points. But I do want to add my opinion on this matter.

I believe, given that you are not a native Chinese speaker, the most important task is to master the Chinese language and reach a proficiency level in Classical Chinese that allows you to read and comprehend primary documents. You are totally right that learning Manchu would enhance your application, but it seems to me that this is, at this moment, not the most pressing issue.

As a basketball fan, your question is like asking, "as a shooting guard, should I learn shooting or lay-ups first?" I would definitely say, you need to master shooting first before you move on to others. Being able to score inside with layups is, of course, going to make you a better player, but your shooting attribute, in my opinion, must always come first.

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Thanks guys for the insight! I think all of you make some very valid points. It seems like the potential benefit of learning Manchu right now simply doesn’t outweigh the penalty of a Chinese (classical and modern) language deficiency. Additionally, I've only spent 3months in China, so more time in Asia can only help my chances. While the Berkeley program is a rare opportunity, it seems Taiwan is both cheaper and more pertinent right now. Moving forward I will just need to keep my eye out for more convenient opportunities to learn Manchu.  

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