Welcome to VJC! I am Jasmine from 20A11 and in this article, I’ll be walking you through the very special subject I take, China Studies in English (CSE).
CSE is a special subject one can choose to take in VJC. For most of you, it would be your first time even hearing about this subject. Indeed, CSE is rare—it is only offered in three junior colleges, VJ being one of them, and the cohort size totals around 100. That might instinctively put you off the subject already, but I beg you to finish reading this article first (and consider how unique your portfolio would be) before you backtrack.
In this article, I will be exploring the content studied in CSE, my personal experiences with it, potential pitfalls of taking such a subject, and more.
What is CSE?
Firstly, what exactly is CSE? CSE refers to studying China, but in English. Yes, CSE is not taken in Chinese, like most would believe, but rather both taught and tested in English. Not being Chinese or being unable to speak Chinese has no real impact on the subject itself, and not all who take CSE are Chinese too—I have classmates who can attest to this. Also, CSE is by no means a pro-China cult (more on that later).
CSE discusses contemporary China, mostly events that happen in China after Mao, centering around issues that China faces nowadays. That means no knowledge of secondary school History is required here. The teachers will give you a brief rundown of Chinese history, but really most of it is unnecessary for the content you’d be focusing on. That means no Chiang Kai Shek, no Great Leap Forward or Cultural Revolution. Sure, these things do provide needed context and some do affect China drastically today (like the one child policy, for instance), but a knowledge of these events is definitely not required to do well.
What content will you be studying then? As mentioned, CSE focuses a lot on contemporary issues that China faces today. Some of you might already be aware of some of these—like environmental issues, the one party system, and so on, but CSE will expand further and truly allow you to understand the systems in China. China functions rather differently from how Singapore or Western countries do, due to their population size and ideologies. CSE unpacks the way China works as a country and why their policies are implemented in a certain way. This is difficult to truly understand without taking the subject, but an example would be the central and local government system in China, which is vastly different from Singapore politics.
Some contemporary topics one would study include pollution, urbanisation, state-owned enterprises, ethnic minority treatment, and so on. These are problems that China actively faces and is trying to tackle even as I write this article, and CSE is a lot about understanding current measures and the impact these have on larger social issues in China. This also means that CSE provides a wealth of information perfect for writing General Paper essays, allowing you to kill two birds with one stone!
Events that will be explored are the Hong Kong protests, the removal of presidential term limits for Xi Jinping, and even COVID measures China has taken. CSE’s curriculum is constantly changing and adapting to deal with current events. The teachers will update their slides as they go, instead of reusing slides from five years ago. Whether you deem this as a positive or a negative is up to you—some may prefer learning content that is set in stone from day one, some might prefer to have more fluid lessons. However, current event updates will not change the curriculum. It simply means that you can bring up COVID examples in your essay about environmental pollution, or explain how the Hong Kong protests affect the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) when talking about governance. If you prefer a curriculum that stays updated whilst not distracting from content, CSE might be for you!
For the most part, CSE is not too different from History. The first component is case studies, where one would have to analyse 5 sources and use them to answer the questions that follow. These questions are about explaining, evaluating, and recommending a solution to the gap you’ve identified under the explanation part. These skills and formats will be taught in class.
The second component is the essay. A paper would typically give three essay questions, of which you should answer two. This also means there is wiggle room if you’re not particularly confident in certain topics. These essays are not very different from other arts subjects.
The third component is where CSE distinguishes itself from other subjects. It has a component called Independent Study (IS) that is part of your final CSE score. It will be done in J2 and involves formulating a research question and answering it through a written report. The IS is an academic paper, where sources like journal articles and reports will be used. The IS is not found in any other subject, only in CSE. Writing the IS teaches you a variety of research and organisation skills that would be useful in writing academic papers in university, which makes it extremely attractive on a portfolio, especially since no other JC student would have experiences quite like this. The IS writing will be guided by the CSE teachers and occasionally supplemented by professors from other universities. If you want to learn more about the IS, consider talking to the teachers or looking up the syllabus online to find out more. Do note that the IS is not required for H1 students, but only if you continue to take CSE at H2 in J2. Also note that you have to start taking CSE from H2, as there is no option to take CSE at H1 in J1.
Honestly speaking, my personal experience with CSE is that it is really not as stuffy as one would expect it to be. China is large enough that many areas need to be regulated at all times, and not all pass through the central government, which sometimes result in strange policies. For instance, the State Religious Affairs Bureau Order No. 5, an official, scary sounding order, just says that Tibetan Buddhists are banned from being recognised as having reincarnated. Yes, this official order actually says that without a Reincarnation Application, they won’t acknowledge individuals as tulkus (reincarnated teachers). There is no clear indication as to how exactly they plan to catch any offenders, but at least it can be said that they did try.
Actual memes are compiled and presented by CSE teachers during our lectures, such as Xi Jinping’s uncanny resemblance to Winnie the Pooh.
Chinese memes aside, I don’t know about you but a main concern I had when joining CSE was whether the lessons would be biased or have an extremely pro-China slant. I am glad to tell you that these worries are unfounded. CSE presents issues in China from multiple different perspectives—nothing is in black and white. The foundation of CSE lies in evaluating to different extents, from a hundred percent successful to limited success to totally unsuccessful. CSE will cover all sides, from what China has done well in to the areas they have failed in, and it is always up to personal choice from which angle one wishes to write their essay. It is entirely possible to argue both sides and the lessons are nuanced enough such that you can easily form those arguments without contradicting yourself, which is a skill equally useful in other subjects. So no, CSE is not a CCP mouthpiece, nor is it a fierce critic of all the CCP does. It gives both sides equal weight.
Potential pitfalls of CSE:
This section is not meant to discourage you from taking this subject, but meant to list very real concerns this subject has, and how to live with them or overcome them.
This problem is not unique to CSE, in fact all other arts subjects like Economics, Literature and History are very content-heavy. You do have to be prepared to memorise a large amount of content for evidence and contextualisation in CSE essays, but a bonus (or perhaps negative) is that this content is not strictly fixed to your notes. Statistics that you find yourself or news articles you remember reading a day before the exam can just as easily be used as evidence. In short, CSE being content-heavy really isn’t unique to CSE, all it means is that your choice of poison is China instead.
2. Low distinction rates.
I’m not going to shy away from the hard facts. CSE’s distinction rates are not as high in comparison to other “safer” subjects like History. This is mainly due to two things: firstly, the small cohort size. CSE is only taken in three schools after all, and a low distinction rate in what is essentially three classes is not as significant as it may appear on paper, and does not mean that everyone is going to do horribly or fail. Secondly, the presence of the Independent Study (IS) as mentioned earlier. Writing a full academic paper at eighteen with no other prior experience with something of this magnitude also means that an A is not easy to get. That being said, it is definitely not impossible either and it would be nice to put on a portfolio, so if you are fairly confident and there are topics you wish to explore, you might want to give it a try.
3. Biased data.
This is a concern especially valid in CSE and much more prominent than in other subjects. The truth is that all countries fabricate and interpret data to a certain extent. Either data is directly made up or there are other nuanced factors they failed to consider before making a broad, sweeping argument that CCP policies have improved certain issues. This means that data from Chinese sources with CCP origins (ie. Chinadaily and Xinhuanet) is likely to be presented much more positively than the reality would suggest. However, this doesn’t mean that one should use biased data—most articles from more reputable sources would suggest more realistic figures. The US Embassy in China has set up their own air quality monitor so one doesn’t have to rely on official Chinese figures. The CSE teachers have similarly included data in their slides as well and those definitely can be reused if one is too lazy to find their own evidence. While this concern can sometimes make things harder, it isn’t impossible to deal with, but rather something to keep in mind when viewing extremely pro-CCP sources.
And now we arrive at the second last, and arguably most important part of taking CSE: the aptitude test. You have to take this test to be able to take CSE. It will measure your ability to analyse data and formulate logical explanations. This is extremely vague because I barely remember myself what questions there were, but what I do know is that there is no real need to study for this test. This test is meant to measure your aptitude for analysis, not meant as something that needs to be 100% factually correct. I have classmates who have given wrong reasons to questions and gotten in anyways. However, at least some basic knowledge on China is preferred. If you write about the Europe-China trade war or talk about China being a democratic country, don’t be surprised by the results.
Allow me to reiterate the most important part again: you have to take this test to take CSE as a subject. Please don’t forget about the dates and please work out a suitable arrangement if you cannot attend the test on the day. This test is the most crucial part in taking CSE as an A-level subject.
If something about CSE did pique your interest, it never hurts to go for the aptitude test. You can always decide against it later, but you won’t have the option of taking CSE at all if you don’t go. If you’re not accepted into the shortlisted students, don’t worry, because not all students will eventually decide on CSE anyways. The CSE teachers will keep an eye out for those who have potential, and should they have vacancies, they will let you know. So never give up! You never know what might happen.
The truth is that CSE isn’t for everyone, and that’s perfectly fine. Not all people might prefer dealing with the uncertainty of a special subject. Or maybe the IS was the deal-breaker. Or maybe you just don’t like China. Whatever the reason, I’m grateful you took time to read this and made it this far in what must be a very tiring article to read. CSE may appear fairly daunting just from the length of this article and the various China-related events I listed in this article, but as with all other subjects, there is a learning curve. Don’t write CSE off immediately but also do consider it thoroughly before you take it!
All in all, no JC subject is easy. I hope you choose a subject combination that you are both interested in and able to score in. Best of luck for the year ahead!
Jasmine Lin, 20A11
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