Da, China’s education lingo is as easy as jiao tong xue

Getting one’s mouth and mind around the unique terms and institutions of China’s education system will confront an increasing number of students, scientists, and business people around the world. This article introduces a few of the most commonly used within Chinese academia, most of which have no English equivalent. Understanding these before engaging with Chinese academia will more quickly enable broader common ground.

Education system terms: ‘Da’, ‘Shifan’ and ‘Jiaotong’ 

Like any system of higher education, China’s is complex, arguably serving to attempt some form of integration of pre-existing ancient learning systems with a now more dominant resemblance to a contemporary Western system of learning.  Some of the common abbreviations and unique terms used to identify elements of that system are explained herein. 


The word for university in Chinese is ‘Da(4)Xue(2)’, 大学. In spoken Chinese, this word ‘daxue’ is often shorted to ‘da’, such as in shortening the name Peking University (‘Beijing Daxue’) to ‘Beida’. Similarly, Nanjing University is commonly known as ‘Nanda’, Shandong University as ‘Shanda’, and Yunnan University as ‘Yunda’.


Another example of shortening university names in spoken Chinese takes the first syllable of the name of the city, and the second and sometimes third syllable from the rest of the name of the school. For example, ‘Beishida’ is the common name used to refer to Beijing Shifan University (北京师范大学), one of China’s most renowned teacher training universities.


A similar process of shortening names also explains the name of China’s aeronautical engineering school. Formerly known by its full original name of Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, or Beijing Hangkong Hangtian Daxue (北京航空航天大学) is now more simply known in English by its shortened Chinese name of ‘Beihang’, taken from the first syllable of the first two words in its name. 


Two words without direct equivalents in English and that appear across a range of university names in China, are ‘Shifan’ and ‘JIaotong’. The first of these, ‘Shifan’, is typically and confusingly directly translated to ‘Normal’, and more literally means teacher training. Thus, any school with the ‘Shifan’ in its name, can be understood to have, at least traditionally and possibly still, served as a university to train school teachers and academics.  Similarly, ‘JIaotong’ universities are associated with more technical scientific and engineering training. JIaotong itself means ‘traffic’ or ‘communications’. Thus, an equivalent in English might something akin to an institute of technology. While many ‘jIaotong’ universities now teach a comprehensive range of subjects, at least in terms of their traditional specialty, ‘jiaotong’ schools arose from a more technical and scientific base. Xi’an Jiaotong University now for example is also known for its business school. 


Intra-Student Terms: Shixiong, Shijie, Shimei, Shidi, Tongxue & Xiaoyou 

Student Relations in China are tight, both vertically and horizontal. By vertical, we refer to the relationship shared between graduate students of a single supervisor. By horizontal we infer students relations across the same major and class year level. An earlier article on Sinograduate went into some detail of some of these terms, a summary of which is as now outlined. 


In China masters degrees last up to three, while PhDs typically run for three or four years. At any one time a standard ‘Daoshi’ will have five or six students to supervise. The relations between these students are close and lifelong. The respective Chinese terms reflect these as surrogate family relations almost: 师兄 (shixiong) or 师哥 (shige),师姐 (shijie),师妹 (shimei),师弟 (shidi). Repeated individually, ‘ge’, ‘jie’, ‘mei’ and ‘di’ mean older brother, older sister, young sister and younger brother respectively.

 In the footsteps of their US counterparts, Chinese universities are seeking to build tighter relations with and among their alumni. The word for alumni literally means ‘school friend’, or ‘xiao-you’, 校友. This perhaps more obviously derives from a combination of the second characters of the terms for school and friend: school , ‘xue-xiao’ (学校)and ‘friend’, peng-you (朋友). Most straightforward and commonly used of all is the most generic of terms in intra-student relations, ‘classmate’, or ‘tongxue’ (同学), meaning ‘same study’.

For prospective degree-seeking international students and visiting teachers in China, coming to terms with these terms and others such as those outlined in Sinograduate’s earlier piece, Why Your Shijie (师姐) is your ‘Shijie’ (世界), offer a head start. 

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Lauren has worked in economic policy and research at the World Bank, World Economic Forum, EIU and for the governments of Sierra Leone and Guyana. She has learned Chinese since 1995, and lived in Beijing for almost six years, on and off since 1997. Lauren has a PhD in Economics from Peking University, an MSc in Development Economics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and a B.A/B.Com from the University of Melbourne.

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