The hierarchy of Chinese academia, the parallel academic and political structures around and within it, can be difficult to interpret. Foreign students and teachers alike can find themselves puzzled as to when and with whom to approach student and professional relationships. This article is a short introduction to a few of the titles that graduate students will encounter when undertaking a degree in China, especially if they do so in a Chinese language programme in which most classmates are Chinese.
Taken independently the first of these two characters, 导 (dao3) means ‘to teach or give guidance to’. 师 (shi1) has the meaning ‘teacher or master’. Together, these form the word daoshi, which is Chinese for supervisor, at both the masters and PhD level.
Different to a supervisor at a Western university the Daoshi is not one of two or three supervisors, but rather has greater singular power. Each year some time after January 1, and on Teachers’ Day (September 10) it is custom that a Daoshi’s students gather for a meal and pool their resources toward a gift. Among PhD students it is typically the task of the second year student to arrange the gift.
For Chinese students falling out with a supervisor can adversely impact career progression, inside academia or otherwise. The Daoshi for example approves international exchange opportunities and scholarships, and helps with introductions for employment. For international students the Daoshi-student relationship is different as much as that power dynamic is different also. Nonetheless, it is a good idea to understand what kind of hierarchy with his/her students is custom as it may very directly affect the lens through your own performance will be judged.
As in the West, the title daoshi is separate to the system of academic titles, which include Laoshi (teacher), Jiangshi (tutor) and Jiaoshou (professor).
师哥，师姐，师妹，师弟 Shige, Shijie, Shimei, Shidi
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.
This cohort of students has a family structure all of its own, and is the hub of student support for the duration of any student’s study in China, as well as a lifelong peer and friend. As in a family, where older brother (哥哥 gege), older sister (姐姐 jiejie), younger brother (弟弟 didi) and younger sister (妹妹 meimei) are used as titles of address like ‘mum’ and ‘dad’ are in English, in Chinese these words similarly exist (but are less common in conversation) for relations between students.
Thus, if the student in second year when you are in first year is female, she will be your 师姐 (shiejie) – an invaluable source of wisdom on everything from where to buy textbooks, to what form you need signed for what requirement and where to get it, not to mention may become a good friend. They could even literally become your 世界 (shijie - world) also.
The character 班 (ban1) means class or team, while 长 (zhang3) according to the Foreign Languages School dictionary means to open or stretch. Together these comprise the word referring to the student appointed from each year level to provide procedural and mentoring support for the students in the year below. When an administrative deadline is approaching, when a group photo or meal is upcoming, an annual student dinner, it is the ‘banzhang’ whom informs of the date and place. For foreign students a good and mutually helpful relationship with a Banzhang can make otherwise opaque processes remarkably smooth and easy.
Of all these positions/titles explained herein, the Zhujiao is the easiest for students from Western universities to relate to, for it simply means teaching assistant (助. zhu4 – help; 教jiao4 – teach). This student is typically one of the more successful students from the former year’s class. Typically the Zhuijiao will run a weekly tutorial to revise the homework, often quite mechanically running through the homework. This class can also be on weekends or in the evenings, even on Sunday mornings. Different teaching assistants will also give different amounts of time as they have it and are willing to answer questions one-to-one.
By no means is this an exhaustive list of important titles and institutions within Chinese academia. In my experience as a PhD student at Peking University since 2007 these are some of the most useful every-day positions and relationship structures that would be useful to understand as early in one’s study/research experience as possible.
Are you a student or professor in a Chinese university and have more to add to this? Please email us at Sinograduate or add your comments on our homepage.