Studying at Nanjing Normal University

China’s Soft Power

In his book China Goes Global: The Partial Power, author David Shambaugh states that China has bad performances when it comes to projecting soft power. His description is most likely accurate, but I think a lot will change in the near future as the massive scholarship programs operated by China will start to show results.

Currently, in China there are over 350k international students and it is expected that their number will grow to 500k by 2020. Most of these students will, I assume, have favorable views towards China when they will return home.

Students from the developing countries particularly appreciate these scholarships, as no other country has offered them such access to higher education. Many of these students will become, I am sure, the elites of their countries.

To give an example, I often have discussions with African friends from France’s former colonies and they show themselves disappointed with France, they have no interest in the US, but they speak highly of China. So, I think China’s strong ties with the developing states brings, alongside the economical benefits, big political perspectives.

Nanjing Normal University


NNU has a very twisted history and it would need more than a few lines to be accurately presented; many names have been changed and many teaching institutions have merged into a single one before becoming what is today known as Nanjing Normal University.

Nowadays, NNU is part of the Project 221, which reunites China’s “National Key Universities” and it is one of the most important centers for teaching Chinese to foreigners.

The university first opened its gates to overseas students in 1965 and since then their number gradually expanded, as China became more open to the outside.

Suyuan Campus

Both NNU’s International College for Chinese Studies (where I studied Chinese) and the dormitory where I stayed are located in the Suiyuan Campus, which is on a walking distance from the city center.

This campus is considered to be one of the most beautiful in China, and I totally agree with this perspective. Everyday people from the neighborhood come here to walk with their kids or to practice taijiquan (En. taichi). IMG_8602

Film directors seem to like this place too, as many movies have been shot here. I guess everybody enjoys the green of the campus and the beautiful Chinese-style architecture of the buildings within it.

However, my biggest surprise was that not only are these buildings not very old (an inexperienced eye like mine could easily confuse them with some centuries old traditional Chinese buildings, similar to the ones from the Forbidden City), but they are not even designed by a Chinese architect. They were designed by Henry Murphy, an American architect, back in 1920’s; this happened because at that time the Jinling College was located here, a Christian school for women only, founded and financed by American missionaries.

During the Nanjing Massacre, one of the darkest episodes in China’s history, this campus became a safe area where Chinese people could stay without getting killed by the Japanese troops. This safe heaven was made possible by the efforts of some of the foreigners who lived in Nanjing at that time.


As I am writing these lines a new dormitory, which the NNU’s foreign students will inhabit starting next year, is soon to be finished. So I missed the chance of living in a new dorm by just one year.

It’s not such a big of a problem though, for I enjoyed decent conditions in the dorm where I used to live. My room was very large, it had more furniture than I actually needed and a nice balcony.

In my dorm, all the foreigners live on the 8th floor, while the Chinese students live on the other 19. I was happy to see that the large majority of students were Chinese as that gave me an extra chance to absorb the culture.

Overall, I was happy with my accommodation, even though there were also a few things that I did not enjoy very much. In the following lines I will describe some of them:

When I first came to my room, soon after landing in Nanjing, the first thing I was hoping to do was to install myself in the bed and get some quality sleep. To my surprise the beds had no mattresses. Later, I learned that this is quite common for the student dormitories in China.

The Chinese students use some very thin mattresses that can be easily purchased from anywhere. So, when somebody moves into a new room, alongside with sheets and pillows, they should also bring a new mattress. However, nowadays all the new dormitories come equipped with big, comfortable mattresses.

By the time I got used to my bed, winter came and I had to get acquainted with the heating system. The universities located in the south of China have no central heating, as it is considered that in the lower part of the country winters are not very harsh; what they use instead is air conditioners.

The problem is that Nanjing is not really in the South of China, but more in the center. The AC’s are far from efficient when it comes to warming the rooms. Not to say that they are quite energy consuming and pricey. So, during the winter there were many times I had to go to sleep wearing multiple tick clothes.

Since I mentioned the AC’s, I think I should add that they are more than welcomed anyway. Before the AC’s student dormitories had no heating system at all. One Chinese friend, who went to college in the mid 80’s, told me that back then only the dormitories for foreign students had heating devices. He was lucky enough to live in one these dorms for 1 year.

The one thing that I totally disliked about my dormitory was that its gates close every day at midnight. That is pretty frustrating if you like to go out every once in-awhile, or if you simply don’t like to be worried about time. So many times, when me and my colleagues wanted to go out we had to sleep over at friends, to wait until the dorm opened at 6 in the morning or to… jump through a window. A few days ago I noticed that since the summer vacation started the doors are closed at 11 PM and they open at 7 AM. So yes, it’s vacation, you should have more time to sleep…


If you are a student in China, food will be the smallest of your problems. That, of course, if you like Chinese food.

All the campuses have student canteens where you can eat at very cheap prices. Our campus had 3 of these canteens, known more by their Chinese name – shitang.

A large meal consisting in rice, a piece of meat and 2 types of vegetables was about 10 Yuan (1.6$). The rice alone was 0.5 Yuan only.

In the vicinity of the campus there were many street food vendors or small restaurants with Chinese food, as well as Western style restaurants, where you could eat pizza, burgers or German sausages.

Studying Chinese at Nanjing Normal University

The language

As one could imagine, learning Chinese is a pretty difficult process. The Chinese grammar is not very complicated, but memorizing its characters and trying to pronounce the words clearly is.

As you probably know, the Chinese language has tens of thousands of characters. However, you don’t need to learn all of them, as this is something that even the finest Chinese linguist cannot achieve; you should nevertheless know at least 4 thousands if you want to be able to read books or newspapers.

Beside memorizing its characters, you need to read in Chinese on a regular basis unless you want to forget everything in a short amount of time.

When it comes to pronouncing the words, you will have another headache, as you have to produce sounds that are completely different from those in your own language; I personally have problems pronouncing the X, J and D. Add the fact that the Chinese language is tonal so, depending on which of the 4 tones you use, the same syllable can have different meanings.


Nanjing Normal University has the reputation of being one of the best universities in China for teaching Chinese to foreigners and I resonate with this view.

Before I came to China in September 2014, I could speak no Chinese, but now, 10 months later, I can speak well enough to do a lot of things by my own. In April I already passed the HSK 4 exam. HSK is the Chinese proficiency test, divided in 6 difficulty levels, with 1 being the easiest and 6 the hardest.

The methods used by my teachers were definitely efficient, as my Chinese improved a lot in a relatively short time. They did manage sometimes to make me feel like I was back in primary school. Only then, my teacher was so closely involved and in charge of all aspects of my education. I can understand why the primary school teachers are so interested in the education of their pupils, as they are at an age when they need to be set in the right direction, but it was hard for me sometimes to be part of that process again. To give an example, one day I skipped school and the second day, although I had classes with a different teacher, I was asked why I had missed the day before.

The classes were very intensive and we had a lot of new words to study; every morning class started with a refreshing tingxie (dictation), as to test whether we studied or not the new words. In one of our first classes, we studied the word 努力(nuli), which means with great efforts / hard, so teachers could encourage us to 努力学习! (study hard!); at the end of each chapter, our Chinese book had a motivating Chinese proverb. Everything was done in order to make us work with dedication.

From what my friends from other universities across China told me, these methods are quite common in all the schools where Chinese is taught to foreigners. I guess they are efficient in transforming the undisciplined and relaxed foreign students into hard workers that are committed to learn this difficult language.

Comparing to other beginners classes ours was more intensive because it reunited students who will study MA or PHD programs taught in Chinese, starting with September this year; so a lot had to be done in a short amount of time.

My colleagues

Most of my colleagues were Asians, with Indonesia representing the largest group. South Korea was also very well represented; the Koreans were usually the performers in their classes because they were very hard working and the cultural similarities between their country and China allows them to assimilate faster.

Although many students from Africa study in China (due to very good relations between China and the African states), I had the feeling that they were slightly underrepresented at NNU. I think that has to do with the fact that many of them prefer the technical universities.

The large majority of my colleagues had CSC or Confucius scholarships.

Vacations and free days

In China, school starts at the beginning of September and ends at the beginning of July. The most important two breaks are the summer vacation, which is 2 months long, and the winter vacation (during the Spring Festival), starting in the middle of January and ending at the beginning of March. Another 1 week break takes place at the beginning of October, when China’s National Day is celebrated. Important holidays are celebrated with a few 1 day breaks. Foreign students usually prefer to travel to China / Asia during the winter vacation and to return to their homes during the summer vacation.

What’s next?

In September this year I will start an MA program in International Trade at Shanghai University of Finance and Economics. Taught in Chinese, of course.

6 Comment

  1. Good luck with your MA, Mihai! 🙂 继续努力学习吧!

  2. Thank you so much dear Ramona! 多谢!

  3. Suer tare experienta! Mult succes la master si asteptam mai multe articole :d !

  4. […] back, I can better understand my teacher from Nanjing Normal University who would, at times, get very angry with us, the foreign students. She was very young and had just […]

  5. I am looking to study there but I needed a review, I’m a worrier in terms of, I don’t like the unknown. You broke everything down comprehensively for me, eased my worries and now I feel more familiar with the strange land. I’m quite over in the Caribbean, it’s a longgggg way from home! So thank you for this!!!!!! All the best in your future endeavors.

    1. Hey Ramona, I am happy it helped! Wish you good luck! I am confident you will enjoy being in China! 加油!

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