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Watching College Promo Videos In Beijing: Peking University V. Yale

China's latest source of national soul-searching centers around a public debate on the contrast between promotional videos for two of the world's best-known universities: Peking and Yale universities. A window into two very different nat

Peking University's lake and pagoda (ML_Duong)
Peking University's lake and pagoda (ML_Duong)

BEIJING - In the past few days, China's netizens have found a new source of online amusement. They have been sharing and comparing the promotional video of Peking University (known familiarly in China as Bei-Da) with that of Yale University in the United States. The Bei-Da clip triggered praise from tens of thousands of bloggers, but also much criticism.

In response to the criticism, Chen Yu, an associate professor of the university's Institute of Arts, who was responsible for directing the video, pointed out that the Peking promo is designed to reflect the ethos of Chinese literati passing the torch, whereas Yale's is essentially a publicity campaign to attract enrollment from all over the world. They are, thus, not to be compared.

Nevertheless, putting the two videos side-by-side gives one a precise glimpse of a university's spirit – and perhaps, the character and temperament of a nation.

While the Chinese clip shows a reserved style, the American one is full of passion. If the former is like a Chinese ink painting, the latter is like a Broadway musical. Several bloggers have declared that this is the demonstration of how the East and the West interpret their cultural differences.

Indeed, Chinese culture pays attention rather to the idea that "Great music is faintly heard. Great form has no contour" – a gem of philosophy from Lao Tse. For those not accustomed to dealing with Taoist wisdom, the explanation is that the most beautiful things are integrated with nature, thus it's a realm well beyond publicity.

Otherwise, one might simply see in the Peking clip the values of conservatism and tradition -- while one sees in the Yale clip the personal freedom, innovation and pioneering spirit that the West is so attached to. Different market positioning in shooting the films naturally produced different visions.

To be honest, although I enjoy both clips, I, nevertheless, prefer the Yale one for the fact that it reflects what truly is a world-class university.

As a film of self-expression, a university's clip is its mirror. The Bei-Da promo reflects the deep imprint of conventional and institutional Chinese culture, thus its video won't be too unexpected in content. Even though it is creative in its artistic form and idea, it remains essentially imbued with Chinese characteristics.

As for the Yale clip, it is subject to the profound impact of American culture where liveliness, unique perspective, surprise effects, people-oriented thinking and freedom are the core.

State within a state

In brief, what is reflected in the Yale video is the spirit and educational philosophy that a university should hold: freedom of thought, a spirit of independence, and freedom of academy. It aims to attract the best students of the world. And this is the basic cause of the Chinese bloggers' critical comparison of the two videos.

Yale is the third oldest college of America. It was established 75 years before the birth of the nation. Yale shows fully and vividly its essential characteristics: student-centered, academically free, multi-cultural, well-rounded in its development and independent in its thinking. The film was shot by the students with neither guidance nor interference from the school. We don't see any executive vice-president's name like we do at the end of Peking University video.

This core spirit of freedom and independence has been universal through the ages. Even Cai Yuanpei, the first principal of Peking University, as well as a prominent thinker whose influence led to the May Fourth Movement in China in the early 20th century, advocated "Freedom of thought and inclusiveness of mind" as the school's motto. The past 100 years of ups and downs of Peking University are closely linked with the fate of modern China. It plays a particularly important role in people's minds, not because of its lake or pagoda, as shown in the clip, but because it once proclaimed the enthusiastic pursuit of "Patriotism, Progress, Democracy and Science" in the New Culture Movement (of which the May Fourth Movement was part) 80 years ago.

Karl Jaspers, the famous German philosopher believes that a university is "a state within a state," and should exist relatively independent of society. It should not be subject to secular interference in order to guarantee its free exploration of profound knowledge. "As an institute pursuing truth, a university is to be loyal only to the truth regardless of the intellectual and social consequences; it is to be subject only to the standard of truth, but refuse to obey any authority… A university is the intellectual conscience of an era. It is not to be responsible for realistic politics, because it bears unlimited liability of developing the truth."

Read the original article in Chinese

Photo - ML_Duong

*The author of this article is a lecturer at the Department of Education of China Ocean University

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