Conducting research in China is a relatively easy task for academics today. Scholars seeking to further investigate their research field in the country have a number of options to get started:
- agreements between foreign and Chinese universities,
- scholarships provided by the Chinese Ministry of Education,
- specific programs for researchers
But this is by no means all the options available. You can also apply for a “visiting scholar” position with an easy-to-obtain invitation letter from a Chinese academic institution. This allows you to undertake a self-funded period of research.
If you need a place to stay while you’re studying, Chinese university campuses normally offer a variety of rooms and flat for different fees. Accommodation may also be included in the agreements for study or scholarships. Off-campus housing is abundant for those willing to spend a bit more.
The country has made some major investments in academic research as part of its attempts to expand its influence globally and it’s the researchers that reap the benefits and every field of research will have access to a wide variety of source material. Universities of all sizes have their own libraries and in some cases departments will also have their own libraries.
Off-campus, researchers will most likely have access to national or city libraries (such as the National Library of China in Beijing or the Shanghai Library in Shanghai). These institutions have a wealth of volumes, ancient and modern, including manuscripts. However, thanks to China’s ‘construction fever’, it’s entirely possible that the university library will be under renovation when you visit. If not, you’ll find the buildings comfortable, modern and, in accordance with Chinese building standards, huge.
Access all areas – how to request material in a Chinese library
Accessing city libraries in larger cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing is relatively simple, requiring little more than a flash of your passport and a deposit toward a library card. The card will allow you to access the basic library services such as checking databases and online catalogues, consulting and borrowing materials and so on. The rules are fairly strict when entering reading rooms: no bags, no drinks, only electronic devices (pc, smartphones, tablets etc.).
Almost all libraries have digital databases or online catalogues to look up specific source material (periodicals, books, manuscripts etc.). In Shanghai Library, for example, it is possible to read most of the modern books in digital format by downloading them from their system. In other libraries, you may need to apply to see certain volumes by filling in forms with the cataloguing data. This may appear to be a chore, but the libraries’ delivery systems are relatively quick. It can be difficult to access manuscripts or ancient books, but you may have the chance to see them in microfilm format.
In some of these libraries, Nanjing for instance, they have open shelves, so you can take what you need and read it freely. Just remember that you’re not supposed to put it back on the shelves when you’re done; the library staff will do it for you.
If you are not a student at an institution with all the student library card perks that entails, you might find the situation a bit tricky. Some universities – like Peking University – make life easy, requiring visitors to register using their passport for a one-day pass, which grants the entrance and access to library services. Other institutions, such as Tsinghua University, are more selective: you will require a Tsinghua University student to act as a guarantor and referee. Many other university libraries will require a letter from your tutor or university to prove the nature of your studies and need to use the library. Hong Kong University Library abides by this system, requiring a tutor letter, Hong Kong ID or passport and motivation letter.
The services offered by University libraries for researchers are quite similar to those provided by City libraries. In general, they all have online catalogues, archive databases and a number of online services connected to the library card, which include reading and borrowing requests.
The borrowing rules
As a foreigner, you may find that you’re not always eligible to take books off library premises. City libraries, such as the National Library of China in Beijing, do not usually allow foreign nationals to take books outside of the library. At some libraries, this rule can be dodged by paying a deposit (the Shanghai Library uses this system). University libraries will allow you to borrow books as long as you are a student of the same institution, usually for one month.
If removing the books is not an option, you might want to consider other ways to reproduce the material you need. The easiest and cheapest way is to take pictures using a camera or a smartphone. If you are allowed to bring books out for even a short period, find one of the copyshops that are ubiquitous on university campuses. Regardless of China’s sketchy copyright laws, they will happily reproduce an entire volume for around one mao (1p) per page. If this fails, you may still be allowed to photocopy or scan paper books, digital volumes and microfilm to put on a USB or CD. The service is not free but is still cheap compared to what you’ll pay back home. Just to give an example, the National Library of China charges just 200 yuan (£19) for a 200-page publication.
Refuge from the chaos
As a general rule, Chinese libraries are a comfortable and convenient environment for researchers to focus on studies. Take a leaf from the local students’ books – they seem to use the spaces as relaxing, peaceful places to de-stress and take a load off from the traffic and crowds in the street outside.