RHODES University's decision to start offering Chinese studies four years ago is helping to turn what many perceive as a colonial establishment into something with more universal appeal.
With China Week in full swing in Grahamstown, organiser Prof Marius Vermaak said offering Chinese studies at the renowned school of languages' Confucius Institute had resulted in a beneficial overlap with several other academic departments and disciplines.
According to Vermaak, who is the Confucius Institute director, China had become a very important part of this process. The institute is the second one established in South Africa and has been followed by the launch of a Chinese cultural centre across the road from the university.
Opened officially last night, the Chinese government-funded centre is similar to global cultural outreaches initiated by France and other countries and has resulted in Rhodes twinning with a top Chinese university, Jinan.
"China is a global superpower and it would be irresponsible for us to send graduates into the world who do not know or understand this," Vermaak said.
The centre boasts a library, reading room, open space and offices open for anyone to walk in and find out more about Chinese culture.
According to Vermaak, the institute is fully integrated with Rhodes through its Chinese studies programme, which is university accredited and offers Chinese studies as a major in the university's school of languages. They have also applied for the course to be extended to honours level.
Rhodes school of languages head Prof Russell H Kaschula said Chinese studies had grown to the extent 40 students were now being accepted into first year with several choosing the course as a major subject. "Many of our students also end up working in China."
Topics highlighted this week range from traditional medicine to world famous Chinese ceramics, textiles and art – some of which are at the Albany Natural History Museum and the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum.
Albany curator Fleur Way-Jones said a stash of ancient Chinese textiles believed to date back as far as the 1840s, was discovered last year in a box which had been mislabelled as "furnishings" – just in time to be displayed this week.