Last spring, I spent five months in China on the Chinese government’s dime: I had a Confucius Institute scholarship to study Chinese in Beijing. I’ve written about the confusing application process before, but since I’ve been back in the States I’ve gotten a number of questions about the whole process, and so I wanted to write a recap piece that covers my whole experience.
I should note that by now it’s been a year and a half since I first applied for the scholarship. I suspect that not much has changed, but can’t guarantee it.
What are the Confucius Institute Scholarships?
These scholarships are sponsored by the Confucius Institute Headquarters (so, indirectly, the Chinese government). There are three scholarships: for one semester, two semesters or for a two-year Master’s degree in teaching Chinese as a foreign language. Click here to visit the scholarship website.
The scholarships cover tuition, materials, on-campus accommodation, health care and insurance and a monthly allowance of CNY 1,400 for semester and year students, CNY 1,700 for the Master’s degree students.
When you apply, you can choose which university you would like to study at. Click here for the list of possible universities.
What are the requirements?
The requirements vary based on the study length. For a complete list of the types of scholarships available and the requirements for each type, visit this page.
For one semester of study, applicants have to have either taken and passed at least level 2 of the written HSK exam with a score of at least 120 and scored at least 40 on the elementary level oral HSK exam. Alternatively, people who have taken at least 60 hours of classes at a Confucius Institute are eligible. People aged 16-35 qualify.
For one academic year, applicants have to pass the level 3 written HSK exam with a score of at least 180 and score at least 60 on the elementary HSK oral exam, or have taken 120 hours or more of classes at a Confucius Institute. People aged 16-35 qualify.
The scholarship requirements for those who wish to get a Master’s in teaching Chinese are a little more stringent. These students have to pass the HSK level 5 with a score of at least 180 and pass the intermediate oral HSK with a score of at least 60. Also, you have to commit to teaching Chinese for 5 years after graduation.
Based on my experiences, these are the documents you had to provide as part of the application:
- Your passport
- Your HSK results – written and oral!
- Your transcripts or diploma from your highest-level degree.
- If you have every studied in China, some sort of document or certificate to prove it.
- An essay about your experiences learning Chinese and why you want to study in China
- A LETTER OF RECOMMENDATION from your Chinese teacher – I got the impression that if this letter of recommendation comes from a teacher at a Confucius Institute, it carries a bit more weight.
- A scanned copy of your signature.
Here are the problems and issues I ran in to when I was completing the application.
- The Confucius Institute in Portland told me that I did not need to take the oral HSK to qualify for the scholarships, but in fact you do. So I had to scramble to take one at the last minute.
- There was some sort of error in the essay input field. Although the instructions said to write an essay that was at least 800 characters, the input field asked for an essay no more than 800 characters. For some reason, it wouldn’t accept the essay until I had cut the essay down to around 400 characters.
- The first page of the on-line application provides an extensive list of the documents you will need to fill out the application – scanned copies of your passport, your transcripts, your signature (to sign the application digitally), your HSK results and your essay. It made no mention of a recommendation. I had to get a very last-minute recommendation because I didn’t realize I needed one until the very last minute.
- If you have ever studied in China before, you have to submit a scanned ‘proof’ of the course you participated in. I did a five-week Chinese language course in Beijing in 2007, and miraculously I had my certificate from that program handy.
Note that the drop-down menus for stuff like the universities you are applying to study at is all in Chinese only. Not a big problem for me but might be for some people.
The application was due at the beginning of April, winners were supposed to be notified by July 1 (but I didn’t get notified until around July 20th).
Yay, I was accepted! But I was accepted at the Capital University of Economics and Business – not one of the universities I applied for. No big deal – if I were to do it again, I would have applied for as many universities as possible. In retrospect, it seems stupid to have applied for the two most famous universities in China (that’s what I did) when the university didn’t really matter to me.
The only problem was that I had applied to study in the spring, and my acceptance letter said I was accepted to study in the fall. A couple frantic e-mails and phone calls to China later, I had things worked out. Note, however, that if you’re planning on starting the program in the fall, you won’t get your acceptance paperwork until mid-July, and you need to arrive in China by the first week of September. That’s not a lot of time, especially because you will need to apply for a visa, get your plane tickets, figure out what happening with your house while you’re gone and prepare yourself mentally for a Chinese adventure!
You’ll need a visa to study in China. In the United States – and I believe most other countries as well – that means you need to apply in person at a Chinese consulate. In my case, I had to take a week-long trip to San Francisco (12 hours by car or a 1.5 hour flight). If you don’t live near a Chinese consulate, you can also hire a service to do this for you, but it is quite expensive, so expensive that it was actually cheaper for me to fly to San Francisco and do it myself (but I wasn’t missing work and I had a friend to stay with while I was there).
Living in China
I arrived in Beijing during some of the worst air pollution the city had ever seen, and I immediately started freaking out. Sure, I had read about air pollution and I’d been to Beijing before, in 2007. But this was extreme! Luckily it cleared up after a couple of days and never got as bad as it was when I first arrived, but in the future I would take air pollution concerns much more seriously. Some research revealed that Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, is the Chinese city with the cleanest air that also speaks Mandarin, not Cantonese. We ended up visiting Kunming in July before heading home, and if we go back to China, that’s where we’ll go.
My husband came to China with me, which meant that I couldn’t stay in the dorms provided by my scholarship. I tried to convince them otherwise, but the no amount of pleading would make them allow my husband to stay in the dorms – so we rented an apartment (actually a room in an apartment, we had a roommate). I kept my dorm and used it as an office.
If both you and your spouse are applying for a Confucius Institute scholarship, you might have better luck. I met a couple from Ecuador that was studying at the same university, and they shared a dorm room. They said that they were able to get that arrangement by showing their marriage certificate and because both the husband and wife were studying on scholarship. If you can make an arrangement like that work, it will save you quite a bit of money, since rent in some Chinese cities (including Beijing) is actually quite high – about the same or maybe a bit higher than in Portland, Oregon.
My dorm room included internet access (not wifi, only through an ethernet cable), a private bathroom, TV and heat and AC. It was a double room, but I didn’t have a roommate. The rooms are small and not luxurious.
There was a washing machine on each floor, as well as a kitchen. The kitchen, though, was just a room with a hot plate and a sink. No oven. No real stove. No fridge. So if cooking is important to you and you’re in the dorms, you’ll have to be creative.
The dorms also have strict visiting hours and security people who check to make sure that everyone coming in and out actually lives in the dorms. So there was no chance of seeking my husband in.
When I started the semester, I had to take a placement test. The first class was a little to easy, and I was able to talk my way into a more difficult class, which I think allowed me to make much better use of my time in China. I would absolutely advise that you get placed in the most difficult class possible.
My classes were from 8:30 am to 12:00 pm Monday through Friday. There was extra-curricular activities like Tai Chi and exam prep classes offered in the afternoons, but I didn’t take advantage of those classes because I was working on so many different projects that I really didn’t have time, and since I didn’t live on campus it was a little harder to do activities in the afternoons.
The classes started the first week of March and ended the last week in June. I had a strangely difficult time getting information about the schedule – like when classes would end. The acceptance letter I got that I used to get the visa said that the classes when through July, without giving a specific day in July. When I asked, I was told that classes went through July 12. The end of year ceremony, after the end of all the classes, was actually on July 5th. So be flexible!
What would I do differently if I did it again?
- I would go to a second-tier city like Chengdu, Xian or Kunming instead of Beijing.
- I would do serious research about the air pollution levels in different cities in China before deciding which city to go to.
- I would spend more time studying and less time working on other work projects (but I needed to make money!)
- I would spend more time learning to cook. Pursuing your interests is important, and I don’t think I did a good enough job of that in China.
What did I do well?
- My husband and I lived in an excellent neighborhood that had a lot of charm, was near restaurants and was convenient to transportation. Living in a good location is essential to your experience abroad, and we did a great job of finding a good place to live (although there were other less-than-ideal things about our living situation)
- I had a class that challenged me.
- I discovered a tea shop where I would go to chat with the owners and learn about tea. I am fascinated by Chinese tea culture. I’ve always been a tea drinker but never a sophisticated one, so this was a great experience. Oh, and it was free to sit there, chat and drink tea as long as I wanted, as long as I bought tea occasionally.
- I had a good balance between traveling and exploring China and being settled and taking advantage of Beijing. It’s a huge city and I only scratched the surface in 5 months.
Have more questions or comments about the Confucius Institute Scholarships? Leave a comment!