Profile: Most influential woman in Chinese education

Championing Western Education in ChinaMadame Xu Yafen

China is on a major drive to radically overhaul its entire education sector, from pre-primary to tertiary levels. Instead of rote-learning and long classroom hours, it wants more play-time and opportunities for youthful citizens to unlock their creative flair. In short: it wants an education system that looks like they do in the developed western world.

This is a gargantuan task, as you might expect of the nation that has roughly 25m university students and ambitious plans to keep growing this number exponentially in its new phase of economic development. It’s also a delicate process when you consider China would like all the benefits of a western style education without any of the social challenges often associated with individuals schooled in critical thinking.

Playing a leading role in steering China towards a new, and potentially risky, education system is Madame Xu Yafen, a successful businesswoman in Ningbo. Of course, Ningbo is familiar to many as the site of the pioneering work in Chinese education. This is the city that embraced the concept of allowing the first Sino-foreign university to operate in China: The University of Nottingham Ningbo China provides a British, English language education and confers UK degrees at the heart of the industrialised east coast province of Zhejiang.

Opened nine years ago as a pilot project, the university has paved the way for dozens of other Sino-foreign universities and a sea change in the provision of Chinese education – essential as China continues to ‘open up’ to the world. New York University Shanghai is preparing for its first student intake as are several other new international universities in China, thanks in no small part to the groundwork by Mme Xu and her team.

Entrepreneur

Mme Xu, chair of the Zhejiang Wanli Education Group, is recognised as the person who got things moving in education here in Ningbo and in China: first through a successful chain of driving schools, in Ningbo, and later developing her organisation on the academic side. Well-connected and committed to improving education in China, Mme Xu has a lot of firsts to her name.

She ran the first private kindergarten, junior, middle and senior schools in Ningbo in which pupils were exposed to a western style of education. She agreed to open the first international school in Ningbo in response to the growing number of foreigners working in the fast-developing area.

She developed the successful Wanli University to cater for bright students who, for various reasons, couldn’t access quality education through the country’s usual college entrance system. Wanli has roughly 20,000 students and a host of student exchange links with universities around the world.

Mme Xu has received many accolades for her remarkable pioneering work in education. These include two honorary law doctorates: one from the University of Dundee in Scotland (she is the only Chinese person to receive such an award from that university up to the time of writing); the other from The University of Nottingham. Mme Xu has received China’s special March 8 award reserved for its top women pioneers, and has also accepted Zhejiang’s equivalent.

The photographs on the walls of her comfortable, but unostentatious, downtown offices bear testimony to her contributions to China’s development. She regularly welcomes the city and province’s top leaders to tour Wanli’s school and university interests.

Mme Xu has also engaged with international political leaders. Pictures of her with former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair are among the many frames above her guest couch.

Social connections

A petite, attractive woman who often wears tailored suits with traditional Chinese touches, Mme Xu is an extraordinary figure in China’s power circles. For starters, women are few and far between in the upper echelons of politics and business in China, even though it has a proud history of championing gender equality as part of its communist agenda.

Then there’s that all-important issue of family lineage. Mme Xu’s parents were peasants who gave her a loving home but had nothing to offer in the way of money or influential friends and relatives. In China, deep-rooted family connections built up through generations provide the backbone for the intricate and relatively small network of players who call the shots in its massive economy.

Everyone knows that without guanxi, or social capital, it’s hard to get ahead in China. Like financial capital, it helps if you’re born with a healthy helping of it, something Mme Xu didn’t get.

She also never received a formal tertiary education. Growing up in the Mao Zedong-inspired cultural revolution years was as tough for her as it was for anyone her generation: little food, no luxuries, and a life of hardship by all accounts.

Giving Mme Xu an advantage, however, were an abiding passion for learning and a gritty determination to succeed against all odds.  She tells of how she knitted socks in exchange for borrowed books to feed her voracious appetite for knowledge and literature.

She educated herself through China’s television university shows, paying special attention to psychology and pedagogy, and ultimately securing a job as a school principal. It was doing this job that Mme Xu realised that China needed to dramatically reform its education system and felt deeply moved to do her bit.

‘Children in the Chinese system work for long hours, doing homework late into the night. There isn’t a culture of working smart,’ she reflects.

Mme Xu quickly figured out that she was going to have to build connections herself, her in-depth studies on how humans think undoubtedly useful in shaping her engagements. She demonstrated her commitment to her country through her service to the Communist Party of China and its consultative committee, regularly making suggestions about educational reform throughout the years.

Strategist

Timing, she emphasises, is essential if you want to make progress in China. ‘Look at it like you do a rooster. If the rooster crows at 4 a.m., it is too early; 7 a.m. is too late. I had the idea about a Sino-foreign university very early, but I had to get the timing right.’

The right time, she says, came soon after China was admitted as a member of the World Trade Organisation in 2001. ‘We could persuade our leaders that this was the right time to open the university because the globalisation of China had entered a new phase,’ explains Mme Xu.

Discussions with The University of Nottingham followed. The University had just appointed the UK’s first-ever Chinese Chancellor, Professor Yang Fujia, and his home town was Ningbo, so it was an obvious first choice.

Like any new organisation, The University of Nottingham Ningbo China had some teething problems. And, as you can imagine, merging two large entities whose people are of vastly different cultures potentially comes with additional challenges.

But, reflects Mme Xu, the partnership between Wanli and Nottingham has continued to grow from strength to strength. ‘Our co-operation has been excellent. A key feature is that both partners have very clear jobs and obligations. Wanli does all the collaboration with the government and takes care of services, for example, while Nottingham handles the academic side of the operation,’ she says.

Leadership style

Of her own role as chairperson of The University of Nottingham Ningbo China, she says, ’Trust is important. I delegate responsibilities and rights to key staff members so that they can fully handle the management of people and property. I never interfere.’

On occasions where there might be some difficulties that require her intervention, Mme Xu says that in some instances she turns to Chinese proverbs and literature for guidance on how to deal with tricky social situations – for example managing a large, fragile male ego. ‘In Chinese literature they say men are like a mountain, women are like water. Water is seen as gentle but not as powerful, but it is persistent,’ she says.

‘As a woman I don’t give orders; that would make men angry and more argumentative. I look for opportunities to explain and make others fully understand, and I talk about things that need to be improved in private,’ says Mme Xu.

Western textbooks have also proved valuable. ‘I read Dale Carnegie. I try to live to the ideal that leadership is service. So, I never tell my team what to do. I focus on solving problems and providing service to those in management roles,’ she says.

Personal life

Mme Xu is, by all accounts, a workaholic. She has been known, for example, to mutter under her breath her desire for a lavish evening banquet to end early so that she can get back to her desk.

Nevertheless, she takes some time out of her schedule to keep trim and fit by doing her tai chi exercises in public parks, as is the custom for women her generation. She enjoys occasional visits to Australia, where her adult son is a successful businessman in his own right. And, she always finds time for her mother-in-law.

Evidently a diplomat in all spheres, Mme Xu has this message for any successful career woman who wants to keep her home life harmonious: ‘The family is not the place to say who is right and who is wrong. At home, the husband is always right and his mother is always right.

‘You must always treat your mother-in-law well. I never forget to buy gifts for my mother-in-law,’ she adds, with a mischievous twinkle in her eye.

By Jackie Cameron; Translated by Lu Jie. This article was first published in China’s bilingual Ningbo Focus magazine in 2012. Got a story idea or profile suggestion for Jackie Cameron? Write to jackiecameron.uk@gmail.com.

 专栏

Tireless campaigner for major education reform, Mme Xu Yafen takes time out of her busy schedule in her home city of Ningbo in China's prosperous east coast province of Zhejiang.

Tireless campaigner for major education reform, Mme Xu Yafen takes time out of her busy schedule in her home city of Ningbo in China’s prosperous east coast province of Zhejiang.

保卫中国的西方教育

作者:Jackie Hadland

翻译:吕洁

中国西式教育的领先者

徐亚芬女士专访:在中国教育改革历程中一位执着的女性,宁波诺丁汉大学创办的中国合作方。

中国目前无论是从学前教育还是到高等教育阶段正经历着大改革。与传统的机械式学习及漫长的课堂时间相比,中国的孩子更需要玩耍的时间以及发挥创造力的机会。简而言之:中国需要一种与西方发达国家所相仿的教育体系。

这是一项工程浩大的任务:在中国有将近2500万大学生,并且随着经济的发展,大学生人数规模还将增加。这也是一个十分细致的进程,因为中国在希望从西方教育体系中获益的同时,也希望不要因为接受西方批判性思维的教育而引发社会方面的挑战。

徐亚芬是浙江省宁波市一名成功的职业女性,她在中国教育体制改革方面起到了引领的作用。尽管宁波在国际上的知名度不高,但是这个城市的人口规模与伦敦相仿,集中了中国一些最具有财富的精英。

对于诺丁汉的市民来说,宁波不是一个陌生的地方,这是因为宁波在中国教育领域具有先锋地位:中国第一所中外合作大学宁波诺丁汉大学就在这个城市诞生。宁波诺丁汉大学提供英式教育,全英文授课,同时授予毕业生英国的学位。

宁波诺丁汉大学创建已有8年,她为中国后来的中外合作大学充当了开路先锋,并影响了中国相关教育法规的变化。这对于中国进一步对外开放是非常重要的。上海纽约大学也将开始在中国招生,中国也有其他一些中外合作大学也将揭幕。中国中外合作大学的兴起,都离不开徐亚芬女士在此领域打下的基础。

徐亚芬女士是浙江省万里教育集团的董事长,她推动了宁波及中国教育事业的发展:徐亚芬女士最初在宁波成功创办了汽车驾驶学校,之后又在教育领域创办了不同的机构,在推进中国教育事业进程方面,徐亚芬女士创造了许多第一。

她创办了中国第一所西方教学风格特色的幼儿园、小学及中学,并且创建了宁波第一所国际学校,解决在该市工作的外籍人士子女入学的问题。

徐亚芬女士成功地创办了万里学院,使更多的中国学子得以接受高等教育。万里学院目前有2万名学生,与世界各国的众多大学建立了合作关系。

徐亚芬女士由于在教育领域的出色成就获得了众多荣誉。这些包括了两项荣誉法学博士学位:一个是由英国丹迪大学颁发的(她是唯一一个接受此大学荣誉博士学位的中国人),另一个是由英国诺丁汉大学颁发的。同时,徐亚芬女士还是中国的三八红旗手,这个荣誉是授予中国的女性先锋人物,同时也在浙江省获得了很高的荣誉。

徐亚芬女士办公室十分舒适,但是又非常朴素。办公室有一个照片墙,记载了她对中国教育发展作出的贡献。从照片可以看出,她经常接待中国及浙江省的高层领导到万里的中小学及大学考察。

徐亚芬女士与国际政治领袖也有所接触。在她办公室会客沙发的上方墙上有一张照片是她与英国前首相托尼布莱尔的合影。

徐亚芬女士身材娇小,相貌美丽,经常喜欢穿中国风格的定制服装,她在中国具有影响力的人士圈子里可谓十分独特。在中国,尽管主张男女平等,妇女还是很难进入政治及商业圈子的上层

徐亚芬女士的父母都是农民,他们为她创造了一个充满爱的家庭,但并不能为她提供金钱或者权势的资源。在中国,错综复杂的家族关系有时会创造人际的支撑。

每个人都了解,没有关系或者社会资源,要在中国领先是困难的。比如,拥有财富能使人自出生以来就有优势,而徐亚芬女士并没有这样的优势。她甚至没有接受正式的大学教育。在毛泽东时代,特别文革时代,她和许多同龄人一样,食物匮乏,没有奢侈品,生活充满艰辛。

然而,徐亚芬女士之所以有今天的成就,得益于她对知识的渴求及顽强的意志。她谈到当年自己是如何织袜子来借书,以此满足自己对知识的渴望。

徐亚芬女士上了电大,通过自学学习了许多知识,她特别对心理学和教育学感兴趣,最终成为了一名校长。正式因为做了这份工作,徐亚芬女士意识到中国需要在教育制度方面进行大刀阔斧的改革,并期望能通过自己的努力作出一点贡献。

“中国的孩子读书太苦了,每天晚上作业都要做得很晚。这不是一种明智的办法。”她说。徐亚芬女士指出,她希望利用自己的社会联系,通过深入的调研来进行呼吁。徐亚芬女士是一名党员,也是政协委员,她多年来经常就教育改革提出自己的建议。

徐亚芬女士强调,在中国要取得成功,时机非常重要。“就好象一只公鸡,如果凌晨四点就鸣叫那就太早。如果七点才叫又太晚。我很早就有创办中外合作大学的想法,但我必须等到合适的时机才可以行动。”

她说,在2001年中国加入世贸组织后,她感觉到这个时机到了。“我们可以说服领导,现在是创办中外合作大学的正确实际,因为中国的全球化进程进入了一个新的阶段。”她解释道。

当时,英国诺丁汉大学聘任了历史上第一位中国人杨福家教授为校长。杨校长的家乡在宁波,因此英国诺丁汉大学应该是一个最好的选择。

和许多新的机构一样,宁波诺丁汉大学初创办时也遇到这样那样的问题。正如大家可以想象到的,把两个文化背景完全不同的实体联合起来,一定会遇到潜在的挑战。

但是,徐亚芬女士表示,万里和诺丁汉这一对合作伙伴的关系正日益紧密。“我们的合作非常好。主要的一个原因就是合作双方分工明确。万里负责与政府的协调,并提供服务,而诺丁汉大学则负责教学。”

作为宁波诺丁汉大学的理事长,徐亚芬女士认为“信任是非常重要的。我对学校的管理人员充分授权,这样他们把人财物都能管理好。我从不干涉。”

对于有时发生的需要她介入的问题,徐亚芬女士用中国的一些文化来举了例子,尤其如何在以男性为主导的社会中把事情处理好:“中国人常把男性比做山,女性比做水。水看起来非常温柔,并不强大,但水非常有韧性。”“作为一名女性,我不喜欢发号施令。这会使男性感到不快。我总是寻找机会去解释,让别人理解,如果有需要对方改进的,我也在个人的场合和他说。”

西方的哲学对徐亚芬女士也颇有帮助:“我爱看卡耐基的书。我相信领导就是服务,所以我从来不命令我的团队去做什么。我关注的是如何帮助我们的管理人员解决问题,为他们提供服务。”

徐亚芬女士对工作十分热爱,有时她回嘀咕人们花在晚宴的时间太长了,巴望能早点结束,这样可以回去处理公事。尽管如此,她还是抽出时间保持她优美的体形,比如在公园打太极,这也是她这个年龄的女性非常喜欢的。她很喜欢去澳大利亚,因为她的儿子在那边,事业发展得非常好。她也经常抽时间陪陪婆婆。

作为一名各方面完美的外交家,徐亚芬女士想对成功的职业女性建议,一定要使家庭生活和谐。“家里不是论理的地方。在家里,老公总是对的,婆婆总是对的。”

“一定要对婆婆好。我每次出差都不忘记给婆婆买礼物。”徐亚芬女士说道,眼睛里闪着调皮的光。

 

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3 thoughts on “Profile: Most influential woman in Chinese education

  1. Pingback: Worst day of my life: Flashback in China | jackiecamerondotcom

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