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.


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.


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


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.


作者:Jackie Hadland


































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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