Sal Widdicombe with permission for Varsity

On a hot summer’s day in 1842, Cambridge University’s first Professor of Chinese sailed down the Yangtze River on a gunboat. A pioneer in Sinology and great appreciator of Chinese language, yet simultaneously an Imperialist during his service in the Opium Wars, Sir Thomas Wade is a perfect illustration of the AMES (Asian and Middle Eastern Studies) Faculty’s complex relationship with ‘the East’.

In the AMES Faculty today it’s easy to think that this uncomfortable past is behind us. We’re proud that while the Other Place still has Oriental Studies, Cambridge renamed its course Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (AMES). Edward Saïd’s masterpiece Orientalism is a cornerstone of any wide-eyed fresher’s reading list. Its thesis, that Western stereotypes about ‘the East’ are actually a harmful form of intellectual power that he dubs ‘Orientalism’, is universally averred by AMES mandarins.

The Faculty, and society more broadly, have come far. William Skillend recounts in Fifty years of Japanese at Cambridge how Japanese lecturers that taught in the faculty in the 50s suffered racial abuse. John Everard, a student here in the 70s, told me how Oriental Studies was still an inherently exotic, outlandish pursuit. But the postmodernist movement that spawned Orientalism ignited a new self-awareness in students across the country who increasingly opposed old attitudes. When Prince Philip made his infamous “slitty eyes” comment to my father and his Edinburgh University course-mates, then on their Year Abroad in Xi’an in 1986, they reported him to The Times in outrage. When Rachel Coyle MBE was here in 2002, she remembers the Faculty being well on the road to a self-critical perspective, and by 2013 Orientalism had become a cornerstone of the syllabus. The very willingness to accept its critiques indicates intellectual maturity.


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But there is still a way to go. The Faculty has arguably trivialised Orientalism by teaching it in a performative way. James Darsley (Japanese Studies) says he was encouraged to routinely cite Orientalism for “a few extra points in the bag”, while Sam Barber (Chinese Studies) told me it was brought up so much that it sometimes stifled free discussion. Grace Malcolm (Japanese Studies) adds that we were “encouraged to… connect basically everything back to it… so much that it eventually defeats the point”. This leads into the larger problems of AMES. The very fact that it is separate from the Modern and Medieval Languages course (MML, a course exclusively reserved for European languages) denies non-European languages equal status. Most of the students in my cohort see this arbitrary distinction as Orientalist in itself.

An AMES student I talked to from the 2010s remembered the course distorting Asian cultures by focusing on overly niche areas that reflected specific interests of Western academics. However, this is not necessarily the Faculty’s fault. In a society with few AMES experts, the Faculty must hire whoever’s available, regardless of how esoteric their specialties are. This leads into the broader, continuing problem of understaffing. Many students, myself included, have DoSes (Directors of Studies) who specialise in completely unrelated languages, depriving us of basic support simply because there aren’t enough Chinese professors. One classmate told me that her DoS has “literally no idea about Chinese or my course – it’s like I don’t have a DoS at all”. Such understaffing is exacerbated by the AMES degree’s marginalised position within the University, made clear when I was told our course would get second dibs on the new Chinese Politics professor to be preferentially assigned to HSPS.

“The very fact that it is separate from the Modern and Medieval Languages course denies non-European languages equal status”

Many AMES students feel this marginalisation extends to student attitudes. Sam, Grace and others told me that practically nobody knew about AMES, and while a lot of people showed well-meaning interest, some made fun of our ‘pointless’ course. While people can’t be blamed – the Faculty is small – it does indicate a Eurocentric attitude and is a direct consequence of relegating the majority of the world’s languages to a small and under-resourced department. This has led many to call for the merging of AMES with MML, which would increase both resources and the profile of non-European languages. In the words of a course-mate, maybe if the faculties were merged, the MML Faculty’s Year Abroad support network could benefit AMES students whose departments don’t help much. James agrees – “if the people in charge actually cared about Orientalism, rather than simply changing the name of the Oriental Studies faculty, they would have erased this divide between ‘normal’ and ‘Asian’ languages long ago.”

But we mustn’t be quick to assign blame. Ben Symes, who switched courses when the Faculty couldn’t accommodate his language level, attributed this lack of resources to scarcity of experts in society at large. Indeed, statistics from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show a mere 336 students enrolling in Chinese Studies courses in the UK in 2020, a country of 67 million (for comparison, Chinese is spoken by 1.3 billion people).

The Faculty does do many things well. Tom Gregory (Arabic Studies) was joined by Rahma Zaid and many others in his praise for the quality of language teaching, and there are encouraging signs that AMES is becoming more prominent. According to admissions statistics from 2013-2023, more students are applying to AMES and fewer to MML, hopefully indicating a rise in the relative standing of non-European languages. Whilst this goes only so far in addressing the problems that exist, we can’t forget that any progress is a good thing. Even something as small as renaming a faculty is progress. “Oriental is more than a word, Sal,” my half-Chinese mother reminds me, remembering the overt racism of her schooling in Australia. “For Asians it represents our colonial experience. At least Cambridge showed the sensitivity to change – I’m glad you’re not at Oxford!”