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April 13, 2011

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Pupils give As to zesty courses

WAY-OUT college courses are nothing new in the West, but course catalogues for Chinese universities are getting livelier, offering graded electives in sex and society, chatting with strangers and even home economics. Tan Weiyun and Tang Yingxian audit.

It's not uncommon in colleges everywhere to see poker-faced professors droning on, piles of boring papers to finish and students either dozing off or counting every minute until class is out.

That's a stereotype, of course, and there are many popular lectures, but Shanghai universities are trying to make their course catalogues more appealing with "once-unthinkable" courses and useful courses.

These include love and marriage, staying healthy with traditional Chinese medicine and meditation; overcoming shyness and striking up conversations, even how to make friends with girls (this is for awkward, tongue-tied young men).

There's also a course in gemstone and jewelry appreciation for young people who are expected to become consumers in China's luxury market.

And knowing how to spot the best jade and pick the best diamond will be important life skills. In the final, they spot the real thing among eight stones, using microscope and professional tools.

Elsewhere in China there are other unusual courses. At Zhejiang Gongshang (industry and commerce) University, the course "Sex and Society" is always packed with 200 students, eager to talk about the generally taboo topic of sex.

Here are a few in Shanghai.

DIY abstract art

Fudan University

In 2009 Fudan turned a bicycle garage into an open-air gallery for abstract art where student works of painting and sculpture were exhibited.

"Aesthetic Appreciation and Creation of Abstract Art" is taken by around 100 students from varied majors, most of whom have no art experience.

Teacher Xu Deming, who is a certified "first-rate" artist, says the class and periodic art shows are an important step for abstract art in China.

"Our course is based on abstract art, a virgin territory in China. Pursuit of abstract art is the opposite of utilitarianism; that's why it's noble and that (non-utilitarian pursuits) is what our society lacks most right now."

The course is quite rigorous. The students receive training in the weekly class and every semester each is required to turn in two paintings, one photo, one thesis; they must take part in a group discussion and take a final exam.

"Through a semester of this serious work, students can develop their aesthetic appreciation, which can make one's life more vivid and creative," Xu says.

Love and marriage

Dianji (electrical machinery) University

Xu Agen is the "Big Uncle" who helps students overcome various issues related to love and marriage. Students flocked to the class that he began in 2006.

"Many students come to my class in pair - boys take their girlfriends," Xu says

He lectures on topics such as love on campus, how to build mutual trust and respect between lovers and the obligations of husbands and wives to each other.

The most popular part of each class is the Q&A section and students take all sorts of issues to Uncle Xu, some in public, some privately afterward by e-mail and SMS.

Xu has mediated a wide range of disputes and helped students to sort out problems. He comforts broken hearts and listens to people with family troubles and academic pressure. He persuaded a girl with a sexually transmitted infection to go to a legal clinic for a cure.

Some pregnant students ask him for advice. He talks with them and supports their decision.

His advice to everyone: Use a condom.

"I keep secrets for them," Xu says. "I see myself as a close friend, not a teacher."

Healthy living

Shanghai University

"Follow me. Close your eyes, relax and repeat silently in your mind: 'classroom, campus, earth, universe'," teacher Wang Guang from Shanghai University is opening his class about healthy living.

The 90-minute class always begins this way and for 40 minutes the class meditates and then in a relaxed state they follow the teacher and recite each acupuncture point on the human body.

"Traditional Chinese medicine and ancient Chinese philosophy have a great impact on health and it's perfect for Chinese," says Wang after class. "Physical exercise and sports are undoubtedly good for health, but we shouldn't forget our own traditions."

Wang, a martial arts teacher, started the class in 2003, just to give it a try. "But to my great surprise students like it very much," he says. Each session is packed with more than 100 students.

"Silence and peace are what I want my students to get in my class, especially in this busy and noisy world," Wang says.

He guides students in pursuing clarity and peace of mind by relaxing and focusing on the small and the big zhou tian or "worlds." Small zhou tian is the circulation within the body's ren (mind) and du (muscle) channels; the big zhou tian is the circulation of energy from the top of the head to the toes.

"That's the ultimate level we try to reach - absolute peace," says Wang.

Then he takes the class out into the open air and leads students in a considered, carefully regulated stroll on campus.

"It's not a casual walk, we have rules," Wang says. He has students walk carefully in the shape of a figure "8." He says it relaxes the entire body.

Making conversation

East China Normal University

Students on campus occasionally find themselves confronted by an unknown student asking them questions such as "Do you think I am handsome? ... Why doesn't anybody out there love me?"

Scenes like these are not unusual because every semester, students in the course titled "Making Conversation" go up to strangers and strike up a conversation.

They are assigned "crazy homework," according to instructor Zhou Hong. He encourages them to be "more courageous and attractive through practice with strangers in public places."

Many Chinese young people, especially men, are painfully shy in social situations, especially with young women.

On the university BBS bulletin board, many students who took the course described it as one of the most "unforgettable" at the school. They do ridiculous things and stay calm while everyone thinks they're weird.

For instance, some performed the ballet "Dance of Four Little Swans" from "Swan Lake" on the student square; some put on down jackets in summer and started conversations with 10 strangers; almost all students would walk around and "moo" like a cow.


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