China: Language, Cultures, and Ethnic Minorities

Key Features

Dancing with women with bound feet, witnesses to China’s feudalist traditions

Students on the China: Language, Cultures, and Ethnic Minorities program explore the complexity of China's social groups and develop a deeper understanding of the key social, environmental, economic, and cultural issues at work in minority communities.

Highlights include:

  • Initial program orientation in Kunming and the traditional town of Tonghai at the foot of a Buddhist Mountain
  • Living alongside Chinese students at Yunnan Nationalities University
  • Daily taiji exercise
  • Day trips to historical and cultural sites
  • Special activities with living Buddha and Dongba shamans
  • Small group intensive language study
  • Educational excursion to Beijing and visits to the Great Wall and Forbidden City
  • The Yunnan Exploration Project (self-designed small group or individual travel opportunity)
  • Homestay in Kunming
  • Minority areas field excursion to Dali, Lijiang, and Shangri-La, with a rural homestay in the Bai minority village of Shaxi
  • The Independent Study Project (ISP) or continued Chinese language study in lieu of the ISP
  • Final evaluation at the Stone Forest and Jiuxiang Cave area

Each program component exposes students to the complex and varied challenges and opportunities faced by China’s ethnic minority groups. Students engage with a broad array of knowledge centers, and lecturers are drawn from a wide variety of local institutions and organizations.

Institutions we work with include:

  • Yunnan Nationalities University (Yunnan Minzu University)
  • Yunnan University
  • Yunnan Normal University
  • Yunnan Social Science Academy
  • Yunnan Art Institute
  • Kunming Science and Technology University
  • The Nature Conservancy
  • Family Health International
  • HIV/AIDS Asia Regional Project, Australia
  • Kunming Medical College
  • Yunnan Traditional Chinese Medicine Hospital
  • The Lijiang Dongba Cultural Research Institute
  • Shaxi Rehabilitation Project
  • Shangri-La Association of Tibetan Culture Preservation
  • Beijing University
  • Qinghua University
  • Central Nationalities University

Wenfengsi Lecture

Kunming
The program is based in Kunming — Yunnan Province’s largest city and political, economic, and cultural center — and includes periods where students live on the campus of Yunnan Nationalities University and in a two-week homestay with families in the city.

Students participate in lectures by local professors, NGO leaders, and other experts in Kunming and during educational site visits to diverse locales. These lectures and excursions help students deepen their understanding of China's cultures and ethnic minorities, as well as the social and economic challenges in this rapidly changing country.

Homestays in the city and frequent interaction with local university students add further complexity and multiple viewpoints to understanding China’s past and local visions for a more global future.

Through intensive language instruction and daily interactions with their host families, students refine their communications skills while becoming acclimated to the local culture. This period provides an introduction to the relevant topical issues China faces today, information students later build upon during their educational excursions and Independent Study Project.

Chinese Language Study
While in Kunming, students undertake 90 class hours of intensive Chinese language study. Students at all skill levels receive training in reading, writing, listening, and speaking Chinese. The program’s academic director and language faculty have completed ACTFL OPI training and are in the process of achieving ACTFL OPI Tester Certification.

Through a combination of traditional classroom learning, cultural immersion on campus, and the practical application of language skills in homestays, during excursions, and throughout the Independent Study Project, students make tremendous progress in their Chinese language skills over the course of the semester.

The language program is distinguished by its excellent teacher-to-student ratio; in addition, SIT students are partnered with Chinese university students so they can practice Chinese with native speakers and apply what they learn in the classroom to the informal conditions of everyday life.

Students wishing to focus on language acquisition specifically may, in lieu of an Independent Study Project, pursue an additional 60 hours of intensive language instruction, for a total of 150 hours (10 credits) for the semester. Students who select the intensive language option during the ISP period participate in intensive and often one-on-one language instruction and agree to abide by the Language Pledge.

Chinese Culture and Ethnic Minorities Seminar
This seminar includes three sections: Chinese history and religions, China’s social issues and arts and humanities, and China’s minority issues. The unique minority issues component of the seminar — including excursions, visits, and exchanges with ethnic minority groups — distinguishes this study abroad program from any other in China. This interdisciplinary seminar explores the relationship between China’s central government and the ethnically diverse minority populations of Yunnan. The interactions inherent in the relationship between China’s “peripheral peoples” and an arguably constructed dominant “Han” culture form a foundation upon which questions of autonomy and identity are brought to life in Yunnan.

Field Methods and Ethics
During this course, students participate in educational excursions throughout Yunnan Province. As Yunnan increasingly becomes a major focus of both domestic and international tourism, students witness the region's struggle to achieve a balance between developed tourist areas, such as Dali and Lijiang, and more remote sites that retain a strong sense of cultural integrity. By living with local families in a rural farming village, students learn about the cultural traditions that define and sustain these diverse communities as well as critical questions related to agricultural systems, social change, and the environment. 

Excursions relate directly to the program's Field Methods and Ethics course, which instructs students on the techniques, methods, and ethics necessary for successful research. Throughout this section of the program, students develop ideas for their Independent Study Project (ISP) and learn to properly refine their research topics through a formal research proposal process.  

Independent Study Project
In the final month of the semester, students undertake either an Independent Study Project (ISP) or additional intensive language training.

The ISP provides students with an opportunity to critically examine a topic, community, or situation related to the program theme.

Previous ISP topics have included:

  • HIV/AIDS in Yunnan Province
  • Minority education
  • Women and employment
  • The Burma Road and World War II in Yunnan
  • Food culture in China
  • Environmental conservation
  • Growth and inequality in modern China
  • Yunnan and southeast Asia
  • Evolution of the free-market system in ethnic minority regions
  • Philosophy and practice of taiji
  • Role of civil society in environmental management
  • Investigation of family and religious practices of the Hui
  • Naxi Dongba shaman practices
  • Structure of the extended family in the context of China's family planning system
  • Domestic tourism and its impact on Dali and Lijiang
  • Preservation and renewal of Tibetan arts
  • Healthcare challenges in China
  • The relationship between traditional Chinese painting, music, and medicine
  • Buddhist philosophy and practice
  • Africa-China migrant communities, globalization, race, and identity
  • Clean energy, coal, power, and politics
  • Arts communities, urban villages, and gentrification in Beijing

Alternatively, students may use this time to pursue one month of additional language study in lieu of the ISP. Students who pursue the language study option will spend the ISP period participating in intensive and often one-on-one language study. Students who select the intensive language option during the ISP period agree to abide by the Language Pledge


Costs Dates



Credits: 16

Duration: 15 weeks

Program Base: Kunming

Language Study: Chinese

Prerequisites: None

View Student Evaluations for this program:

About the Evaluations (PDF)

Fall 2013 Evaluations (PDF)
Spring 2013 Evaluations (PDF)
Fall 2012 Evaluations (PDF)


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