Strategies for internationalisation of China’s theatre education

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By Prof Xu Xiang
The Central Academy of Drama, China

With the increasingly deep influence of globalisation on human society, research on globalisation has been fervent in educational, cultural and social academic fields. In the 1980s, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) puts forward “Internationalisation of Higher Education,” which is the core idea of modern higher education development. “Internationalisation of Higher Education” is an inevitable outcome of globalisation and is necessary for its development. Colleges and universities, as cradle of talents, are responsible for cultivating talents who have an international vision and are competent in international exchanges and cooperation so as to push forward globalisation. Internationalisation of higher education is the general trend of higher education development in the 21st Century. This is a concept for running a school and also a grand goal of higher education.

The path to higher education internationalisation should be taken according to the actual conditions of a country. Likewise, internationalisation of a specific academic field should also be promoted according to its characteristics. Theatre education is a unique and important part of higher education, and it plays an irreplaceable role in inheriting traditional cultures, booming contemporary cultures, improving students’ imagination and creativity, and promoting economic development. Given the features of theatrical disciplines that belong to the art domain, we must pay attention to innovation when inheriting traditions. Art is an agglomeration of human culture, which makes innovation in the realm of art particularly difficult. Internationalisation is an important means of artistic innovation, through which we are able to observe the world in a wider range, and communicate with contemporary art on an equal footing while inheriting traditions.

Chinese theatre academies and those in other countries have set the goal to promote internationalisation of theatre higher education through exchanges and cooperation, mutual learning, resources sharing, teaching quality improvement, and international art talents cultivation. The degree of internationalisation of Chinese theatre education is objectively lower than that of European and American countries. This is a challenge and also an opportunity, meaning that China has a large space for improvement.

Establishing international platforms

For internationalisation of theatre education, we should not only carry out such programmes as international communication, interschool performance and student exchange, but also pay attention to establishing regional and global theatre education cooperation organisations, and regular international platforms themed “Cooperation and Development”.

There are various cooperation platforms for theatre education, among which the most constructive ones are those established jointly by theatre education giants from different parts of the world, including alliances, centres and bases as normal cooperation mechanisms thus promoting bilateral and multilateral interschool cooperation and helping teachers, students, experts and academics share teaching experience and achievements. Living examples of such international platforms include the UNESCO International Theatre Institute (ITI) headquartered in Shanghai Theatre Academy (STA), CILECT (International Association of Film and Television Schools), which groups Beijing Film Academy and other academies and colleges around the world, as well as Asia Theatre Education Centre (headquarters), the UNESCO Chair on Theatre Education, the World Theatre Education Alliance (WTEA), the International Association of Theatre Critics China Centre, and the International Stage Art Network (iSTAN) founded in The Central Academy of Drama (CAD), China.

Besides, we need to integrate domestic theatre education resources by uniting Chinese theatre academies and colleges to shape overall advantages with Chinese characteristics so as to more effectively take part in international exchanges and achievements sharing in the field of theatre education, and let China’s voice be more heard. For instance, in 2011, China Alliance of Theatre Higher Educational Institutes, which was initiated and founded by The Central Academy of Drama, the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts, Shanghai Theatre Academy, and the National Taiwan University of Arts, has united over 20 major Chinese art academies as well as general colleges and universities with theatre-related specialties, and has become the core force for China’s theatre education development, and Sino-foreign exchanges and cooperation in theatre education.

Boosting international teaching

Internationalisation calls for both output of Chinese civilisation and input of Western civilisation in order to form positive interaction. This way, the relatively closed academic atmosphere can be broken, and more all-embracing international academic platforms can be set up. Internationalisation of higher education is multifarious in terms of content and form, but the basis and core has to be teaching internationalisation. The mission of teaching is talent cultivation, and the success of talent cultivation depends on curricula. Therefore, based on the integration of Chinese and Western art aesthetics, we need to reform curriculum designing and even the education system, add more international teaching contents, and make sure that our teaching contents and methods are up to international standards. This is crucial to internationalisation of theatre education. Here, it needs to be stressed that the internationalisation we pursue far outweighs the internationalisation of a specific curriculum, but is a kind of educational concept, with the purpose of strengthening understanding between theatre cultures of various nations and the desire for theatre education internationalisation.

On teaching content, for instance, in The Central Academy of Drama, students will study the works of Konstantin Stanislavski, Bertolt Brecht, William Shakespeare, and August Strindberg. They will also study Chinese traditional theatre, Greek tragedy, Italian commedia dell’arte, Indian Sanskrit drama, Japanese Kabuki, Korean Changgeuk etc, as well as modern drama, dance drama, opera, Peking opera etc. All this has helped students go beyond geographical boundaries and recognise cultural and linguistic differences, so as to enrich their theatrical expressing and performing ways. In addition, on teaching form, students no longer acquire knowledge passively but engage themselves actively in theatre creation. In The Central Academy of Drama, all preparations for semester’s final performances are undertaken by students of various specialties (departments) through cooperation, involving directing, acting, lighting, stage sets, make-up, stage management… Teachers no longer cram students or take command of them, but become their advisors and partners, and assist them to do a good job.

To promote teaching internationalisation, cooperative education can be a direct and effective way, which has been tried by many Chinese colleges and universities. Sino-foreign cooperative education contains academic degree programmes and non-degree programmes. The latter has been well carried out in domestic schools. As to the former, the quantity and quality both have been quite notable by now, especially in comprehensive universities. Driven by internationalisation of higher education, achievements in the two aspects have also been made in Chinese art (theatre) academies, where there is a package of characteristic academic degree programmes. Sharing of educational resources has been a pursuit of domestic and overseas renowned theatre academies. For example, Shanghai Theatre Academy has an international undergraduate cultivation programme, based on cooperative education agreements signed with a number of well-known academies in UK, US and Canada. This cultivation programme covers all the faculties and common majors of STA. Upon graduation, students studying overseas in the frame of this programme can obtain the course-completion certificate of STA and the bachelor’s degree of a relevant overseas academy. For another example, The Central Academy of Drama is carrying out the 2+2 Double Bachelor’s Degree Programme for the acting students together with the Russian State Institute of Performing Arts, and a similar programme together with the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, UK. Upon graduation, students can obtain double degree certificates endorsed by CAD and the Russian institute or the British school, thus enhancing students’ competitiveness worldwide.

Building international teaching teams

The ultimate goal of a theatre academy is to cultivate superior talents with an international view in the field of theatre, film and television, who understand the world and are understood by the world. Teachers and students, as the concerned parties of teaching process, should be the main force of theatre education, which should be taken as the central idea of theatre education internationalisation.

For an academy or college, the key to internationalising talent cultivation is to build an international teaching team. First, we need to continuously increase the proportion of teachers with an international background, send more teachers to visit and study in overseas famous universities, theatres and art institutions, as well as select more teachers to further their studies, to give lectures, to attend international conferences and theatre art festivals, and to participate in international scientific research cooperation projects, so that they can be immersed in an international language environment and cultural atmosphere to directly understand foreign teaching ideas, cutting-edge academic trends and latest disciplinary development.

Second, with education internationalisation, colleges and universities need more and more foreign experts, especially high-end experts. As far as a theatre academy is concerned, the national character and diversity of theatrical art determines the necessity to introduce international teachers, including world-famous theatre masters, experts and academics. Through teaching modes with equal stress on theory and practice, such as seminar, lecture, workshop, and play rehearsal, students can understand different theatre arts and creation forms, and can come into contact with world-class teaching and working methods, so that they can better meet international demands in future. Besides these short-term cooperation programmes, the publicity work for a university should also be strengthened to broaden the channel of recruiting high-end experts from abroad, who may act as visiting or honorary professors. Top expert recruitment should be a long-term concern.

To cultivate students with an international education background, colleges and universities should create as many international exchange opportunities as possible for students, like sending them to visit foreign art academies and theatre troupes, and to attend various international academic conferences, theatre workshops and theatre festivals. Exchanges are bidirectional and mutually beneficial; so is education internationalisation. When encouraging more Chinese students to go abroad, we should also attract more foreign students to come to China. Compared with comprehensive universities, art academies especially theatre academies have a smaller enrolment scale, and accordingly the scale of foreign student enrolment is even smaller. Furthermore, art (theatre) majors require a good command of Chinese language, which further restrains the scale of foreign student enrolment. Therefore, when enrolling and attracting foreign students, theatre academies should consider their different demands. On one hand, Chinese language training programmes with theatre features should be launched for foreign students with moderate Chinese language competence, and on the other hand, academic degree programmes should be opened for those with a good command of Chinese and eager for professional learning in China. In addition, scholarship and services for international students should be in place, and logistical support for foreign student enrolment should be guaranteed.

Taking full advantage of internationalisation-oriented policies

The Chinese government has rolled out a slew of positive and effective measures to promote international cultural exchanges and win-win cooperation. China’s President Xi Jinping stresses that the Chinese people should consolidate cultural confidence and boost cultural development. China’s Ministry of Education releases a national “Double First-Rate” plan where a batch of world-class universities and first-class disciplines are advocated to be established as soon as possible to enhance comprehensive strength and international competitiveness of China’s higher education. All this is favourable to internationalisation of China’s cultural development, including theatre education.

In 2013, President Xi Jinping proposed the development strategy of the “Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road”, as known as “the Belt and Road Initiative”, which immediately aroused high attention across the world and active response from countries along the “Belt and Road” routes. The “Belt and Road” covers the world’s longest economic corridor with the most development potential. Along the Belt and Road are mostly emerging economies and developing countries, which are in a rising stage. Further deepening cultural communication and cooperation among “Belt and Road” countries is an important measure for Belt and Road construction. The ancient Silk Road and the maritime Silk Road were formed owing to different nations’ desire for and participation in cultural exchanges and integration. Cultural communication and cooperation is conducive to mutual development of different civilisations, thus further accelerating scientific and technological progress, economic and trade prosperity, and development of other fields.

Theatre culture has a unique advantage for countries along the Belt and Road to deepen communication and reach consensuses. China’s theatre education should actively respond to national calls and take full advantage of favourable policies for its development. In recent years, The Central Academy of Drama has played an increasingly important role in theatre education development in China and even in Asia. Asia Theatre Education Centre (ATEC) in CAD represents a brand advantage. On this platform, exchanges and cooperation can be consolidated with the first batch of partners from relevant countries, and meanwhile such efforts will be made with art academies of the countries along the Belt and Road, including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan in Central and Western Asia, as well as Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei in Southeast Asia to participate in and carry out high-quality regional and global education cooperation projects. This is a positive strategic direction of The Central Academy of Drama for future development through this favourable platform – Asia Theatre Education Centre (ATEC).

The origination of theatre arts cannot be separated from urban development, the development of theatre arts is accordingly based on cities. China has a vast territory, with distinctive cities where a great variety of local dramas took root. Some local drama can influence many provinces, while some embrace several genres. We need to analyse the characteristics (including cultural characteristics) and advantages of each city with unique theatre culture, draw on each other’s strength and lay particular emphasis on key points when developing various theatres so that Chinese theatre culture can go global with diversity. In fact, this is a shortcut for theatre education development and internationalisation.

Shanghai, where Shanghai Theatre Academy is based, is an international metropolis boosting the all-embracing culture; Nanjing, which served as the capital of six Chinese dynasties in history and where Nanjing University of the Arts is based, has attached importance to culture and education since ancient times; Shandong, where Shandong University of Arts is located, is the birthplace of China’s Confucianism, and is also among the places where the earliest theatrical activities emerged, and has various kinds of local dramas. Beijing, China’s political and cultural centre with profound historical accumulation and cultural inheritance is home to The Central Academy of Drama. The old campus of CAD is located in the famous Huangchenggen Hutong Historical and Cultural Protection Area, and is harmonised with surrounding time-honoured residences. This site selection doesn’t make CAD isolated from international exchanges and cooperation in theatre arts. Instead, this unique cultural background and theatrical tradition help CAD enhance its cultural connotation and draw worldwide attention.


There is an old saying in China: “The times produce their heroes.” In the present age, education internationalisation is consistent with the irresistible trend of educational reform and development, and it requires international platform construction, teaching design, teaching team building, as well as active response to internationalisation-oriented policies. On the way to education internationalisation, we are faced with opportunities and challenges, and meanwhile we are capable of turning challenges into opportunities.

In terms of theatre education under the background of globalisation, our goal is to retain the quintessence of each theatrical form in the world while maintaining theatre diversity, and to avoid blind assimilation while holding an open attitude. Theatre education internationalisation should be pushed forward on the premise of maintaining respective features, giving play to respective advantages and finding respective correct positions. Only on this premise can different nations carry out dialogues, promote cultural integration, and share achievements.

In internationalisation of Chinese theatre education, we should advocate inclusiveness and pursue perfection, try to understand the world and be understood by the world, and highlight the theatre culture characteristics of Chinese nation in global higher education development.

Prof Xu Xiang was born in Shenyang in 1957. He is chairman of executive committee and president of The Central Academy of Drama, China. He is member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and director-general of Asia Theatre Education Centre (ATEC). He studied at Shanghai Theatre Academy from 1980 to 1984 and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree. In 1985, he served as the stage designer in Liaoning People’s Art Theatre. He studied at The Central Academy of Drama, China from 1986 to 1989 and graduated with a Master of Arts degree, where he has been teaching ever since his graduation. Since 1991, he has served as deputy director of Stage Design Department, director of Performance Practice Center, director of Theatre Management Department, dean of Adult Education College, president assistant, vice president and president of The Central Academy of Drama. Prof Xu has received many awards and titles which include Beijing Patriotic Meritorious Service Model, First Prize of Beijing Excellent Teaching Results, and Henry Fok Education Foundation Award. He is also among the experts who have Special Government Allowance granted by the State Council, China, and among the first batch of selected talents of “New Century Talents Project” by Ministry of Personnel, China.