Scholarship and education

His Highness, the Dean

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Emperor Zhang

Zhang Tielin (张铁林, pictured) is the most recognizable face of the Emperor on Chinese television, appearing in such projects as My Fair Princess (还珠格格), the three Ji Xiaolan series, and commercials for hangover medication. This week he took on a new role as the dean of the art college at Jinan University.

Critics see this as part of an alarming trend toward valuing celebrity over academics. Just one year ago, Jackie Chan was granted an honorary doctorate from Hong Kong Polytechnic University, while Stephen Chow is an Instructor at both The University of Hong Kong and Southwest Nationalities University, as well as adjunct professor at the business school of People's University. Chow advises people not to take these titles too seriously, likening his appointments to invitations to guest star in a movie. Perhaps the criticism is merely indicative of an academic bias against the entertainment industry in general; the literary reformer Hu Shi, to cite an example from high culture, is justifiably admired for the collection of 35 honorary doctorates he picked up from universities around the globe.

Furthermore, back in 1999, Zhejiang University appointed Louis Cha, the famous martial arts novelist from Hong Kong, as dean of its humanities department. While there were those who hinted that the appointment lacked proper scholarly qualifications and was motivated more by PR considerations, Cha did have a background in history and, after all, made his living in literature and publishing. The university's decision to make him a doctoral advisor was more controversial, culminating in rumors over the past three months that he would be stepping down this year due to infractions of certain regulations and the lackluster academics of his students.

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Professor Zhang

Zhang Tielin is not entirely without academic qualifications. He studied at the Beijing Film Academy and received a master's degree from the London Film Academy, writing and directing during the five years he spent there. Well experienced in the industry, he wants to concentrate on cultivating writers and directors to fill current needs. He has responded to media jabs by saying that he has acted so frequently only to fill contractual obligations, and that his true ambition has always been in direction and education.

Detractors point out that Zhang has never published (master's degrees in China typically require a dissertation while Zhang's program at LFA did not) and that he did not have the title of "professor," one of the requirements for the position of dean. Jinan University responded by making him a professor, although he will not be required to teach any courses.

This is only the latest media flap over university appointments. A few years back the recruitment of several foreign scholars for teaching and administrative positions at major Chinese universities (Qinghua among them) excited similar controversy over the motivation and merits of such breaks with traditional practice. Zhang Tielin's case would have fit in just as nicely then: the Chinese emperor currently holds British citizenship.

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