by Yuge Ma

From China to Oxford via India

We are publishing the edited speech given by postgraduate researcher Yuge Ma to a recent gathering of the China-Oxford Scholarship Fund at Hailey Park in Oxfordshire. Yuge Ma’s speech eloquently expresses the remarkable opportunities available to Chinese graduates at Oxford, as well as highlighting her own remarkable story.


I grew up in Beijing and spent about ten years of my life on one campus – six years as a boarding school pupil in Tsinghua Junior/High School, and four years as an undergraduate at Tsinghua University. Although Tsinghua campus provided a solid base for my youth, it was not the entire world to me. Unlike most Chinese parents, mine had a unique philosophy for education: they encouraged me to explore the world by myself.

So when I was 10 years old, my parents and I planned my ever first voyage alone. At the beginning of the summer holidays of 1997, my dad saw me off at the Beijing West railway station. I started on a train to Nanjing, and travelled to six cities in South China for 28 days on my own! From then on, during every holiday, when other kids were at home or in tutorial rooms to study, I travelled alone across my country, like a free bird. In 2001 – by which time I was 14 – I had travelled to all 31 provinces in Mainland China, including Xinjiang and Tibet.

It was during those travels in my teenage years that I became interested in and concerned with China’s energy and environment issues. I was amazed by the magnificence of nature and my imagination ran wild on how its grandeur nurtured the beauty of Chinese art throughout history. At the same time I could clearly see that increases in population and the unregulated exploitation of nature had caused serious and even irreversible damage to the environment. Consequently, water, energy and soil shortages became constant in many poor areas, especially in rural areas.

My heart ached when I saw these contrasting scenes. I felt I must do something to solve this apparently insoluble dilemma between protecting the environment and encouraging development.

At Tsinghua University I studied energy efficiency, engineering and the sociology of law. After systematic study and extensive fieldwork, under the supervision of Prof Yang Xudong, who led the Centre for Rural Energy Efficiency in Tsinghua, I gained a solid understanding of China’s environment and development issues from both technological and sociological perspectives.

On graduating from college in 2009 I decided to study in India. My decision was very hard for my peers to understand. Chinese people believe that studying in ‘the more advanced and more developed countries’ is the way to achieve the Chinese dream of prosperity, happiness and harmony. In most people’s minds, India was not a part of that privileged group.

However, my decision was deeply rooted in many years of travel, observation and study of the soils of China. After investigating the environment and energy issues from both the technological and social perspective, one could not avoid another equally important, but often neglected factor, which is policy and politics. India enjoys a lot of similarities in environment and development with China – a huge population, limited resources, rapid urbanisation and massive poverty – but it operates under a different political system. India was the perfect place for me to understand my questions from a comparative perspective.

That’s how my entangling story with India started. In the middle of the monsoon season in 2009, four days after my graduation ceremony in Tsinghua, I travelled to India to be an MA student at the Centre for the Study of Regional Development (CSRD) at the renowned Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi.

When I really tried to understand India – a huge country with endless diversities – the task seemed impossible. To get an in-depth outlook into Indian society the classroom is necessary, but not sufficient. So I started to learn the local language, make Indian friends, read extensively and to travel and research across the country. I tried every means at my disposal to learn about India, focussing on its environment and development issues.

However, the more I experienced India, the more confused I became, because I had not found a way successfully to combine my enriching, but fragmented, local experiences into an insightful and systematic understanding. It was only when, by chance, I decided to read Journey to America, the notes of the pioneering French thinker Alexis De Tocqueville’s nine-months stay in America from 1831 to 1832, that I found a way forward.

In contrast to his two masterpieces Democracy in America (1 & 2), which came out in France three and eight years respectively after that journey, de Tocqueville’s first-hand journal was fresh and original, but fragmented. But I began to realise that real understanding requires not only first hand experience, but also systematic thinking, intellectual debate, and comparative perspectives.

After a year of studying in India, in 2010 I heard that Oxford was offering the first ever MSc degree in multi-disciplinary contemporary Indian studies at a Western university. So I came to Oxford to further my understanding and read for the MSc in Contemporary India. I focussed on India’s energy policy for my Master’s thesis.

With the strong support from my supervisor Prof Barbara Harriss-White, I got straight into a DPhil, conducting comparative studies of China and India’s energy efficiency regulation. I was also very lucky to have a supervisory committee of three professors: Professor Harriss-White, political economist on India; Dr Anna Lora-Wainwright, human geographer on China; and Dr Nick Eyre, expert on energy efficiency. Oxford probably is the only place in the world that can offer such a multi-disciplinary supervision for China-India comparative studies.

In 2011, I also had the opportunity to join the Brookings Institution as a guest researcher. When I came back to Oxford the following year, with the support of Professor Harriss-White and Wolfson College, my colleague Danielle de Feo-Giet and I founded the Oxford Juxtapose Project – a multi-disciplinary platform for scholars, artists and policy practitioners to discuss China and India, and to promote mutual understanding through academic and cultural innovations.

The inaugural conference at Oxford in April 2013 attracted more than 200 people from 12 countries to participate both in person and online. This September, we are going to take the conference to Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, in order to integrate more South Asian scholars. Tsinghua University in Beijing will be our next destination.

My growing up story is full of love, tolerance and support: my parents sheltered my wild soul, Tsinghua campus tolerated my non-traditional youth, and today, Oxford, with its inclusive environment and cutting-edge thinking, incubates and encourages my ideas; not only mine, but also interesting and innovative ideas of people from all over the world, of all various disciplines. This is exactly the beauty and uniqueness of Oxford.

However, does growing up depend on the luck and the uniqueness one acquires? To answer this question, I would like to share with you one of my favourite quotes about growing up from The Golden Notebook in 1971, by Doris Lessing, the British Nobel Literature Laureate: “Growing up is after all the understanding that one’s unique and incredible experience is what everyone shares.”

I believe that this understanding cuts across generations, borders, disciplines, and even the boundary between human and nature.

Today, China is at a crossroad in front of this understanding. Thirty years of rapid economic growth has put China in the centre of the global stage. At the same time, this “unique and incredible” story of economic growth has also pushed China into the crossroads of many crucial questions that are shared by every country: how do we understand and welcome the diversity of the world, how do we listen to and integrate different voices of society, and how do we protect and restore the deeply wounded earth on which the survival of billions of people depends?

Only by forming a consensus in understanding those crucial questions, we will be able to carry on and contribute to the future of human kind. Today, as a young Chinese scholar studying at Oxford, and tomorrow as a global scholar from China, this is our responsibility.

I would also like to present my book Growing Up in India, which was published in China last summer to COSF and its friends. The manuscript of the book was finished at Oxford in the summer of 2012.The book talks about a Chinese student’s encounter with its mysterious and unavoidable neighbour country in the 21st Century, and how I grew up through this bittersweet journey.

About the author:

Ma Yuge is DPhil Candidate at the Environmental Change Institute (ECI), University of Oxford. She was a guest researcher with the Brookings Institution in Washington DC and Beijing (2011-2012), a GG2022 fellow (, and an Avantha International Fellow 2013 with Aspen Institute (India). She had also conducted research with The Energy and Resource Institute (TERI), and Institute for Economic Growth (IEG) in New Delhi. She is co-founder of the Oxford Juxtapose Project, a multi-disciplinary platform for comparative studies on contemporary China and India. Her first book Growing Up in India was published in China in 2013. 


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