Xiaorui Zhou, 2020 Rhodes Scholar

Xiaorui Zhou, 2020 Rhodes Scholar

This prestigious scholarship will allow Xiaorui Zhou to pursue two master's degrees at the University of Oxford
  • Xiaorui Zhou, 2020 Rhodes scholar ©Sciences PoXiaorui Zhou, 2020 Rhodes scholar ©Sciences Po

Sciences Po undergraduate student Xiaorui Zhou is one of the four Chinese students to become a 2020 Rhodes scholar. This prestigious scholarship allows outstanding students to spend two years at the University of Oxford pursuing a postgraduate degree. Xiaorui is currently completing her double degree with Sciences Po and the National University of Singapore (NUS), majoring in History and Middle Eastern studies. She aspires to pursue two Master’s degrees at Oxford next year: one in Women’s Studies, and one in Contemporary Chinese Studies. Interview.

Where does your interest in gender studies come from? 

My interest in gender studies was first sparked by an introductory sociology tutorial, taught by Ms. Delphine Moraldo at Sciences Po’s campus in Menton. As first-year students, we were introduced to the making of “boys” and “girls” in modern society through exposure to different types of toys. While this notion of social construction of norms may sound vague or banal in our ‘woke’ society now, that particular reading really startled me. Then, in my third-year of the Undergraduate College, when I attended the National University of Singapore for the second half of my programme, I took a course on Historicising Gender, taught by Dr. Sharon Low. I began to develop interests in oral history as well as in Chinese women’s lived experiences: how have they been educated or socialised? How have they provided for their family? How do their experiences, as women, change as they age? Who and what do they dream of at night? Another class on the Problematic Concepts of Gender, offered in NUS’s University Scholars Programme by Associate Professor Lo Mun Hou, introduced me to the field of gender theories. So it is a combination of ingenious mentors, fascinating scholarship, and questions-awaiting-answers that led me to this exciting field. 

What led you to choose the NUS-Sciences Po double-degree programme four years ago?

It was a combination of factors. First: I wanted an education in the humanities. Yet, I felt slightly undecided between history and political science. Second: I wanted to gain exposure to and in different parts of the world, not limiting myself to either Asian studies - the topic I felt more familiar with - or Middle Eastern studies, the topic I was interested in. With these considerations in mind, the NUS-Sciences Po dual BA programme seemed rather promising.

What was your experience at Sciences Po as an international student?

My experience at Sciences Po as an international student brought so many treasures to my life that still today I struggle to put them into coherent words. First of all, I loved the fact that I was able to witness countless moon rises and sunsets from the Menton campus which is situated in such a scenic part of France. Of course, sometimes it was difficult as my fellow dual-degree programme mate, Ms. Jessie Lim and I studied and lived on the Menton campus where not many students of Asian origins were around. Nonetheless, that particular experience taught me that instead of pulling off a pretense of integration, we need to forge and respect real, equal, and open dialogues.

Overall, with the truly international student body of Sciences Po, the most important thing I learnt was the necessity of ‘small’, personal stories amidst ‘grand’, national narratives: someone who personally underwent the Arab Spring could be teaching you a lecture on revolutions; someone whose family is at risk of appalling destruction or dislocation amidst the ruthless warfare can be your project mate; someone who lived, and still lives, the daily reality of racial discrimination may be walking you home. With all of these, I have realised that those ‘front-page news’ aren’t simply distant news, confined and contained on paper or screen. They constitute our fate. My deepest appreciation goes to everybody who shared their life stories with me back on the French Riviera, either in a light-hearted or a serious manner.

What is your approach to gender studies as a Chinese student who studied in France as well as in Singapore? 

In my opinion, a striking commonality for most courses in gender studies, either in France, in Singapore or in China, is that the pioneers and professors in the field are both academics and activists. For many of us, we study social constructions to construct our reality differently, and we study the script of our gender play to play it differently. I would say that this aspiration for actual change in the real world is the defining common thread. I am not sure, however, if there are regional-based differences; with my limited knowledge, I believe that the nuanced approaches in the field are more a result of disciplinary frameworks and/or language backgrounds than a result of regional or cultural differences.

You co-founded an initiative for high school graduates from rural counties in Hunan in which you led seminars on history and gender. Can you tell us about it?

With the co-founder of Peer Experience Exchange Rostrum, Mr. Liu Hong and three other colleagues, we launched Project Initium (in pinyin, qizhi xueshe) in the summer of 2019. We worked with students from six different counties in the Hunan province. For my own seminar, entitled History of the Chinese Overseas, I exposed my students to different genres of primary sources, such as yearbooks of overseas Chinese girls’ schools during the Republican era (1912-1949). My intention was to acquaint students with the actual people who populated our history, yet somewhat absent in our historical narratives.

My fondest memory was of course our gender workshop; at first, we didn’t design any workshop related to gender given our packed schedule. However, as we observed some confusion over gender stereotypes expressed by our students, we saw the necessity of such a workshop where our students could hopefully walk away with two ideas: first, the social division of labour was not and should not be biologically determined; and second, structural factors hide within every aspect of our seemingly individual lives. Yet, we did not want to sound or appear overtly technical or dogmatic. Thereby, we (the mentors) designed a short, comic, immersive theatre session from scratch, where the female protagonist was trapped in between her romantic relationship, her family, and career choices. Many students, even the most silent ones, engaged with us by volunteering to play the role of the protagonist and break her structurally-constrained fate (to no avail). So that was fun for me, and thought-provoking for many of our students. I hope to run more sophisticated versions of this theatre with our future batches of Project Initium students.

What are your hopes and projects for the future?

It may be slightly premature to speak of the future, as I’m not really sure which profession I will pursue, or which projects I would work on. I do know that I would like to spend my future dealing with the past, by writing, either in an academic or non-academic context, about lived experiences, transcultural interactions, and more.

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