As a Faculty that includes undergraduate courses in Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Hebrew and Persian (plus intermittent extra-curricular Korean), Asian and Middle Eastern Studies is the current incarnation of what was previously known as Oriental Studies. For reasons that are seemingly shrouded in myth, in the recent past it decided to re-label itself, and so this wonderful collection of subjects is now lumbered with the rather silly name of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, commonly known as AMES.
All courses last four years, and all are taught from scratch. If you want to study Chinese or Japanese, you’re not allowed to combine them with anything else (which is most certainly a good thing!). If you study Arabic, Hebrew or Persian, you can select a language from Modern and Medieval Languages (MML) to combine it with.
If you’re thinking of applying to read any of these languages at Cambridge, it’s probably worth noting two things. Firstly, the AMES courses are very labor-intensive and fast-paced. The amount of time required to learn a difficult Asian language means that AMES students have one of the highest rates of contact time among humanities students. This makes it great value for money, but also a real challenge. Secondly, it’s tremendously rewarding. With each successive term you can see your proficiency in your chosen language growing, and your knowledge of the culture behind the language growing richer. As class sizes are small, most of your lectures will be more like seminars, making the educational side of your university experience pretty special.
For detailed course requirements it’s best to consult www.cam.ac.uk, as each of the separate pathways within AMES has its own individual curriculum. However, there are a few broad commonalities. Cambridge aims to give AMES students a holistic understanding of their chosen culture and language; the Chinese course, for example, includes modules on East Asian dynastic history, classical literature, and modern politics. If you’re also interested in the culture behind the language, then Cambridge is definitely the place for you.
All students in AMES spend their third year studying abroad. For Chinese students, this means going to either Beijing University or Ocean University in Qingdao. Japanese students can go either to Doshisha University in Kyoto or make their own self-funded arrangements. Arabic and Persian students can choose where they want to go, as long as there aren’t any particularly life-threatening civil wars happening there (post-Arab Spring, this really has become a genuine problem). Regardless of which language you study, when you return for the fourth year you have the opportunity to specialize in areas of particular interest. In my fourth year, for example, I’m taking a special option paper in modern Chinese literature, which involves literary translation and essay writing in English.
It must be said that you’re likely to be the only person in your year at Peterhouse who studies AMES, although sometimes the College admits two people per year (it has been known to happen). In bigger colleges this might be a drawback, but at Peterhouse it really doesn’t matter at all. The small size of the year group, plus the fact that about half of people who study other subjects are in the same position, mean that you don’t miss out on anything. If you study Chinese, benefits include having access to the collection donated to the College library by David Wilson, former Governor of Hong Kong (Arabic, Persian and Japanese, sadly not so lucky). Peterhouse is also very conveniently located about seven minutes’ walk from the Sidgwick Site, where the AMES faculty is. Another thing that makes Peterhouse wonderful for AMES is that the College is ludicrously generous with funding for travel relating to your course; they’ve funded almost all the trips to China I’ve made in the last four years, from doing an internship in Shanghai to touring Sichuan province. If there were a drawback to doing AMES at Peterhouse, it might be that you miss out on subject-related gatherings within the College. But to be honest, that’s about the only one.
Read as widely as you can and work out what interests you about the culture you want to study. If you can demonstrate during your interview that you’re enthused about a certain area of study, then this will look really good. As all the AMES courses are ab initio, you don’t need to know any language prior to coming to Cambridge. Showing a genuine interest is the most important thing.