As China emerges as a giant of the world economy, it is a great place to cut your teeth in business or teaching – and soak up thousands of years of history.

Although most British graduates’ experience of China might be limited to a late-night visit to their local takeaway or a glimpse of the Terracotta Army figures recently on show at the British Museum, the country has a huge amount to offer those willing to take the plunge and travel there after university. Not only is it becoming a major player on the world stage – it is the fastest growing economy on the planet, and this summer’s Beijing Olympics are likely to raise its profile still further – but it also boasts a unique culture backed up by thousands of years of history, with spectacular scenery and world-famous cuisine to boot.

Teaching English

China has proved to be a popular destination with graduates for some years now, with many using it as a base from which to try their hand at English teaching through a Tefl course. In recent times, schools in China were so desperate for English speakers that they would often hire British graduates without any formal teaching qualifications, so visiting the country was occasionally seen as the easy – or even the lazy – option. Although nowadays the Chinese government has become a lot more stringent about offering working visas to the young Brits who turn up at its airports, with a good degree under your belt and a suitable Tefl qualification it’s still an ideal place to test your mettle as a teacher.

“Culturally, China is so different from the UK or any other western country,” says Sarah Wilson, training consultant at Cactus Tefl, which offers advice to graduates keen to teach English overseas. “If someone’s just starting out in life and wants to explore the world and see what’s out there it has a lot to offer, and from a career point of view it’s a great place to start. There’s also tremendous scope in terms of professional development, because there’s still such a demand for English in China at the moment.” The demand for your services – partly fuelled by the growth of the Chinese middle classes eager to improve their job prospects by learning English – might be so great that you could find yourself teaching outside your school in some rather unusual places. And after spending some time in the country, it’s also possible to branch out into other areas such as publishing. “If you work in one of the big cities, your school may well outsource you,” says Wilson. “One afternoon you could be teaching a board of banking executives in an office somewhere, and then the following morning you might be in front of a class of 35-year-olds: it could be as varied as that!”

Working in China

For graduates looking to improve their CVs by learning a new language and experiencing another culture, Cactus also offers an intensive China-based course in Mandarin, the country’s most commonly-spoken language. Students can even choose to consolidate their learning by doing an internship with a local company afterwards, allowing them to see first hand how Chinese businesses operate. “It gives people who want to work in an international business environment a really valuable experience,” says Alex Wolfson, one of the company’s language travel consultants, “because it’s an insight into the working practices in China.

Quite a few people do gap years or go backpacking in Asia and other parts of the Far East, but it’s a very impressive thing if you can say you’ve actually worked for a business in one of these countries.” Proof that China is about to become one of the top graduate travel destinations can be found in the form of a new company which accepts its first intake in September. China Pathways ( www.china is the brainchild of three education professionals keen to ensure that young British people don’t miss out on the opportunity of studying China’s language, culture and way of doing business at such an interesting time in its history. The six month programme – which will be based in Beijing initially – includes language tuition and practical business training, and will culminate in a month of work experience with a view to permanent employment, either in China or for a China-orientated company elsewhere.

“The benefits of going to China are not always immediately apparent to people,” says David Cronin, one of the three directors of China Pathways, “but as soon as you put the idea in front of them, they instantly recognise how useful it might be. To improve their career prospects and be part of a globalised economy, students increasingly need to have a global perspective. Alongside India, China is the place where things are happening at the moment.” One of the course’s strongest points is its China specific business training, which promises to include an introduction to several slightly unorthodox methods. Students will learn how to conduct themselves at Chinese banquets – where alcohol plays a big part and the etiquette of toasting is crucial – and will also become familiar with the practice of guangxi, or the importance of building long term business relationships.

“Our business, social and cultural programme is going to emphasise the practicalities of living in China,” says Cronin. “Central to doing business in China is eating, but most people are not aware of the significance of the Chinese banquet as a business tool. And in the West we’re hooked on the idea of contracts, but in China getting things done through personal connections – guangxi – means everything.” Another way to experience China is by visiting as part of a postgraduate degree. The University of Oxford offers a two-year MPhil in modern Chinese studies which includes a four-month stint at Peking University, during which students receive intensive language training. An MSc in the same subject is also set to start next year.

Frank Pieke, director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Oxford, argues that the only way for people to fully appreciate the country’s differences is by living there. “If you’re a recent graduate, there’s a whole host of reasons why China is a really good place to go to,” he says. “If you’re seriously interested in building up a China-focused career then you obviously have to spend some time there to understand what the society is like – the best way to do that is by working there.” According to Pieke, there’s no time like the present for young ambitious graduates to try their luck in China, because the economic boom has resulted in plenty of overseas companies opening offices in the major cities, and jobs are plentiful.

Cultural differences

Existing there as a westerner has also become a lot easier in recent years, due to the rise of consumerism and fewer restrictions on movement – both geographically and professionally – once inside. And perhaps most importantly of all, it’s a great place to be while you’re young and fancy-free. “To live in China as a foreigner is a lot different to how it used to be,” says Pieke. “In the Eighties and even the Nineties, it was pretty grim, boring and hard-going, but all that has changed now. For people in their early twenties, it’s a lot of fun to live in China, probably more fun than living in the UK. It’s a bustling society with lots happening, and life in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong is very lively. Your standard of living is also relatively high, so for many people it’s a bit of a party as well as a learning experience.”