Is it possible to enroll into and complete a graduate school in China while having only English language skills, without speaking Chinese at all? In particular, I am interested in (theoretical) physics.
If you include Hong Kong as part of China, the answer is Yes but limited to Hong Kong. English is an official language of Hong Kong. Universities in Hong Kong all use English as the media of teaching and the common language for research is English. No Physics courses are taught in languages other than English and no faculty members are not proficient in English. See this official website for reference. The best are University of Hong Kong, The Chinese University of Hong Kong and The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
Otherwise the choices are limited to those high-ranking universities in China such as Peking University and Tsinghua University. In Tsinghua, most faculty members use English for publication purpose but not at all for communications in research. Most teaching and administration stuff are in Chinese. So you have to learn chinese at least in conversational level to survive a Phd there.
Absolutely. Here is just one example.
There are many trans-national programs all over Asia (China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Myanmar, etc.). Many of these programs are from partner universities in the UK or the US (and other countries). In these programs, the language of instruction and assessment is English. I teach in one such program (not the one linked above and it is related to business, not physics).
Can you get by without being able to communicate in the local language? That really depends on you. For example, if you are a social person you will really need to be able to communicate in the local language. While everyone (staff, faculty, students) at the university (in your department) will speak English others outside the school often struggle (as you would likely struggle picking up Chinese if you lived in the west).
If you are the kind of person who prefers isolation, then the local language is not so critical. Depending on where your city, you can usually find stores where you can buy most of the food you like (that is, western food) and even a place which will rent to you.
Some schools may well require you to learn the local language. The link above clearly shows it is offered (and you should take advantage of it). If you want to actively avoid learning Chinese, then you need to make sure the school you select does not require it. A quick email should sort that out.
As an academic who has traveled to quite a few places where I had no idea (despite some study) of the ambient language, but/and also to quite a few places where I did have an adequate idea of the ambient language...
... and in contrast to the sort of wishful thinking that, for example, leads some tourists to say "oh, everyone speaks English there"... and leads some academics and business people to claim that English is the universal language of ... :
The psychological/cognitive load/burden of disconnectedness from the environment (apart from jokes about starving because one cannot ask for food) is highly non-trivial.
To be in a bubble for a week or so is maybe-tolerable, but for a year or more... I'd not do it. Either find within yourself the incentive to learn the language at least to the level of an 8-year-old, or don't go. The quasi-intellectual, quasi-independent-of-environment pose that has some mythological cachet is not good, in my experience. The people who fare best, in all ways, are those positively interested in the ambient language... and the culture depicted in it, etc.
I don't think so, I am a medical student at China and it is compulsory for us to take Chinese Language. My friends doing their post-graduate degree already know Chinese, so I think it was a requirenment to apply. Other than that, there are some universities which take Chinese into account but without having it in the actual degree. So just to help you while you're staying at China.
Yes for other majors. Probably not for PhD in physics (you need to search).
Over the past ten years, many university from US and UK launch joint institution, ranging from summer language program to university with PhD program, in China with local universities. You could search for NYU shanghai, Duke kunshan, Michigan shanghai, Nottingham Ningbo, Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University etc (The words you do not recognize are name of cities where the university is located in China, except the last one since I forgot where it is).
The good news is that English is the official communication language in those colleges.
Another good news is that they welcome (truly) international students, since almost all the students are Chinese.
Something you may not be interested in: I do not know where the OP comes from. If OP comes from Africa, Chinese government provide special program with language program for those who can not speak Chinese.
Comment on comment:
What most Chinese people speak and their English language skills are irrelevant to the question. Most of the time you would communicate with your professors and fellows, other than some random guys on street.
Depending on your home country, you'll probably end up with a scholarship. Most foreigners coming to an average run of the mill Chinese university would qualify for such. It would be a feather in the cap of XXX Agricultural Normal University to have you as an honored graduate student, so much so they would fork out $$$ for you to come there.
www.csc.edu.cn is an amazing portal for higher education in China and can search by "English-taught" programs. I'm sure there's one for you, China is a large place, many cities and many universities. And there's Hong Kong (and Macau) to go to for English taught programs at a higher price.
Many a student have come to the land of China with zero Chinese but stuck it out and made friends and money. Inevitably, you'll pick up Chinese along the way I'm sure.
I am a postdoc living in China since almost 2 years. I came here without knowing any one phrase in Chinese.
My answer to the question is: No, it is currently impossible to study in Mainland China for years in a row without learning any form of Chinese.
Apart from the fact that few locals are proficient in English, almost all daily, and probably administrative communication runs in Chinese, and automated digital translators will not provide always a satisfactory solution. Surely local students and deputies will help in the beginning but after a certain time they will become less accessible.
Moreover, Chinese comes as a package: one cannot truly learn the culture without understanding some of the language and vice-versa. Therefore interacting below the surface with locals will depend on learning some of the language even if not at any functional level.
I cannot speak for Macau, Hong Kong, or Taiwan as I have not lived in these areas. I suspect it should be doable in these places, particularly in Hong Kong.
Maybe you will meet some difficulties at first. You will find difficult to listen to the class and do homework in Chinese. But at Chinese university, usually you can find Engish text book in the library and your classmates will be willing to teach you Chinese. Teacher's PPT sometimes uses English too. As long as you study hard, you will be accustomed to.
Short answer, possible, but I highly recommend you against it.
Generally, US students are welcome to universities or research institutes in China, especially the top ones (Tsinghua U, Peking U, SJTU, ...) in Beijing and Shanghai. You would get used to everyday life in less than a semester, without learning much Chinese.
However, physics is not a typical major to do so in this case. Top universities have many young professors with their PhD or postdoc done in US, as well as part time professors from top US universities. But there's almost no pure English physics graduate program in main land China.
Generally, one can enroll in some graduate programs in China that are taught in English， and in some cases, even if the program is not offered in English, some courses may still be taught in English, so there might be a possibility to still accept you. This will depend on the university and programs. For example, at my university some general undergraduate and master degree courses offered to Chinese students are taught in Chinese while some others are taught in English (it depends on the professor and topic). Besides, I know some Vietnamese Master degree students who did a master in computer science in Changsha without speaking Chinese... and another doing a PhD in computer science in Harbin without speaking Chinese. And there is some post-doc researchers and professors who also do not speak Chinese. I don't know for physics but if you look around, I think you can find. But of course, if you know some basic Chinese, you will better enjoy the life in China. At least, you should try to learn how to buy stuff, ask for the price of something or ask for directions using Chinese, to make your life easier! There is also some universities in China, where taking some Chinese training is mandatory for graduate studies. For example, in Xi'an Jiatong Univ. some students told me that for PhD they had to take 8 months of Chinese class on the first year. But in the end, they found that it was useful for daily life. Also if you speak Chinese, I heard that you may more easily get scholarships from the Chinese government perhaps for your studies.