Wandering China

An East/West pulse of China's fourth rise from down under.

Tide turning for Chinese in schools [Straits Times]


A follow-up on an earlier report in the Straits Times, Singapore – ‘Clamour to learn Chinese language at global schools’ (Straits Times, Feburary 3, 2011). I was and probably still is guilty of the same, I know many non-Chinese who would speak and write Chinese better than I do. Back in my early schooling days, learning Chinese had no economic value, nor cultural capital, apart from its ethnic obligations and ‘baggage’. That was then, this is now –

Perhaps we should also ask why an increasing number of non-Chinese – notably Europeans, Americans and Australians – have mastered it, while Singaporeans are still grappling with how to encourage students to learn Chinese after all these years.

– – –

Tide turning for Chinese in schools
Time to go with the flow and learn it as China rises as an economic power, says Teo Han Wue
by Teo Han Wue
Source – Straits Times, published February 20, 2011

A class at One World International School rehearsing for a gongfu performance last month. There, Chinese is a compulsory subject for all students. -- ST PHOTO: SAMUEL HE

More than half of the 20 schools surveyed offer the language, while at least five of them have made it a compulsory subject for their preschoolers and primary school pupils.

Yet this may not be entirely surprising, if what I had experienced at two international conferences in Hangzhou last November is anything to go by.

The conferences, held back to back, were on the art of Wu Guanzhong and Lin Fengmian respectively. They had participants from countries such as the United States, England, France, Australia, South Korea, Japan and the Czech Republic.

Almost all the foreign participants spoke Mandarin. Although a few preferred to make their presentations in English, others were able to discuss and even debate in Mandarin quite comfortably.

The expert from the British Museum told me in fluent Mandarin after my presentation that she had found my paper Wu Guanzhong And Singapore zhen you yisi (‘really enjoyable’). We also chatted about Wu’s exhibition in London in 1992.

What I found especially fascinating were the conversations at mealtimes with these non-Chinese experts who spoke Mandarin readily and easily. For a moment, I thought Chinese was the international language.

A host, impressed with an Australian participant’s proper Mandarin and Beijing accent, teased his colleague over his thick Hangzhou accent: ‘See, her putonghua (Mandarin) is much better than yours.’

Like most of the foreign experts who had studied Chinese in their respective countries before a short stint in China, the Australian had learnt Chinese in Melbourne before spending some time in Beijing.

One morning over breakfast, a Czech museum director from Prague introduced to me her Japanese friend, who was based in Nanjing and had come to support her as an observer. Curious as to what language the Czech delegate spoke to her Japanese friend when they were alone together, I asked her about it. Her answer: ‘Mandarin.’

She said they had met when they were studying in China some years ago.

What I saw in Hangzhou made me reflect on the Singapore experience with the subject of mother tongue.

Have we not been debating if Chinese should be given greater stress? Should we waive the mother tongue requirement for students who cannot cope with it in school? Have we not been anxious that the stress on Chinese would compromise students’ command of English?

Perhaps we should also ask why an increasing number of non-Chinese – notably Europeans, Americans and Australians – have mastered it, while Singaporeans are still grappling with how to encourage students to learn Chinese after all these years.

Of course, global conditions now are far more conducive to students learning Chinese than, say, three or four decades ago.

Back in the 1970s, it was nearly impossible to convince students, especially those in an international school, that it would be worth their while to study Chinese. It was often seen as a language with little or no ‘economic value’, as China was then still embroiled in the Cultural Revolution.

This I know well enough because I had taught Chinese in a leading inter-national school here between 1971 and 1974. In fact, I was the only Chinese-language teacher in the entire school of about 700 students aged between 11 and 17.

It was daunting to teach Chinese at every level from complete beginner to A level, though I always had fewer than 30 students in total, with no more than 10 children in each class. Apart from ethnic Chinese children mainly from South-east Asia, who came to me only because their parents wanted them to, few others considered the language as an option.

There were also Chinese children who took French, German or Malay instead. Most of the Chinese who ended up in my class were resentful that their parents had forced them to take the language.

When told of the importance of Chinese as the language of a quarter of

humanity, a sharp-witted American-educated boy aged 13 retorted: ‘But, sir, the other three-quarters speak English.’

I remember a 14-year-old Chinese girl from the Philippines who just sat idly in my class and flatly refused to do anything. ‘Nope,’ she said adamantly when urged to give the language a try.

One day I noticed doodles all over the cover of her exercise book. They turned out to be slogans such as ‘Down with Mandarin!’, ‘Freedom to choose!’ and ‘In the year 2000, Mandarin will be unheard of!’

The militant tone was incongruous with the sweet girl who was one of the most outstanding students in the school. When her form teacher saw her year-end report, he lamented how I had ruined her otherwise immaculate record.

My sympathetic supervisor dismissed my problem as perennial, not unlike that of my colleagues who had to deal with ‘French haters’ among English children of average ability. But I was dealing with bright Chinese kids rejecting their own heritage.

This was almost 40 years ago. I would not blame those children for they could not have known any better. Who would have foreseen the rise of China as an economic powerhouse until recently?

The school continued to have only one Chinese-language teacher well into the mid-1990s. Today, it has more than 20 for half of the 2,900 students who have chosen to study Chinese.

For some time, I could not help but feel a sense of failure as a teacher. But I took comfort in the fact that it was an extreme challenge, which I was unable to meet due to my youthful inexperience then. Besides, I did have a few keen students too.

I had an opportunity to return to the school a few years ago to teach several eager students Chinese privately. I am glad my confidence has since been fully restored.

But I still wonder: Are there former students of mine whose children are in the international schools where Chinese is compulsory? Would they give them the freedom to choose? Or would their children resent being compelled to study the language, as they themselves once did?

In today’s changed circumstances, I will be surprised indeed if anyone refuses to be persuaded to go with the flow for his own good.

The writer is executive director of Art Retreat, incorporating the Wu Guanzhong Gallery.

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Filed under: Beijing Consensus, Charm Offensive, Chinese Model, Communications, Culture, Education, Greater China, Influence, Media, Nationalism, People, Public Diplomacy, Soft Power, The Chinese Identity, The construction of Chinese and Non-Chinese identities

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