A simple-minded approach to a difficult language

Literature and Society
November 26, 1999

I have been teaching modern Chinese literature in the original to western students for nearly 20 years, first as a graduate instructor at the University of California, Berkeley, then at the School of Oriental and African Studies, in London. It is by no means an easy task, much more difficult than teaching modern Chinese literature in translation. There is a fundamental dilemma in such a course. On the literary side, the students are rather mature. They have learned how to read very complicated works in western languages, through saturated exposure to films if not through adequate reading in literature.

On the other hand, after studying Chinese, the most difficult language in the world so far as the writing system is concerned, for only two or three years, they have great difficulty in reading real literature in Chinese. By real literature I mean not those simple pieces selected or rewritten for beginners, but the literature that is appreciated by Chinese readers and esteemed by Chinese critics: that which involves a subtle game, playing with the various components of the modern Chinese language. The majority of the students, even in their fourth year, are simply not up to the level of, say, fourth-year students of French, who can comfortably read, enjoy, and appreciate Andre Gide, or Alain Robbe-Grillet. This discrepancy causes serious problems in the selection of materials for teaching modern Chinese literature. In classical Chinese literature, the problem is less serious, since the texts are short, and even Chinese students have to rely on footnotes to understand the language. Thus, the problem is unique to the teaching of modern Chinese literature to western students.

I was therefore interested to review this Princeton textbook of modern Chinese, to see how this frustrating discrepancy would be addressed. Unfortunately, my fear before reading it has proven to be true.

The compiler, Chih-p'ing Chou, has made a selection of what one might call simple literature. Almost all the pieces are short essays, supposedly humorous but actually repeating old jokes of how East meets West, easy in theme and relatively easy in language, especially given the separately compiled, extremely thick vocabulary book. Nine out of the ten pieces predate 1950. The only recent piece is by Wang Meng, and does not do him justice at all. The whole compilation can be summed up in one word: simple-minded.

There is only one piece of fiction, a story by an amateurish woman writer written in 1938, a kind of extremely didactic second-world-war propaganda, which was supposed to make patriotic Chinese blood boil but will only embarrass students of literature, whether Chinese or westerners.

Frankly, it is doubtful whether the compiler has made a sufficient effort in his search for modern Chinese literary works, especially those by the younger generation of writers after 1985, when Chinese literature really became mature and which will not pale beside the best of any literature in the world. The selection creates a wrong impression of modern Chinese literature: that it consists of no more than light-hearted or sentimental little pieces written by the supposedly big names of the 1930s. This is highly misleading, like a textbook of modern English literature containing only short, light-hearted essays by writers like Somerset Maugham, Roald Dahl and so on.

If a syllabus for teaching modern Chinese film were composed only of nostalgic films produced in the 1930s, it would surely meet with loud protest from everyone. The only reason this textbook should be tolerated is the old rationale: that the Chinese language is too difficult for students to cope with real literature. This textbook has not solved the problem, but evaded it.

Personally I prefer to offer my advanced students a selection of really good modern Chinese literature, despite the fact that they have to work harder in preparing their lessons. The texts should provide real challenges to the students, whetting their appetite to read more. I favour texts such as Shi Tiesheng's "Fate", a story of powerful irony showing the agonising struggle of Chinese writers today to approach religion. I have also found the students fascinated by Can Xue's story of wild day-dreaming "The Little Cabin on the Hill", which always provokes heated debate on when a story ceases to be a story. My students are also taken with Tie Ning's "Cotton Stack", which shocks them with its powerful condemnation of violence and sexual abuse in modern China.

For poetry, we read works by both the "misty generation" and the "post-misty generation", so that students encounter modernity and postmodernity in the Chinese context.

I do not say I have solved the problem of students yearning to read real literature with their weak command of language. One has to be careful not to choose pieces that are "extremist" in style, by avoiding, for instance, Jia Pingwa's stories that overly relish a classical flavour, or those by Wang Shuo that play too much with street language.

I have to acknowledge that this is a useful textbook, but it should be called simply an "Advanced Chinese Reader". At least some attention should have been paid to modern Chinese literature. We teachers of Chinese literature in the West have to remember that our students will play an important role in the cultural exchange between China and the West; we have a responsibility to show them modern Chinese literature at its best, even though it is difficult to do so.

Henry Y. H. Zhao is senior lecturer in Chinese, School of Oriental and African Studies.

Literature and Society: Advanced Reader of Modern Chinese. First Edition

Editor - Chih-p'ing Chou
ISBN - 0 691 01044 7
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £31.00
Pages - 303

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