I’ve heard a few foreigners teaching English or French in China say: ‘My students are really dumb. They’re so passive. They never take an initiative.’ After teaching my first classes in China, I realised, indeed, that many students hated inductive hands-on learning methods. I would try to make them guess the meaning of a new word or describe a grammatical rule from an example I gave. Most of them stood silent; some entered a kind of error mode, where they just repeated ‘bu dong, bu dong, bu dong’ – ‘I don’t understand’.
It doesn’t take much to find out, these students were not stupid: they were terrified. Terrified of saying the wrong thing; terrified of guessing meaning, rather than memorizing and repeating. My intuition was confirmed in practice. I decided I would acknowledge their terror – rather than deny it. I strove to create a safe space, by mocking my own approximate Mandarin, and explicitly repeating that, yes, it was terrifying to learn a new language, and guess the meaning of a new word. It worked, I had nodding heads, first, and after a few weeks of extreme psychological cushioning, a class of smart, enthusiastic and funny students. The same who repeated ‘bu dong, bu dong’, were guessing meaning – and often got it right!
They were able, but it was not their spontaneous way of going about it. The Chinese way of learning is based on reproduction and repetition. There is a reason, beyond ideology: how else would you learn the characters? Most languages are transcribed alphabetically: a series of 20 to 30 signs is enough to reproduce all the sounds of the spoken language. Therefore, once a speaker has mastered them – and it’s not very long – they can start writing, and reading, and arguing. Not so with Chinese: each ‘unit of meaning’ – a syllable with a particular tone – corresponds to one character. There is no simple and diret relation between a character and the word it represents. Characters have to be learnt, through repetition and imitation. Before exploring individual thinking, people must go through the long and slow process of learning from the past.
This doesn’t mean Chinese people are incapable of verbal creativity. Chinese has developed sms abbreviations, like the funny ‘3q’ – read ‘san kyu’, using the Chinese word for ‘3’, ‘san’ – for thank you. But, traditionally at least, personal expression was more about embodying tradition in a particular way, than breaking away with it. The ultimate expression of this would be calligraphy. Calligraphy is an art of self-expression, achieved through the written interpretation of chracters on paper. Expression – the self – is not about making something our of nothing. It is about embodying what you received in a certain way; it is about relating to your own tradition.
Gernet, reflecting on the work of Chinese philosopher Wang Fuzhi, says China is about commentary and slow deformation, when the West is about Debate and frontal opposition. One particular expression of this is how historical writing form an important part of the Chinese canon of Classics – unlike the West, where fiction and philosophy dominate. The Chinese way of reasoning starts from the particular, from what happened, rather than what may be. History matters more than fiction. Is it still the case today? And how much does that inform the ‘Chinese worldview’? Also, how much do we foreigners need to know about Chinese history, before we can really start discussing and debating with Chinese people – rather than repeat ‘bu dong, bu dong’ – I don’t understand China? Comments are welcome!