Kulchur wars: Literary Sinitic YES; Hip hop NO

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The following article by Xiong Bingqi appeared in today's (2/1/18) China Daily, China's leading English language newspaper:  "Ancient texts not a burden on students".  Here are the first two paragraphs of the article:

The newly revised senior high school curriculum includes more ancient Chinese poems and prose for recitation, sparking a public discussion on whether it will increase the burden on students. A Ministry of Education official has said recitation should not be regarded as a burden, as it will make students more familiar with traditional culture.

Some people consider an increase in the number of subjects, texts or homework raises the students' burden, while reducing them eases their burden. But they fail to identify the real source of students' burden. By learning something they are interested in or something that is inspiring, the students will actually gain in knowledge and resolve, so such content cannot be an additional burden on them.

Try as I may, I cannot understand the logic of these paragraphs, particularly as expressed in their concluding sentences.  If students feel that additional recitation of Literary Sinitic (Classical Chinese) texts on top of the subjects they already are responsible for is burdensome, it doesn't help for educational authorities in favor of such new requirements to tell them it is edifying for them to recite these ancient works.

What is even more questionable is the author's attempt to put reciting ancient works of literature on a par with physical education classes as innately "good" for them.

Being required to recite ancient texts in Literary Sinitic (Classical Chinese) as part of the school curriculum is comparable to students in American and European schools being required to recite texts in Latin.  That used to be the case a century or more ago, but now Latin in our schools is strictly optional, if it is available at all.  There must have been a reason for eliminating Latin from the essential curriculum in our schools.

China had its own vernacular revolution centered on the May 4th Movement (1919), yet now it seems that — under the Chinese Communist Party — the authorities are backtracking, though students are none too happy about the volte-face the government is initiating.

Meanwhile, as for the opposite end of the language spectrum, it is banned:  "Off beat: China’s hip-hop ban", by Frances Kitt, The Interpreter (Lowy Institute), 1/31/18.

In the words of a viral internet meme:  nǐ yǒu freestyle ma? 你有freestyle吗?("do you freestyle?")


"Greasiness, awkwardness, slothfulness, despondency — Chinese memes of the year" (12/31/17)


  1. Vance Maverick said,

    February 1, 2018 @ 9:42 pm

    Clearly, if what one learns in a class is valuable, no upper limit on quantity is possible — every quantum of learning fully repays the effort spent. Indeed, I don't understand why we haven't all learned everything already.

  2. Paul Garrett said,

    February 1, 2018 @ 9:46 pm

    Yes, as Vance Maverick observes, surely everyone has learned everything already, so, surely, everything everyone does is based on perfect information. :)

  3. D.O. said,

    February 1, 2018 @ 9:58 pm

    Apparently, Chinese authorities are trying to convey the meaning of the Russian saying своя ноша не тянет (svoja nosha ne tjanet) meaning something like "one's own load doesn't burden".

  4. Vicki said,

    February 1, 2018 @ 10:15 pm

    Maybe learning something one is interested in wouldn't be a burden*; it seems unlikely that all, or even most, Chinese high school students are interested in recitation of literary Sinitic texts.

    *or, at least, be less of a burden: no matter how interesting a person's studies are, there are a finite number of hours in a week, and the student, being human, needs some of them for sleep, meals, and other basic self-care. They know full well that at some point, the time spent on recitation of old literature will be time not spent on something else.

  5. AntC said,

    February 1, 2018 @ 10:37 pm

    Having learnt Latin at school (voluntarily) and English 'Language and Literature' (compulsory), "something that is inspiring" has a lot more to do with the quality of the teacher than their subject: I enjoyed Latin immensely, and have remembered much of it — which has been of huge value in picking up other languages.

    OTOH the English teacher made it abundantly clear my stream was never destined to study EngLit at Oxbridge — which was the main focus of his efforts in the school; and that dragging us to 'O' level was as uninspiring for him as it was for us. His particular torture for me was to make me read Antony to his Caesar; then to rise from the dead to usurp me in reading Antony's funeral oration.

    Oh, yes I remember English as a subject: for all the wrong reasons and precisely because it was the very opposite of inspiring.

  6. loonquawl said,

    February 2, 2018 @ 3:38 am

    While i am with Victor Mair as in his failure to comprehend the meaning, or rahter follow the logic, of the paragraphs he cites, i must also report an incomprehension towards his paragraph regarding the abolition of Latin at western schools:
    Only because something happend, no coherent reason has to be the cause, and even if there exists such a reason, it does not have to be good, neither at the time, nor in retrospect.
    The German school system of the 1870s-1920s was very different from the school system we have today (and had large Latin-parts). That school system was passed by (i go for the more non-cause-implying 'was passed by' rather than 'produced') a plethora of later Nobel prize winners – and also the people responsible for the two world wars and the atrocities commited therein.
    As in the economic "sciences", Education can ever only be interpreted as a series of co-occurences and correlations – no occurence can ever be repeated under the same circumstances as would be neccessary for a hard science.
    To posit that a single decision taken in Education had a specific effect simply lacks provability.
    So maybe the Chinese will supercharge their students by having them recite old poems, maybe it will backfire atrociously – i think there is no way of predicting the outcome of such a decision, nor will the state of education in ten years be retraceable to that decision.

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    February 2, 2018 @ 4:28 am

    "There must have been a reason for eliminating Latin from the essential curriculum in our schools". I would venture to suggest "stupidity", verging on "insanity". I quote Neville M Gwynne, author of Gwynne's Latin, of whom it was been written "His teaching methods are very much in accordance with the traditional, common-sense ones, refined over the centuries, that were used almost everywhere until they were abolished worldwide in the 1960s and subsequently". Gwynne writes : "Throughout the entire history of education during the last thousand years or so, up until the 1960s, what is said here would have been accepted almost universally — throughout Europe, and until a little earlier, throughout America north and south — as ordinary common sense … For much of that time, Latin, together with Greek but with children embarking on learning it before Greek, actually was education. So much was this so that, until the 1950s, Latin and Greek were the only subjects formally taught at all leading schools in England. Indeed, in some of those schools — as also in Harvard University in America — it was required that even outside the classroom only those languages could be spoken. The reason for this exclusive concentration on Latin and Greek in schools was not, of course, that our ancestors supposed there to be no need to study the other basic subjects — English, mathematics, one more more currently spoken foreign languages, history, geography and what was commonly called Scripture. The eighteenth and nineteenths centuries, after all, were a period during which Britain shone in every single human endeavour, academic and practical, to such an extent that, 'single-handed', Britain was responsible for the Industrial Revolution and most of the scientific inventions of that period that changed the world, and, for better of worse, all this while producing one of the greatest literatures of every kind of all time. No, the reason that the non-classical subjects were not taught in schools was they they were considered to be so easy by comparison with Latin and Greek, especially to people with minds and characters trained by the study of the Classics, that it was not thought worth wasting valuable schoolroom time on them, Picking them up was something that could more appropriately be done during the school holidays and in other spare time" .

    Earlier in the book, at the commencement of Chapter One, Gwynne writes as follows : "Latin is, quite simply, the most utterly wonderful … thing. Please believe that it is not because of mental laziness that I have chosen that most all-embracing of abstract nouns, 'thing'. Rather, a more specific term — 'language', 'subject', 'element of education', 'cultural feature' — might exclude one or more valuable aspects of Latin that I should not wish excluded. Here are just some of those aspects of Latin, the ones which spring most readily to mind".

    The list then commences :

    — Latin is an academic subject easy enough for the least intelligent of us to grasp all its basic elements, and yet difficult enough to be demanding for its greatest scholars.
    — As an instrument for training mind and characterm Latin has no parallel, as we shall be seeing in Chapter Three and elsewhere.
    — For well over a thousand years, Latin was the means of communication that united the whole of Europe culturally and in every other significant way.
    — Latin is the direct ancestor of, between them, the five so-called Romance languages (Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian) of the largest European language group, and of both the official South American languages (Spanish and Portuguese). 'Romance' comes from the Latin word Romanicus, meaning 'of Roman style' or 'Roman-made'.

    followed by a further dozen or so similar bullet-points. "Standing on the shoulders of giants" (in this case Neville M Gwynne), I rest my case.

  8. David Marjanović said,

    February 2, 2018 @ 6:56 am

    Try as I may, I cannot understand the logic of these paragraphs, particularly as expressed in their concluding sentences.

    There is no logic there, just wishful thinking: "it ought not to be a burden, so it cannot possibly be a burden". Simple as that.

    — As an instrument for training mind and characterm Latin has no parallel, as we shall be seeing in Chapter Three and elsewhere.

    Speaking of wishful thinking… I had six years of Latin in school, more or less voluntarily, can still recite a few lines of the Aeneid, and have not observed such effects. Sure, learning a language with a lot of noun inflection does teach one a couple of things, but we could've had the same ones if we had started learning Russian two years earlier.

    — For well over a thousand years, Latin was the means of communication that united the whole of Europe culturally and in every other significant way.

    Therefore, everyone who wants to understand west-central European history by getting anywhere near the original sources must learn Latin (…and not just Classical Latin). Everyone else, though?

    the five so-called Romance languages

    What a spectacular undercount!

  9. Victor Mair said,

    February 2, 2018 @ 9:45 am

    From Christoph Harbsmeier:

    i, for my part, may not believe in God, but I thank the Lord that I learnt Latin and Greek reasonably well. It just so happens that this has made ALL the difference to my life. And I am delighted to report that my son feels very much the same way about his Latin and Greek background.

    But who am I to tell others what to use their time on. I must admit that I did also WASTE a furious amount of time while learning Latin and Greek, and thereafter while failing to learn classical Chinese well enough. It is just that I think back to wasting that time with immense and lasting pleasure.


  10. liuyao said,

    February 2, 2018 @ 9:58 am

    I don't know a whole lot about Chinese high schools these days, but only very few (the "elite" high schools) have the option of "electives" — in non-English foreign languages, local history and such. Most schools have a strict curriculum for all subjects, dictated from above, and any subject that is not tested on the college entrance exam (gaokao) is not taken seriously by the students or even the teachers.

    For some background if one wants to make comparison, the modern standard Chinese–if we don't count the vernacular xiaoshuo of Ming and Qing–is only around for 100 years (the centennial of Hu Shih's essay, itself written in literary Chinese, was just last year), and a large part of the 100 years was filled with political propaganda that is hardly of more value than poetry and prose in literary Chinese, and work from recent decades don't make into the textbooks yet. The Chinese class textbooks (yuwen, lit. speech and writing) for all 12 years consist mostly of short unmemorable excerpts, more for the purpose of learning characters than for the literary value; no book-length reading is assigned, except maybe as optional readings in summer.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    February 2, 2018 @ 12:42 pm

    In my early years at Penn, I used to teach a course on "Modern Chinese Literature" and found it very stimulating, as did my students. It dealt mainly with Republican period (1912-1949) authors, of whom there were many outstanding poets, fiction writers, and essayists. I think it's sad that these authors are not taught in the PRC today, but the CCP probably cannot tolerate them because they were too much imbued with the spirit of democracy and freedom, though they were by no means preachy about it.

    In my opinion, the Republican period produced by far the best literature of the 20th century.

  12. julie lee said,

    February 2, 2018 @ 2:53 pm

    @ Philip Taylor:

    ""Latin is, quite simply, the most utterly wonderful … thing. "

    I was especially struck by this sentence. Just as I was struck recently when a Chinese friend, who has been studying English as a second language for several decades and is still studying it, said to me: "English is such a wonderful language. It is so beautiful."
    I was struck because since I use English all the time, I've been taking it for granted. Churchill once wrote: "The English sentence is a wonderful thing."

    Political considerations aside, perhaps Chinese people tend to take Modern Chinese for granted.

  13. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 2, 2018 @ 3:36 pm

    "the five so-called Romance languages"

    What a spectacular undercount!

    "[B]oth the official South American languages (Spanish and Portuguese)" must be pretty close. I get six official ones and more "co-official" and "recognized" ones than I care to count.

  14. Zeppelin said,

    February 2, 2018 @ 4:48 pm

    Philip Taylor: Between your recent post ( http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=36350#comment-1545373 ) embodying the "overwrought, reactionary peever" stereotype, the fact that your username links to the homepage of a small hotel in a small English town, and your latest letter-to-the-editor in this thread, I'm almost convinced that you must be portraying a Basil Fawlty-style character.

  15. Philip Taylor said,

    February 2, 2018 @ 5:07 pm

    Small Cornish town, please. And no, all contributions are perfectly serious – the fact that I frequently disagree with the majority opinion is simply a reflection of the fact that I prefer to form my own opinions rather than be unduly influenced by the opinions of others.

  16. Terry Hunt said,

    February 2, 2018 @ 5:55 pm

    @ Philip Taylor:

    To pre-empt fruitless searches by others, I should first point out that it's Nevile (M.) Gwynne, not 'Neville'.

    Gwynne seems from what I can discover to be somewhat, over-enthusiastic about Latin (amongst other topics). His quoted assertion that:
    ". . . until the 1950s, Latin and Greek were the only subjects formally taught at all leading schools in England. Indeed, in some of those schools — as also in Harvard University in America — it was required that even outside the classroom only those languages could be spoken."
    sounds to me like nonsense on stilts. As an English ex-public schoolboy born in the 1950s (and hence a Latin student myself from 1968), this is a description of historically recent English society that I simply do not recognise. If anyone can demonstrate that I am mistaken, I will, in accordance with the saying, go to the foot of our stairs.

    I believe Prof. Pullum may have some views on this topic, which I would relish reading.

  17. Philip Taylor said,

    February 2, 2018 @ 6:02 pm

    ("Nevile" v. "Neville"). Perfectly correct; I apologise for my earlier error. "Neville" is certainly the more common spelling (by a factor of around 100:1, at least in the U.K.) but a quick check of an e-mail from the gentleman in question confirms that he does indeed spell his given name with a single "l". Mea culpa.

  18. Zeppelin said,

    February 2, 2018 @ 6:29 pm

    Philip Taylor: Surely any Cornish town is also an English town, Cornwall being part of England (however the locals may feel about this).

  19. Philip Taylor said,

    February 2, 2018 @ 6:32 pm

    Zeppelin: the vast majority of the English would undoubtedly agree with you, I am sure; I am by no means convinced that the majority of the Cornish would.

  20. Zeppelin said,

    February 2, 2018 @ 6:47 pm

    Philip Taylor: Hence "however the locals may feel about this". Whatever your views on Cornish autonomy, the place is currently an English county.
    It is of course entirely in-character for a Cornish Basil Fawlty to be peevishly touchy about this subject.

  21. Geoff said,

    February 2, 2018 @ 10:21 pm

    @Philip Taylor
    I studied Latin and Ancient Greek for 10 years. Obviously it had enough interest to keep me going, but I don't delude myself that it made me a better or wiser person, and I don't think it made me better at anything else.
    Study ancient languages because you enjoy it, by all means. But in this day and age it's silly to think that that's anything more than an elite hobby for a small minority. No joy will come from trying to attract students by saying 'It'll help you with your [something else].' The quickest and best way to get better at something else is to study the something else directly.

  22. Philip Taylor said,

    February 3, 2018 @ 12:43 am

    Zeppelin : No, Cornwall is currently an English Duchy. Historically/etymologically, a county was governed by a Count, a duchy by a Duke. HRH The Prince of Wales is Duke of Cornwall. But far more importantly, we had a long and interesting debate here recently concerning the importance of using gender-neutral pronouns when referring to trans-gender individuals — by the same token, one should surely pay equal respect to the wishes of another minority (the Cornish), the majority of whom regard themselves as Cornish, not English. Indeed, it is not at all uncommon in Cornwall to hear a local speak of "crossing the border" when referring to leaving Cornwall and entering Devon. (For the benefit of American readers, it is not possible to leave Cornwall by land without entering Devon). It may also be significant that we have the adjective "Cornish", just as we have "Welsh", "Scots" (or "Scottish"), "Irish" and "Manx", although Cornwall is not unique in that respect — "Kent"/"Kentish" is another example that springs to mind.

  23. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 3, 2018 @ 10:06 am

    I wrote I get six official ones and more "co-official" and "recognized" ones than I care to count.

    Or seven if you count Papiamento.

  24. Peter Erwin said,

    February 3, 2018 @ 10:13 am

    @ Philip Taylor:
    Zeppelin : No, Cornwall is currently an English Duchy.

    Um, no. The "Duchy of Cornwall" is a private estate consisting of land in 23 different English and Welsh counties. The largest fraction of the Duchy's land is actually in (the county of) Devon; land in (the county of) Cornwall only accounts for about 13% of the total (and is a tiny, tiny fraction of the total land in Cornwall, of course).


  25. Philip Taylor said,

    February 3, 2018 @ 10:25 am

    Peter Erwin : Thank you — once again I stand corrected.

  26. Doc Rock said,

    February 3, 2018 @ 4:21 pm

    Having had six years of Latin, including the Aeneid & De Rerum Natura, 58 or so years ago and a couple of Classical Chinese [my major was Korean literature and some was studied with a traditional-style Korean teacher of Classical Chinese] I have some not inconsiderable sympathy both for Xiong Bingqi's position and also for the students, many of whom may be less motivated. I must say how much I appreciate the foundation that Caesar, Cicero, Virgil, and Lucretius [plus a little Xenephon] laid for my subsequent language learning. As a classicist of sorts I do worry about students losing ever more contact with their cultural context, whether for good or ill.

  27. Mike F said,

    February 4, 2018 @ 11:41 am

    It reads like troll logic.

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