Upaya: the joy of teaching Classical Chinese

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One of my favorite books for everyday living is Irma S. Rombauer's Joy of Cooking.  The author's cheerful approach to her craft in the kitchen is similar to my jubilant upāya उपाय ("expedient pedagogical means; skill-in-means; skillful means" > fāngbiàn 方便 ["convenient"]) in the classroom.

In my classes, especially Introduction to Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese (LS/CC), we don't just read through texts with the aid of vocabularies, commentaries, annotations, and grammar notes.  We live the texts, act them out, draw them on the board, debate them, chant them, analyze them, get at their profound philosophical significance, plumb their esthetic depths.

One of my guiding principles for teaching LS/CC is to let the students realize that I am keenly sensitive to the rhythm with which they read a text, be it prose or poetry.  Often, when they recite a text, I can tell right away whether they understand its basic structure.  I glean this from the way they pause and the intonation they impart.  If they do not understand the sentence, from the flow of their reading I usually know immediately in what way they misunderstand.  That saves a lot of time in getting into what's going on in their mind when they try to explicate the sentence assigned to them.

In our last class last week, we were reading a passage from the Mencius (author 372-289 BC), Liáng Huì wáng 梁惠王 II.22:

Téng Wén gōng wèn yuē:`Téng, xiǎo guó yě. Jiélì yǐ shì dàguó, zé bùdé miǎn yān. Rú zhī hé zé kě?'


"Duke Wen of Teng asked [Mencius], saying, 'Teng is a small state.  We exhaust our strength to serve the large states, but [still] cannot be exempt from their exactions.  What can be done so that the result will be satisfactory?"

The question "Rú zhī hé zé kě 如之何則可?" is widely recognized to be a thorny construction.  It occurs two other times in this chapter; each time it has to be translated differently according to the context.

Literally, "like it how then can?"

I asked one of the students to read that passage.  I could tell from the way she read it that she didn't understand what it meant.  So I went around the whole room of twelve students (there were also auditors present, but I didn't call on them), asking each of them to read the sentence aloud in Mandarin (Japanese and Korean pronunciation are also allowed, as are Cantonese and other languages of the Sinosphere when they are spoken by members of the class).

The students basically read the vexed utterance in three different ways:

1. rú zhī / hé / zé kě

2. rú zhī / hé zé kě

3. rú zhī hé / zé kě

The class neatly divided into three groups of four students each.  I knew that two of the groups were wrong and that one of the groups was right, but I didn't want to tell them outright which groups were wrong and which was correct.  I wanted them to discover for themselves the importance of proper parsing.

So I asked them to divide up into their respective groups and go into three separate corners of the classroom to caucus.  I allowed them five minutes to discuss among themselves what the sentence meant, analyze the grammar, and come up with a reasonable translation.

After the allotted time, groups 1 and 2 were still deliberating and hadn't come to any consensus or conclusion, while group 3 had quickly and clearly sorted everything out and were able to announce their collective interpretation:  "how shall I / we handle / deal with it [the situation] such that it will be feasible?"

Then we reconvened the class as a whole and went over group 3's solution together, the result being that groups 1 and 2 also acceded to it as making the most sense.  Above all, the class as a whole came to the realization that, when reading a LS/CC sentence, one must be keenly sensitive to its proper parsing.  In this and other exercises throughout the year, the students become aware of the importance of rhythm, prosody, pausing, intonation, stress, emphasis and other such suprasegmental features if one is to gain a full and correct understanding of a sentence or passage.

Such experiences, which happen in every class session, are but one of the many reasons that make teaching and learning so much fun and why I and the students always leave the classroom exhilarated at the end of a session.


Selected readings


  1. Richard John Lynn said,

    October 18, 2022 @ 12:46 pm

    Well, "Joy"–occasionally that happened when I got something across to students, who seemed to respond with revelatory facial expressions–as if to say, wow, so that's what X means (and why). Reading this present blog stirred up some long lost memories: my first experience in teaching classical/literary Chinese was at Auckland University in New Zealand (1970-1972). Had some terrifically good students there–including Paul Harrison, Chris Brockett, and Tim Bradstock. These guys had, I seem to remember, studied lots of Latin before coming to university, so absolutely no problem analyzing syntax and teaching CL in terms of grammatical categories. 1972-1975 at UMASS, Amherst was, however, and entirely different story. Before doing anything with Chinese texts, I had to teach basic English grammar–to public school students who had been denied all acquaintance with such things as nouns, subjects, objects, verbs, etc. during that era of "language as it it popularly spoken" (as long as it sounds "good" it's OK) and learning foreign languages" was an obsolete elitist activity, superfluous to all things that really (not much "joy" there, by the way). Let's move on. Two principles of teaching CL has always directed not only teaching that subject but also as it applies to my own work as a translator: (1) Context as parameters of possibility and (2) application of syntactic equivalents.
    (1) means appreciation of how historical textual context limits and defines possibility of meaning for CL terms and syntactic constructions. Global search in the vast databases of CL texts now avalable really is the way to go! (2) is trickiest to apply in translating Chinese classical poetry (shi). "Equivalence" does not mean "same"–some attempts to translate Chinese classical verse into English that follow CL grammar (word order, actually) have been tried, but, in my view at least, have only produced rather poor results. But that's not what I mean. This blog is no place for details; So, for what I mean about "syntactic equivalents" please take a look at an old review of mine: "Mei Yao-ch’en and the Development of Early Sung Poetry. by Jonathan Chaves; Heaven My blanket, Earth My pillow: Poems from Sung Dynasty China by Yang Wan-li. by Jonathan Chaves.”, The Journal of Asian Studies, 36.3 (1977).

    Cheers, Dick

  2. Jonathan Smith said,

    October 18, 2022 @ 8:32 pm

    > take a passage in say Taiwanese represented entirely in Chinese characters
    > in the hands of say a monolingual Mandarin speaker, what is such a text? They imagine they can understand a certain amount of it, yet they can't produce anything that could meaningfully be called "Taiwanese"; speakers of this latter would find such a person's attempts to "read" the text out in Mandarin at best to sap all that is vital from the text, leaving only a curious pseudo-Mandarin husk, at worst to simply be (ok at times hilarious) garbage

    mostly this is part of an argument for *always* preferring Romanization (or some other phonetic system) to Chinese characters in representing Chinese languages one might personally care about, such as Taiwanese, but also requires that
    > "Classical Chinese" however it is understood and conveyed (mostly as pseudo-Mandarin) must be garbage to exactly the same (if not a greater?) degree ("dregs and dross of the ancients"?), difference being that we lack the perspective from which to appreciate what is missing. not sure whether to be frustrated/inspired/other by this implication…

  3. Sanchuan said,

    October 29, 2022 @ 5:54 pm

    Is choice 2 really so wrong? Is 如之 modifier to 何, perhaps? Does 如之何 stand for something like "像+那样的+什么" here? Is that why they are best read together?

    I was probably misled by the English into reading 如之 as its own subordinate clause (as it is were "如果要做该做的事", translated here as "so that the result will be satisfactory") and then the rest again as a separate clause ("…, 怎么[就]办?" / "…, 什么[就]可以做?").

    Never mind… Save to say I would have enjoyed that class no end!

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