Political aspects of teaching Classical Chinese at First Girls High School in Taipei

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This issue caused quite a hullabaloo more than a month ago and, during the runup to the national election that was going on at that time, it generated a lot of hot rhetoric.  It's important to note that First Girls High School is an elitist, influential institution that is very hard to get into.

The debate over how much and what sort of Classical Chinese to include in the curriculum grew quite heated, so naturally I quickly wrote a detailed post on the subject, but then my computer crashed because of one of the many dreaded, hated "updates" that I have to endure for the sake of "security" (the bane of my life), and I lost my carefully prepared post on the Classical Chinese debate — same thing happened to the draft of my post on the Tokyo restaurant sign that supposedly "hurt the feelings of the Chinese people".  It has taken me till now to find the time to reconstruct them.

Debate on teaching of classical Chinese intensifies in Taiwan:
NPP chair says reducing classical Chinese amount in textbooks does not lead to misbehavior among youth

By Sophia Yang, Taiwan News (12/10/23)

"Criticisms mounted from students about a comment by a Taipei First Girls' High School teacher, who argued that cutting the percentage of "classical Chinese" to be taught in textbooks is "shameless" (wúchǐ 無恥).  [VHM:  It was this word that ignited the explosion heard throughout Taiwan in the following weeks.]

"To meet the evolving demands of learning and skills development, the government proposed to amend the education curriculum guidelines issued by the Ministry of Education for textbook publishers and school teachers. …"

[contains links to various students and educators chipping in]

(source in Mandarin)

Supportive comments by New Power Party chairperson:

"Students can learn about a variety of topics under the new guidelines rather than being forced to memorize large amounts of classical Chinese texts. I do not see any issue here as a parent, and people around me agreed that their capabilities to process large amounts of data and information have improved when they are not required to memorize the classical texts," she said.

Comment from AntC:

On a personal note: "shameless" echoes the tone of my Classics master at the last remaining 'Grammar School' in the Borough / pretty much in Greater London, as support for teaching Latin and Greek was withdrawn. Even then, the only way I could study 'Greek Lit. in Translation' was outside school hours….

The same weekend that AntC sent me the above links, Mark Swofford sent me these comments and the links that follow them:

In case no one has sent you this yet, over the past week the subject of the role of classical Chinese writings in schools has been discussed a lot in Taiwan, prompted by a rant by a teacher at the top girls high school.

A lot of it is the usual "Kids these days lack propriety" kind of thing, with the addendum that a supposed lack of classical Chinese lit is to blame for this. It's important to note that typically at least one third of readings in schools here are from pre-twentieth-century China — not that the cultural conservatives make it sound that way.

I'm reminded of Ban Zhao, who way back in the Han dynasty was complaining about the youth of her day. Maybe they could add that to the textbooks….

A few links:

Reactions to criticism of classical Chinese content in schools mixed

Debate on teaching of classical Chinese intensifies in Taiwan

Guidelines limit classical Chinese, teacher claims

And lots of such stories in Mandarin

Here's the teacher who made the "shameless" remark, Alice Ou (Ōu Guìzhī 區桂芝):

(from the Taiwan News article cited above)

As soon as I saw this photograph, I was stunned because it showed Teacher Ou wearing a sport jacket with what appeared to be cursive alphabetic script on it.  Was she being an unwitting traitor to her own cause?  Before I drew any firm conclusions, I looked around to see if I could find any clearer closeup of her jacket.  Fortunately, somehow Mark Swofford dug one up and prefaced it with these remarks.

As for the shirt, as someone whose hobbies include looking for weird English on clothing in Taiwan, I can attest that sometimes cursive is a marker for French — which is usually actual French, as opposed to English often being represented by Chinglish. But in this case I think the shirt may have merely imitation cursive, something without written meaning in any language. Kind of like this.

Here's a more complete shot of the shirt:


The placard she is holding reads:

huíguī lìshǐ zhuānyèkè


Return to the history major


Selected readings


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    February 21, 2024 @ 11:35 am

    « my computer crashed because of one of the many dreaded, hated "updates" that I have to endure for the sake of "security" » — do what I do, Victor — run Windows 7. Microsoft guarantee that you will receive no further updates, and Malwarebytes Premium will provide all the security that you need.

  2. AntC said,

    February 21, 2024 @ 4:20 pm

    Thank you Prof Mair, I thought that post had disappeared forever.

    And indeed well done Mark S for finding a photo of that shirt/jacket. Now I'm intrigued by the other symbolism on it: is that some sort of eye of providence by the side-pocket?

  3. Christian Horn said,

    February 21, 2024 @ 6:14 pm

    Fascinating, thanks!
    Citing/memorizing classical Chinese texts also plays a role in Japanese education. I think in Japan that's seen as only culture related, and the political tensions with China are not pulled into this. Interesting to see that's a factor for Taiwan – but the China relations are also much more 'tense' for them, than for Japan.

  4. languagehat said,

    February 22, 2024 @ 9:11 am

    But in this case I think the shirt may have merely imitation cursive, something without written meaning in any language.

    That's possible, of course, but it seems to me equally possible that it's a reproduction of a letter/manuscript by someone with terrible handwriting. (If you saw a reproduction of one of my scribbled notes to myself you might well think it was imitation cursive.)

  5. Jonathan Smith said,

    February 22, 2024 @ 1:16 pm

    The concerns seem to be more broadly about claimed "去中國化" 'de-China-fication' of curricula, e.g., moving away from a China-oriented timeline approach to history towards more thematic/holistic consideration of East Asia as a whole. Which of course sounds great :P

    Normal human response from the teacher(s)… it feels like the powers that be are failing to emphasize what is important when what is really going on is that that they are failing to emphasize what you think is important and thus you.

    I don't see Ou's whole remarks anywhere but to be fair presumably "無恥" "缺德" "不倫" were not just thrown out there but were rhetorically embedded in the manner of "不倫" in "君臣、父子、夫婦、兄弟、朋友等五倫沒有了,所以這個課綱,是一個不倫的課綱。" 'As the five (Confucian) ethical relationships of ruler-minister, father-son, husband-wife, elder-younger brother, and friendship are now absent, these curricular guidelines are thus 'non-ethical' guidelines'."

  6. Aardvark Cheeselog said,

    February 22, 2024 @ 4:31 pm

    So, to clear up some terminology, what's being called "Classical Chinese" here is really more like "Imperial literary Chinese," i.e. texts composed before 1912. Not "Classical Chinese" in the sense of "the language of the Spring and Autumn Annals." True or false?

  7. Jonathan Smith said,

    February 22, 2024 @ 6:18 pm

    Some data points are (1) Taiwan reports in Chinese are largely using the term wenyanwen '文言文'; (2) Taiwan reports in English are largely using the term 'Classical Chinese'; (3) both kinds of reports are stating the the language (?) in question has been in continuous use for 3000 years; (4) the specific texts/terms being mentioned skew to literal Confucius, Xunzi and the like. So one doubts that late imperial literary Chinese was a pedagogical emphasis. And I assume they were not teaching early "Daoist" texts much as that would be about as nihilist as advocating for an independent Taiwan :D

  8. Aardvark Cheeselog said,

    February 23, 2024 @ 1:54 pm

    So, literally Five Classics and Four Books, and not Dream of the Red Chamber or Journey to the West and definitely not any kind of 19th-century reform thinking then.

    I concur, modern pre-adult students probably are better served spending their study hours on other topics, mostly.

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