The classical connoisseur

Here’s another offering in the ‘three questions’ vein … this time to Leonidas on something a little less contemporary than NATO bombs (though equally violent?!): ancient China. What I’m specifically interested in is the extent to which young Chinese know and care about classical Chinese literature and language, given China’s breakneck rush to get as far away from its past as possible in the last century.

[A couple of quick notes for anyone who needs them: classical Chinese is different to modern Chinese in both its grammar (think ‘Beowulf’, unless it’s a memory from school you’d prefer to forget) and its characters. Traditional characters are more complex and beautiful than their simplified brethren, for whom they were dumped – like an overly expensive girlfriend – in the 50s.]


1. How many young Chinese (not just at Beida!) do you think are familiar with classical Chinese language and literature?

To answer this question clearly, it is necessary to give a definition to the word “familiar”, that is, how familiar can be called familiar? Or, more explicitly, who can be said to be familiar with classical Chinese language and literature. A professor specializing in this field? A student majoring in Chinese language and literature? A person able to recite some classical Chinese works? A person capable of appreciating some classical Chinese works? A standard has to be set, though it is hard, to further the discussion. My standard is that one who is familiar with classical Chinese literature must:

  • First, have a command of the common sense of classical Chinese language and literature including the common meaning of the often-used characters, the grammar of ancient Chinese differentiating from that of modern Chinese (these are for language), and basic information on famous writers and poets, and several great works of theirs (these are for literature).
  • Second, he can recite some paragraphs or some sentences from these excellent works and know the meaning of them.
  • Third, he can roughly understand a certain work with the help of the relevant dictionaries.

By my standard, I think perhaps 10% of university students in China have this familiarity with classical Chinese language and literature.

2. Isn’t classical Chinese just a relic with no real connection to modern China?

Absolutely, classical Chinese is not just a relic. On the contrary, it has a connection to modern China in many aspects.

When one is appreciating a classical Chinese work, he must have some knowledge of classical Chinese. Classical Chinese can tell one the evolution of the meaning of a certain character in modern Chinese, thus making it possible to use it correctly and exactly. Among learned people, classical Chinese is often used in conversation, letters and essays. Even for villagers who have not been educated so much, classical Chinese is also close to their daily life, appearing in the dialects they use, though villagers are ignorant of the fact.

Admittedly, the modern Chinese occupies a much higher percentage in usage than the classical one. However, the latter is in use today and is exerting its influence on the modern life, whether we realize the fact or not.

3. What do you think of the idea of mainland China using traditional characters?

Despite the advocacy from some persons, especially foreign ones, the proposal cannot gain my approval that the traditional Chinese should be used in mainland China instead of the simplified version.

My reasons in favor of simplified Chinese are:

  • First, it is easier to learn, and consequently is quite helpful to decrease the rate of the illiteracy in China.
  • Second, it has been for several decades and the mainland is used to it.
  • Third, it works effectively. It can be written faster and is more understandable due to its simplicity.

Common reasons held by the exponents of traditional Chinese are:

  • First, it presents a clearer picture of the meaning of characters. Actually, this is wrong. Most of the characters used in simplified Chinese are different to the ones in traditional Chinese and can also help readers to guess their meanings.
  • Second, it is traditional. However, the presumption that traditional is good is doubtable. Even though the presumption stood impregnably, what we use would be “more traditional Chinese” instead of the traditional Chinese proposed. “More traditional Chinese” here means Chinese which is older. In fact, characters used are varying all the time. The characters used in Tang Dynasty were different from the ones used in Han Dynasty. For the people in Tang Dynasty, the latter were of course more traditional than the former, but they chose the former. If we just pursue tradition, hieroglyphs must be the best choice.
  • Of course, simplified Chinese is far from perfection, with some flaws remaining in it, for example, the similarity between some pairs of characters. But I think we benefit more than we suffer from simplified Chinese

[NB: that last answer’s in line with what most Chinese netizens are saying, as translated by chinaSMACK. See CDT too]

GRE: worse than GBH?

An unmissable feature of the reading rooms at Beida are the Towers of Babels, or – for the non-engineering students – the more precarious Leaning Towers of Pisa, constructed of GRE books. That’s Graduate Record Examinations for those of you who are not Chinese, applying for an American university, and as a consequence in the library hoping your neighbour is an architecture major.

It’s a comprehensive test of language (vocabulary and analytical writing) and maths skills which can be decisive in your application. Leonidas is preparing for it now: he tells me he will be tested on a selection from 15,000 English words in the vocabulary section. And we’re not talking about words like ‘eat’ and ‘bright’ here. We’re talking ‘masticate’ and ‘incandescent’. Remember, this isn’t a test for Chinese students: it’s a test designed for Americans taken by Chinese students.

So today, like every day for the past few months and every day for the next few, Leonidas will revise a page of words in his preparation book. I once did this with Mary over a coffee last year, the two of us coming up with mental pictures and funny stories to remember difficult words by (at least one in every five I wasn’t familiar with). But the whole thing – however you go at it – is a long slog, by the end of which Mary in her own words “didn’t feel like learning anything”. Unfortunately it was all a little too much for her: her score was low, “not high enough to get into a good program, especially my writing”.

I thought I’d include this vignette of GRE hell as another illustration of the absurd pressures Chinese students put themselves under, and the walls they’re up against – on the other side of which, a lot of the time, is the dream of studying in America or the West, where we lament the laziness of our own students.

Cheng Liang is a friend and classmate of Matilda‘s in Beida – in his first postgraduate year studying Chinese language (which incorporates teaching Chinese as a foreign language and linguistics, among other things). He hails from the island of Chong Ming, near Shanghai (‘my island’, as he calls it).

Liang has also been studying ancient Greek since 2003. Why did he choose to take up this particular dead language? Because (why else?) “there was a beauty in the class”. He even has a Greek name, given to him by his teacher: Leonidas. On which note, here is a picture of Liang from another angle.

King Leonidas studied philosophy at Beida as an undergraduate, focusing on logic. As a result, he’s full of interesting riddles and problems. Over dinner the other day, he told me of Betrand Russell’s famous paradox, and this Greek one which is still troubling me:

A hairdresser says he will cut the hair of everyone who does not cut his own hair. Can the hairdresser cut his own hair?

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