Recently, talking to some foreign friends who are
considering enrolling in University programs to study Chinese language, I was
reminded of my own experience in such a program a few years ago. The first time
I came to China was on a term abroad from my small American college. The term
was a short one, as my American college was on a trimester system, so I was only
here in China for about four months. However, after returning home and
completing my undergraduate degree, I decided to move back to Nanjing and
continue taking Chinese classes in the same program at Nanjing Normal
Moving back to Nanjing was perhaps more exciting then visiting Nanjing for the first time. The second time I moved there independently, and I lived off campus with two friends. I enrolled in the program as a first year student, though I was in the uppermost level of first year, hence our classes were considerably accelerated. I attended classes at the University five days a week from 8am until 12:30pm, and took a number of teaching jobs in order to cover my living expenses.
Our class at had three main professors; one for 语法, one for 听力and one for 语读. Our 语法professor was a serious, middle-aged woman whose class took up the vast majority of our time. She was a stern woman, given to lecture, who never betrayed the slightest knowledge of English, though all of our text books were written in English and Chinese. Our 听力professor was a much younger woman, probably under thirty years of age. She was very tall and slender, and her long neck made her head appear larger than it actually was, giving her an almost bird-like appearance. Her lessons were conducted primarily through the use of audio tapes, which she would play for us while we attempted to mark the correct answers on our worksheets. She spoke softly and infrequently, though she smiled often and was very encouraging to all. Finally, I come to our 语读老师, my favorite and the favorite of the majority of my classmates.
谌老师was a younger fellow, probably in the early to mid-thirties. I later found out that he was a somewhat new professor at the university, and that he was married and had recently become a father. I also discovered that he wasn’t only the favorite of our first year class, but also the favorite of his fourth year students, to whom he taught 古代汉语. This surprised me slightly to hear, not because I couldn’t understand the students’ affinity towards him, but because I knew古代汉语, or ancient Chinese, to be one of the least popular classes for the graduate-track students for whom it was required.
Picking谌老师 out from a group of professors, the uninitiated would never expect him to be such a wide favorite. He was a large man with a bulky frame; completely unlike the slight, slim bodies which house most minds who turn towards academia rather than some other, rougher pursuit. However, for all of his mass he was a rather shy man; it quickly became apparent that he was friendly and interested in his students, but he was always rather reticent one on one. I seldom saw him outside the classroom, or speaking with his fellow professors, so my impression of him formed entirely through our classroom interaction.
In my previous study of Chinese 语读had always been a most cantankerous subject. Learning to recognize characters was second in difficulty only to remembering how to write those same characters. Interestingly, speaking and listening were always must easier for the first year students from the West, as the process of learning a character-based language was so incredibly difficult for us to adapt to. However, our 语读study at Nanjing Normal only occupied a few hours of our class time each week, and those hours quickly became my most looked-forward-to lesson time.
I found the short readings in our 语读 book more engrossing then the rather trite pieces and long-winded descriptions in our 语法 lesssons; as with all grammar books, it was written to instruct rather than to entertain. The 语读 lessons, however, consisted mainly of ancient Chinese tales, most of them 成语故事. These 成语 are a direct link between Chinese culture and Chinese language. These are four character phrases, whose meanings are always idiomatic. The idioms are drawn from ancient stories, 故事, which oft read like a cross between parable and nursery rhyme. The tales are short, and were written with a focus on instruction. Most of them outline a basic life-lesson; sometimes they are melancholy and sometimes hilariously amusing. Our texts were often accompanied by a small black and white cartoon image, set to illustrate the more humorous nature of the故事.
In class we took turns reading from our lesson book aloud; practicing pronunciation, my own weakness in Chinese, and reviewing grammar structures from our 语法 lesson. 谌老师 also spent much time speaking about and discussing the meanings of the 成语 themselves, and how best to incorporate these four character phrases into everyday conversations. Occasionally he had a coinciding story to tell us; some personal life experience, or the experience of a friend, which highlighted the theme of the 成语 perfectly, or at least, humorously. His stories varied in excitement and the quality of delivery, but they were such a welcome respite from the regularized boredom our language lessons, that we listened intently and enjoyed them openly.
What struck me most about 谌老师, and what drew him apart from the other professors, and into a closer place in my heart and memory, was his ceaseless desire to illuminate Chinese traditions, history and culture for his foreign language students. Speaking any foreign language well depends, to varying degrees, on one’s understanding of the structure that lies behind that language system. By teaching us about Chinese culture, both ancient and contemporary, 谌 was giving us the fundamental tools to uncover our own understanding of the differences and similarities, not just between Chinese language and our mother tongues, but also between Chinese people and culture and ourselves and where we came from. 谌老师 engendered within his students a feeling of respect, not through the authority of his high position, but rather through the respect that he showed to each and every one of us.
谌: Proper last name, Chen
古代汉语: ancient Chinese. Chinese characters have evolved over time, and therefore these old characters are vast different from the modern simplified ones in use today.
成语故事: four Character phrases that symbolically represent ancient Chinese
stories or lessons.