The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Yibian xuexi Hanyu, yibian ku

The Emperor's Garden in the Forbidden City - attempting to learn Chinese is like scaling  rocks!
Wondering how to avoid becoming completely demoralised about my efforts to learn Chinese, I have been dutifully going over vocabulary lists and repeating words and phrases out loud, much to the annoyance of my family. My feelings of frustration are partly my own fault due to juggling work, life and everything else and therefore neglecting to do the necessary amounts of homework, but partly it's the sheer difficulty of learning a language so different to any European one. Last week was the first lesson of a new term. I entered the room with great optimism and enthusiasm, and left it again two hours later feeling thoroughly dejected. In part this was due to the arrival of a new student with far more fluent Chinese than I feel mine will ever be, who can confidently engage the teacher in conversation, while my attempts are still stumbling simple sentences that make me feel (and no doubt look) like a halfwit. And partly due to a growing feeling that I have engaged on an almost impossible endeavour. I am ashamed of any moment in my 30 years of teaching when I have been less than patient with a student who has struggled with learning something new!

Here is a sentence from this week's chapter of 'Integrated Chinese' (but without tones indicated): " Xie Hanzi, kaishi juede nan, changchang lianxi, jiu juede rongyi" meaning "When you first learn to write Chinese characters, you would find it difficult. If you practise often, you would find it easy." 

I am sorry, but this is clearly a lie. My more truthful, indeed hearfelt, sentence is this: "Wo yibian xuexi Zhongwen, yibian ku" (At the same time as I study Chinese, I weep")

Speaking of lies, I have been reading Jan Wong's earlier book, 'Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now' which recounts her experiences as one of the very few foreign students at Beijing University during the 1970s in the crucial period of the power struggle between the Gang of Four and Deng Xiaoping. Unlike her more recent 'Chinese Whispers' (see previous post) this gives a more complete picture of the time, and of the experience of young Chinese of her own generation, the generation which missed so much of their education through being sent to the countryside to work alongside the peasants and study 'Mao Zedong Thought'. In 'Chinese Whispers' she discovers the consequences of her naive denunciation of a fellow student who had asked for assistance to leave China and go to the United States. Reading 'Red China Blues', however, I discovered that there was another, even more unforgivable act of betrayal: she is invited to dinner by a friend of one of her North American professors and his wife, two Beijing intellectuals whose careers had been destroyed by the Anti-Rightist campaigns. They asked for her help to get their daughter out of China. Without hesitation she reported them to university authorities. Embarrassed by being the daughter of the wealthy owner of a string of Chinese restaurants, she believed she was going back to Canada to be 'Beijing Jan', something  like 'Hanoi Jane', in order to bring revolution to the decadent West. Despite my unease about aspects of her writing, it is certainly brave to admit this youthful foolishness, particularly when it had such terrible consequences. She says, "I do not know what happened to Professor Zhao and his family...May God forgive me; I don't think they ever will."

 the image of revolutionary China as a socialist utopia  in which Jan Wong so fervently believed
The chapter that especially fascinated me, though, was about the popular uprising that took place in Tiananmen Square in 1976 after the death of Zhou Enlai. Thousands of people left wreaths and poems, many of them attacking the seventh century Tang Empress Wu Zetian, who reigned after her husband's death: a thinly veiled attack on Madame Mao. There were outpourings of grief in other cities too, in Hangzhou, Zhengzhou and Nanjing. This threat could not be tolerated - the wreaths and poems were removed and the square was cordoned off. The Ministry of Public Security reported that hundreds of demonstrators were beaten and four thousand were arrested. If there was a death toll, it was a state secret. There are some eerie parallels here to later events.

This afternoon at a picnic I met a teacher who studied at Beijing University in the early 1990s, on exchange from Sydney University. She described a very similar experience of constant monitoring and control of the foreign students, but not being a fervent convert to 'Mao Zedong Thought' such as Jan Wong twenty years earlier, she decided to come home and abandon her studies after a PLA soldier pointed a gun at her as she tried to re-enter her locked dormitory after curfew. So fascinating that the stories people recount to me about their experiences of China are all so different, yet there are threads which connect them, both positive and negative.

Jan Wong's book, and also Lijia Jiang's memoir of the 1980s, 'Socialism is Great' are evocative reminders of the daily life of so many people for so long - and the far-reaching effects of that time on current generations. But I thought about my meeting with artist Shi Qing in Shanghai, and his response when I told him how sad  I found his 'Factory Farm' installation, inspired by the Danwei (work unit) in Mongolia where he grew up. He said, "The past is neither sweet nor bitter, it just is." This says something about Chinese resilience, and also about determination, but like the workers leaving poems about Tang Dynasty Empresses as dangerous political comment, it also speaks of the interconnectedness of past and present in China.

Shi Qing, 'Factory', installation photographed at ShanghArt Taopu by Luise Guest and reproduced with the permission of the artist and ShanghArt Gallery