Teaching and Studying Chinese Language and Culture
Teachers on almost every level of education often include a unit or lesson plan on China. This can be enhanced with a reference to language and culture. Why teach geography without also teaching what the names of cities mean? When studying Chinese, we can learn culture as we learn language. The Chinese characters and the pinyin used here can simply be copied and pasted to allow students to see what the characters look like.
Lesson Plan on China: Basic Directions
Languages typically combine units we call “words” to make new expressions. In English, we combine the words “home” and “work” to describe “homework,” school work that is done out of class. “Basket” and “ball” describes a game. English, however, is phonetic. We read a “b” and “a” and then “l” and even if we have never seen the word before, we can sound it out.
Chinese, unlike nearly every language in Europe and the Asian continent, is not phonetic, and its speakers rely on memory. You can see here how the Chinese combine characters (directions like north south, up, or down) to create cultural expressions. Learning a language involves learning how ideas are constructed out of words. Basic Chinese vocabulary teaches us a great deal about Chinese language and culture.
- Take, for instance, the basic directions: Nán 南 south; běi 北 north; xī西 west; dōng 东 east
North and South
Consider the capitals of China:
北京 Běijīng or what used to be called Peking. Similarly 南京 Nánjīng, or in English Nanking 南京
The capital of the country is Běijīng, 北京, literally the northern capital. There have been many capitals of this 5,000 year old civilization, but it is interesting that the Chinese settled on a city that is rather inaccessible from the sea in the east and borders a desert to the north and the west. The population centers are all in the south and east, and it would take a major military effort to seize Beijing. The final great step in the Communist victory in China in 1949 was the capture of Beijing on October 1.
Nán jīng, 南京 literally the southern capital, is the site of the great battle, or massacre, of Nanjing in 1937. Shanghai fell in October 1937 and the Chinese army abandoned Nanjing. The Japanese could attack Shanghai and then Nanking, but Beijing would be more difficult.
East and West
We also have 东门 dōng mén, the east gate 西门 xī mén, the west gate.
Chinese culture is not fond of open spaces (although that is changing). Chinese universities, as well as other major places, have “gates” on different sides so people can arrange to meet, for instance the 东门 dōng mén, or east gate. The Chinese will put metal barriers to serve as ‘gates’ even when the architecture is relatively open. Guards are stationed at gates, and this will allow the relatively rapid closure of a university. Especially after what was perceived to be a largely student uprising against the government in 1989, the government has particular interest in limiting entrance to and exit from major Universities.
Using “West” to Describe Cultural Practices
西医 xī yī is Western medicine or a doctor practicing Western Medicine. Two forms of medicine are used in China, and the alternative to Western medicine is traditional Chinese medicine, not eastern medicine. There are huge differences between the two, and people all over the world come to China to learn Chinese traditional medicine, then return to their homeland to practice it.
Western-style clothes are called 西服 xīfú. It is not common to see Chinese people wear anything but Western style clothes in major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, and these are often knock-offs of Western designer labels.
China is, of course, developing its own fashion industry. The Chinese have their own way of modifying clothing styles to meet their needs and taste. In the period before the 2010 Shanghai Expo the national government undertook a major campaign to stop people from wearing pajamas in the streets as daily street clothes. The claim was that it would “embarrass” Western visitors, but it is the Chinese government that is embarrassed, although it is difficult to understand why.
Look at: Dōng 东 east, Nán 南 south
This construction dōng nán is the term for Southeast and thus the well known US airline would be called Xī nán or West South.
Dōng east xī west combines to form the Chinese expression dōng xī 东西 which means “things," literally, everything from east to west.
Functional Directions “Up” and “Down”
Many directions are functional, that is, words such as “up” and “down,” “right” and “left” that help us teach and understand specific characteristics of Chinese culture.
shàng 上 ascending, previous xià下 below, lower, next
Word “parallels” exist in functional directions to express conditions unique to that language. One good example of this is the pair shàng 上 ascending, previous and xià 下 below, lower, next.
上课 shàngkè means to attend class, or to give a class 下课 xiàkè means to finish class, to dismiss. 上班 shàngbān means to start work, and also to be on duty, start work 下班 xiàbān off duty, leave work. A wide variety of parallel actions are expressed: shànglái 上来 come up xiàlái 下来 come down, get off
The day is also divided by this parallel construction.
上午 shàngwū is the late morning, basically 9 or 10 am to noon. xiàwū下午 is the early afternoon, 1 or 2 pm until 5 pm.
Functional Directions: “Right” and “Left”
Take these word parallels: zuǒ 左 left yòu 右right
These words represent directions: zuǒ guǎi 左拐left turn and yòu guǎi 右拐 right turn
The most significant cultural use of directional terms is found in political culture. The “new China” that appears in the world political scene is the one that came to birth in 1949 with the victory of the forces led by the gòngchǎndǎng 共产党 , the Communist Party. There has been a remarkable history since that time, with wars, mass murders, and recently an economic rise and a standard of living that the Chinese people could not have imagined sixty years ago. The meaning of “left” and “right” at first seemed to parallel European political terminology, but few people inside China understand what these terms might mean in contemporary society.
Even so, the experience produced its terminology. A few examples: 右倾 yòuqīng signifies right deviation which, during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) could have unfortunate consequences for an individual so labeled. Finally, there is 拐派 zuǒpài, or “leftist,” which is not an especially favorable term in today’s China.