11 September 2005

Embracing Chinese Culture

My rather unremarkable previous post, Mr Wang Speaks Mandarin, attracted a remarkable number of interesting comments, surprising myself. Obviously some readers feel strongly about the issue, one way or the other, which is rather ironic because the blogger himself, Mr Wang, is the Indifferent Chinese Singaporean who doesn't.

For the purposes of further discussion, I'm inviting readers to share their thoughts on what exactly it means to be a Young Chinese Singaporean Who Embraces Chinese Culture. So please comment.

Should he enjoy Chinese class in school? Must he be able to speak fluent Cantonese to his Cantonese parents? Must he be well-versed in the plot of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms? Should he cheer loudly when Beijing hosts the next Olympics? If he fails his Mandarin AO levels disastrously, is he someone whom self-respecting Chinese Singaporeans should disapprove of? If he prefers U2 to Jackie Cheung, is there something wrong with him? Should his personal values be steeped in the ideas of filial piety and respect for elders, rather than, say, in outspokenness and independence? Should he be well-acquainted with Chinese history? Does he share a common bond with Taiwanese people, HongKongers and PRC Chinese?


amaranth said...

woohoo! i love topics like this. can rant forever...

do i fall into the category? coming from a mandarin-speaking background, relatively more conversant in mandarin and hokkien than english (though of course i'm effectively bilingual :p), thinks in chinese, took chinese literature for o-levels rather than the mandatory english lit, still reads chinese books, gets mistaken for a taiwanese when i speak proper mandarin.

so to answer your questions:
1. he should preferably enjoy chinese class in school. how can a chinese dislike studying his mother tongue?
2. he should preferably stay in touch with his roots, be it hokkien, cantonese, hakka or whatever.
3. being well-versed in classics make you stand out, as well as appreciate the intricacies of the chinese culture.
4. no need to cheer for beijing lah. we are talking about embracing chinese culture, not blindly supporting.
5. no chinese should fail mandarin AO levels. such shame.
6. music transcends all cultures and should be exempted from this discussion...
7. traditional values of filial piety and respect for elders should form the basis of modern values like outspokenness and independence. only then can one be all-rounded. there is absolutely no need to ditch the old for the new.
8. an acquaintance with Chinese history is very useful, more useful than people know. i'm still brushing up on that.
9. the common bond is subtle, imho. just that we are all "yan huang zi sun" (sons of the yellow kingdom?). our skins will always be yellow, we will never turn white, no matter how many generations.

hope this is useful.

bez said...

A young chinese singaporean who embraces chinese culture should enjoy whatever aspects of chinese culture he chooses to embark upon. When I had to learn chinese in school, I never enjoyed it and actually resented the language. But when I'm not forced now, I actually took it upon myself based on my own interest towards my culture to learn to speak chinese properly.

I think what is most important is that young chinese singaporeans just respect chinese culture and perhaps cultivate their interest in a few of the aspects, based on their own free will and not because it is something they 'should' do. Finally, I do not think there is any 'standard template' that a young chinese singaporean should be made from in order to be one who is considered as Embracing Chinese Culture.

Oh, and I barely scaped past my chinese o-levels. Does that mean I am a young chinese singaporean who is less embracing of chinese culture? No, I hardly think so.

Hope my views have helped.

singaporean said...

Effectively bilingual? Says who? Singapore's Chinese standard is so low that more than a few Singaporeans are misled into thinking they are experts in the language, when they are barely functional without injecting English phrases here and there. Can you offhand tell me what is the Chinese equivalent for the following commonly used terms?

1) Octane
2) Tungsten
3) Carburettor
4) Thumbdrive (this one I just learnt from a PRC student. He had a blank stare from me when he first mentioned it.)

zx said...

Should he enjoy Chinese class in school?
(Ideally he should, but he doesn't need to excel. Simply by liking what he is studying should be fine.)

Must he be able to speak fluent Cantonese to his Cantonese parents?
(Again, ideally he should, but if he can't, it doesn't mean he isn't embracing Chinese culture. If he is trying to learn and doesn't abhor the dialect, it shows a distinct inclination to learn about his own roots. In fact I think dialects are just as important as Mandarin itself. Mandarin was a bridging language, but in the different areas of China, you would still be able to find different areas of people speaking different dialects. The dialects themselves go back thousands of years, and are similarly just as rich in history and culture as Mandarin is.)

Must he be well-versed in the plot of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms? (Why particularly Romance of the Three Kingdoms?There are four great Classics of China, and numerous poems and stories by authors in the modern era. There is no particular need to love the classics, although liking them and at the very least attempting to try to understand the sociohistorical significance of the texts is important. It's not necessary to be an academic to embrace Chinese culture. By paying attention to the handicraft, TCM, economics, science, sociology and philosophy of Chinese culture, it doesn't make anyone less Chinese. There are far too many aspects of Chinese to enjoy, and there is no particular need for one to be fixated on literature alone as a benchmark.)

Should he cheer loudly when Beijing hosts the next Olympics? (You could, but that'll be somewhat fanatic, isn't it? The success of modern China is the success of a Chinese people, not the success of the Chinese culture. Perhaps you might still recognise them as relations, but they would be cousins now, although they used to be siblings in the time of our forefathers. )

If he fails his Mandarin AO levels disastrously, is he someone whom self-respecting Chinese Singaporeans should disapprove of? (You could fail the AO levels because you're dyslexic. You could fail because you don't have a bad memory and can't cough out all the words. But it doesn't mean that this someone isn't as good as someone who got an A1. And exams can't always determine how good your standard of Chinese is. Embracing Chinese culture doesn't mean you should embrace the language alone -- you don't have to know all 40000 Chinese words and be able to spout poetry with one glance and the moon to love Chinese. There are too many aspects of Chinese culture and too many ways to be Chinese. in fact, there are some Chinese Singaporeans who might not even know it, but are unconsciously embracing Chinese culture themselves by their actions.)

If he prefers U2 to Jackie Cheung, is there something wrong with him? (Purely a case of music taste. I could love Maroon 5 more than I like Cyndi Wang, and it wouldn't be wrong because they are two entirely different genres of music. Music transcends language and can't be compared.)

Should his personal values be steeped in the ideas of filial piety and respect for elders, rather than, say, in outspokenness and independence? (I don't believe outspokenness and independence should be referred to as Western values. Akin to any type of culture and philosophy, Chinese culture is ever-evolving. It is the way we participate in this evolution that determines if we do embrace Chinese. There have been cases of ancients questioning the teachings of the sages before them -- in the Song dynasty, many books were published questioning the famous classics such as Confucius's Analects. I don't think personal values should always follow the teachings of the ancients blindly. Rather, it is the way the teachings influence the person's values that matter. By being discerning and appreciating the faults and good points of the philosophy and values of the ancients, and yet also applying them to the modern world, the Chinese Singaporean would benefit much more than blindly following principles laid down thousands of years ago. For example, the Chinese (akin to a lot of other cultures) were biased against women. Should we then forsake beliefs in equality simply because it is CHINESE? There must always be a clear difference between appreciating and blindly following. Appreciating doesn't mean blindly following -- it means knowing how to discern the rights and the wrongs of the culture, and forming your own opinions. Appreciating Asian culture doesn't require you to follow it blindly. Humanity's progress has been marked by evolution, development and revolution. Without those, we would not have our legendary historical exploits or the philosophical breakthroughs humankind has witnessed.)

Should he be well-acquainted with Chinese history? (It's a definite benefit. I benefit from learning it all the time because history always seems to overlap with the literature classics I study. History, as with any other culture, is an important part of the cultural heritage. Often, by studying the history of a country, you may be able to find distinct clues leading to the development of a certain movement, revolution or culture. History and culture are often interlinked. Moreover Chinese culture has a special link to history because of the famous historical classics throughout the ages, which are not only history books but literature classics in their own right. I don't believe there is a special need to. Rather, it's more important to concentrate on Singaporean history first and foremost. Knowing world history on a whole is a major plus in helping to understand the cultural, economic and social development of the world, and is beneficial to any individual. Again, history itself should not be uniquely classified as Chinese. Someone may know Chinese history simply for the reason of reseaching world history, whereas someone who doesn't know Chinese history extremely well doesn't necessarily abhor Chinese culture. )

Does he share a common bond with Taiwanese people, HongKongers and PRC Chinese? (Historically and genealogically, yes. But it is important to recognise that we have been displaced from China itself and have become a unique people of our own. We have different values, different rules, different beliefs and different customs. Using the "cousin" analogy again, perhaps we may be relatives, but not extremely close. We should recognise our ties with them historically and as economic partners, but it's not necessary to think of them as blood-kin.)

I don't think there should be a basic template to determine how Chinese a Singaporean is. Like any other quality that can't be measured, this is something that only we ourselves would understand. Over-focusing on the superficial areas (whether the person listens to Chinese music, reads Chinese books, and so on) can only reveal part of how much the person values Chinese culture, but can't determine it solely. My schoolmates play Chinese songs freely at school events but speak English most of the time. The determinating factors are much too fluid to decide, and by squeezing Chinese culture into the mould of Chinese language, the govt is restricting our understanding of the culture itself.

hugewhaleshark said...

Well said, zx. I am looking at this discussion with a certain amount of interest because of my background as a Malaysian Chinese. Due to the education system in Malaysia, very few of us read Chinese and spoken ability is also patchy.

As such, my take on appreciating Chinese culture has hinged mainly on traditions, celebrations, whatever language skills I can pick up, movies, and digging into the psyche and economy of modern China (which is required by my job anyway). Would you consider business and economics to be a part of modern culture? I think there is a case for that argument.

The education system in Singapore has truly advantaged you in appreciating Chinese culture.

BTW the terms singaporean mentions are rather "scientific". How about I say that I can say "cashflow", "fixed assets" and "macroeconomic policy" in Mandarin? : )

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

My questions were only meant as a "starter". Feel free to expand beyond.

Eg think about Chinese Singaporeans unenthusiastic about celebrating CNY;

Chinese Singaporeans who don't have their children walking around with lanterns during the Lantern festival;

Chinese Singaporeans who no longer value sons over daughters;

Chinese Singaporeans who distrust traditional Chinese medicine;

Chinese Singaporeans who celebrate weddings in a Christian way, rather than in the Chinese traditional way;

Chinese Singaporeans who frown on the burning of ghost money as superstitious and environmentally polluting.

singaporean said...

Answer to the quiz:

1) Octane: Xin1 Wan2
2) Tungsten: Wu1
3) Carburettor: I dunno...can somebody tell me??
4) Thumbdrive: Mu2 Zhi3 (thumb) Pan2 (drive)

A little technical perhaps, but those words need little explaining in English, so why give ourselves a "discount" when it comes to Chinese?

The fact is, most of the self proclaimed Chinese elite in Singapore are barely functional in the language - they know enough for small talk, but for serious work, it will have to be conducted in English, or some hybrid of both.

Such Singaporeans think they have fulfilled their racial "obligations", and in turn go around criticising other Singaporean Chinese who fail to meet their expectations. Pot. Kettle. Black.

English kings didnt care to speak English, until Shakespeare made the langauge too cool to ignore.

If a language is attractive, people will learn it. Just ask the people who speak Klingon (a Star Trek alien race) or those who speak Elvish (as according to Tolkien and the movies), both works of fiction with no anchor to reality to speak of. No need to demand lofty ideas about race, ancestry or DNA.

What that concerns me most, is that the Singapore education system has long encouraged the mediocre knowledge of English and Chinese, and created a whole breed of Singaporeans who could not express themselves well in English, but crown themselves as Chinese experts because of the low expectations here.

GK said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
GK said...

My contribution to this discussion is Children's Rhyme, one of my Golden Point Award-winning poems.

This poem is about a Hokkien nursery rhyme taught to me by my late grandmother - except that I can no longer really remember it.

The loss of memory represents the erosion of the link between the modern Chinese Singaporean and traditional Chinese culture. As you can see from the poem, I think that this erosion has a lot to do with the government's policies against Chinese dialects.

Norman said...

I had the opportunity of sitting in during a Junior high-school lesson in Physics about 10 years ago, in Taiwan. All in Mandarin, and I was totally stumped and it showed on my facial expression. I didn't fail my Chinese - but yet I still couldn't follow. I went to Hong Kong, and I couldn't speak Cantonese for nuts, even though I could read the Traditional Chinese Characters. What common bond? I continue to have difficulty conducting simple technical discussion with my PRC colleagues. So - what is "embracing chinese culture"?. I can't even use it properly as a functional language in our society, and I have little opportunity to do so. And I don't see that happening soon - road signs etc etc will continue to have to be in English.

Huichieh said...


zx said...

I am ashamed to say that there are many technical terms I don't know. And although on average I communicate in Mandarin 50% of the time, I don't speak very fluent Mandarin. (That's after ten years of Mandarin). The problem lies with the fact that everything is taught in English and examined in English except for Chinese itself. My mother was from a Chinese school, and she had the same problem I do with Chinese. It's a matter of how often you use it. My Mandarin has improved since I began taking two subjects entirely in Chinese, but I'm definitely not good enough to sit through say, a Mathematics lesson, and be able to understand everything. It's the underlying problem of the education system -- everything is skewed towards English. I'll always remember this interesting incident in Sec 1 when my cousin told me that her classmate ended up breaking down after a Chinese compo exam that would determine her subject combination in Sec 3. Why? She thought "CCA" in Chinese was "remedial". And these are terms unique to Singapore. The fact is, our Singaporean Mandarin has already become different from Mandarin spoken by the Chinese. When I took the HSK last year, there were quite a few terms that were foreign to me (ie. I don't use them.) There's a huge confusion going on here -- whose Chinese are we learning? whose English are we learning? Is there honestly a Standard Chinese? gan1 bang3 (taken from "kampong"), for example, is a local term. lay, you're right. there really isn't a very strong bond language-wise.

Thankfully, there are people who are able to speak the language fluently in a "serious" context. Take my teacher for example. The reasons why these people can do it? They were exposed to education in Chinese for years. My teacher studied at Beijing University. Without hard work on our own, it's next to impossible to acquire the same mastery of the language the Taiwanese or the Chinese can. It's already hard enough to maintain a good English standard, and English is the language used as a medium for education. The problem here, again, is the disinterest in the culture itself -- hence a lack of effort in attempting to master the language. Because most people have this view - "I can pass the exams by memorising my Chinese phrase handbook." And it's true. I aced the first part of the exam because I did exactly that. The problem here is Chinese education itself.

ivan: "6) actually music and culture share a close bond. Rap and Hip-hop music is a by product of african culture mixed with amercian experience. same for greek music, whose similarities with turkish and arabic music highlight their once closely intertwined destinies."

I was actually making a point about how language doesn't make the music any different from a song with the same tune but in a different language. But if it's in terms of the quality/type of the music itself, yes, definitely there's a cultural aspect to it. The shamisen and the zither are both string instruments, but one is Japanese and the other is clearly Chinese.

amaranth said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.