Sat, Oct 07, 2017 - Page 8 News List

Classic texts dilute free thinking

By Yu Jie 余杰

In response to a heated debate regarding the ideal ratio of classical Chinese content in the senior high-school curriculum, several experts and senior academics have made remarks that completely disregard social reality and the needs of students.

At a news conference held by the Association for the Promotion of the Chinese Language, the organization called for procedural justice and separating education from politics.

Former Soochow University president Liu Yuan-chun (劉源俊) claimed that if students do not learn classical Chinese, they will fail to understand a lot of legal, mathematical and scientific terminology.

Former Taipei Municipal Zhongshan Girls’ High School teacher Tan Chia-hua (譚家化) said extensive reading of classical Chinese can make people more cultured and help them develop a better attitude, a stronger moral sense and more acute sensitivity for beauty, in addition to sounder logic.

She warned against the renunciation of “Chinese cultural heritage,” which she said would lead to the disappearance of love, honesty, respect for tradition and other virtues, and give rise to utilitarianism.

These self-contradictory remarks show just how old-fashioned and rigid education in this nation is — and that must be changed.

Liu said that classical Chinese has strong links to law, mathematics and science, but China has never really practiced the rule of law. In terms of mathematical and scientific achievements, ancient Greece and other ancient Western civilizations achieved far more than China.

Today’s students can easily pick up the latest knowledge about mathematics and science in English. Many top Chinese mathematicians and scientists live in Europe and the US, where they conduct research and teach using English. Their lack of familiarity with classical Chinese in no way prevents them from having a profession in mathematics or science.

Even more bizarre is Tan’s remark about how reading classical Chinese can improve one’s logic. The biggest flaw of Chinese intellectual ideas is often their lack of logic. Classical Chinese is characterized by expressions that make little logical sense, if they are not entirely illogical.

Trying to sharpen one’s logic by reading classical Chinese is like trying to catch fish in a tree.

Equally questionable is the idea that making students recite classical Chinese texts can help promote love, honesty, respect for tradition and moral values in society.

Under authoritarian emperors, Chinese students would devote years to studying the Confucian canon. Anecdotally, some of the most diligent students would tie their necks to a beam or hurt themselves with sharp objects to stay awake while studying at night.

However, for many, studying was their best chance to rise to fame and fortune, and how many of those students of Confucianism were immune to corruption when they eventually became government officials?

Tan probably did not read enough classical Chinese literature. She should read The Scholars, Officialdom Unmasked and other late Qing Dynasty novels reflecting many social problems at the time. This might help her understand why the more well-read a person is in classical works, the less moral they usually are.

China had the same debate over vernacular and classical Chinese about 100 years ago, during the May Fourth Movement, and it settled the issue long ago. The reason Taiwanese society is still discussing it today is that it has yet to experience a cultural renaissance or enlightenment movement.

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