Classic texts dilute free thinking

By Yu Jie 余杰  / 

Sat, Oct 07, 2017 - Page 8

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.

Many key members of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), which had not risen to power at the time, including Sun Yat-sen (孫中山) and Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石), were either disinterested in or opposed to the May Fourth Movement. The KMT were largely against many of the modern values that formed the basis of the movement, such as democracy and science, as it leaned toward the Soviet Union, from which they tried to secure financial support, and import weapons and authoritarian communism.

As the KMT attempted to take control of China through the Northern Expedition, it also worked on promoting traditional Chinese culture, which was used as government propaganda, as well as a way to teach obedience, preventing the development of a healthy civil society, making it easier for the party to rule.

After fleeing to Taiwan, the KMT, for a while, supported Free China magazine, but it was unwilling to let Taiwanese exercise their basic human rights and freedom. Meanwhile, to fight the spread of communism, the party launched the Chinese Cultural Renaissance Movement, which has led to an extremely obedient mindset among the public.

Despite having been a democracy for 25 years, Taiwanese today are still deeply affected by the slavish mind-set which has yet to be purged from the nation’s culture. This is especially apparent in education, politics and media, where there has been a serious lack of independent, free thinkers.

Years of worshiping classical texts has killed China and made it lose its vitality. Classical Chinese works will not help cultivate people’s civic awareness, nor will it secure or improve Taiwan’s democracy.

Classical Chinese literature should not be listed as compulsory reading for students, but should be used as optional reading material for students who are interested in history or literature. This way, students would not be so overburdened by their schoolwork and would be less likely to get poisoned by the ideas contained within.

Yu Jie is a Chinese dissident writer who lives in exile.

Translated by Tu Yu-an