When Spring Festival Meets Learning Chinese

[Source]    People’s Daily Overseas Edition [Time]    2018-02-13 16:18:11 

Culture Teaching Seen from Perspective of Spring Festival

By Meng Dehong

Spring Festival is the most important festival for the Chinese people. Hence, there are many words with special meaning related to this very festival, including Chuxi (Chinese New Year’s Eve), Zhengyue (the first month of the lunar year), Jiaozi (dumplings), Hongbao (cash-filled red envelopes) and so on. And with the further development of Spring Festival in modern society, some new words appear, such as Chunwan (Spring Festival Gala) and Chunyun (Spring Festival travel rush). So, is it true that “Chuxi” (Chinese New Year’s Eve) means to eliminate (“Chu” in Chinese) a monster named “Xi” (a monster who likes to eat people, especially on Chinese New Year’s Eve)? Why do people call the first month of the lunar year “Zhengyue”? What are the dif-ferences between “Yuanxiao”, the Chinese traditional festival, and “Yuanxiao”, the festival’s main food? Why do Chinese people call dumplings “Jiaozi”? Is “Chunyun” some kind of luck (“Yun” in Chinese). All of these questions are what Chinese language learners eager to know as well as what included in culture teaching during Chinese as a second language classes. What are the content, methods, purposes and difficulties of culture teaching? Now let’s discuss these questions.

Students practicing Chinese calligraphy in the Confucius Institute in Brussels, Belgium. Photo by Ye Pingfan, Xinhua News Agency

To learn a language is to learn a culture, because language is both the carrier and the embodi-ment of culture. In this sense, international Chinese teaching is the teaching of Chinese culture; and to learn Chinese as a second language is to learn the Chinese culture that is carried and em-bodied in Chinese language. Therefore, in terms of international Chinese teaching, culture teach-ing is synchronous with the language teaching. As for the content, all cultural factors related to language teaching should be included in culture teaching. For instance, folktales and fables about “Chuxi” are included in folklore lessons, while the discussion based on the original meaning of characters “Chu” and “Xi” is concerned with both philology of culture teaching and etymology.

Culture teaching within second language teaching cannot be separated from the cross-cultural context comparison. Every nation has its own festivals. Although the sources and details of these festivals vary from each other, their themes are arguably similar. For instance, Thanksgiving Day may pertain to some specific countries, but the theme “Thanksgiving” doesn’t. Though there’s no festival in China called Thanksgiving, many other Chinese festivals express gratitude, such as the Spring Festival, when people worship their ancestors and the Mid-autumn Festival when people sacrifice to the moon. Then take the “New Year” as another example: the date of the first day of the year may differ in different countries, but the tradition to ring the old year out and the new year in is almost the same for all. And this is exactly the reason why Chinese people celebrate Spring Festival as the most important of them all: to say goodbye to the old and hello to the new. To the Chinese, the “new” means new in the climate and other natural phenomena of a season, focusing on changes of seasons and the beginning of farmers working in the field. Therefore, the information of “ringing out the old and ringing in the new” is conveyed in the Chinese character “Chu” of “Chuxi” which expresses the meaning of “replacement”. Such ideas and the words con-taining the ideas are the language, and in the same time, the culture. Thus, from the perspective of culture teaching methods, it is appropriate to compare the festivals of the country where teaching is conducted with those of learners’ mother tongue countries.

The ultimate purpose of culture teaching in language teaching is to understand and digest the culture recorded and conveyed in the language, and it cannot jump out of the language itself. Culture teaching under certain topic should also be implemented into the language in the end. For example, when the theme is festivals, the character “Jie” (festival) should naturally be the focus of the lesson. Why does China have 24 “Jie Qi” (Solar Terms)? What does “Jie” here refer to? And what is actually “Chunjie” (Spring Festival)? Why do Chinese people celebrate the spring as the beginning of the year? What information does the character “Chun” (spring) carry? These are all that should be considered when we teach under this topic.

We believe that international Chinese teaching is, essentially, a “language teaching”. So the cul-ture-teaching part poses two major challenges to the teachers: their views of languages and teaching, and their knowledge of Chinese language and culture. For teachers, how to clearly ex-plain the cultural words recording and carrying the culture and compare them with the cultural elements carried in the mother tongue of foreign Chinese learners as well as seek common ground while reserving differences and inspire students’ interest in Chinese learning remains their major task requiring diligent thinking and practices in the course of culture teaching.

(The author is a TCSL teacher from Beijing Foreign Studies University)

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