Knowledge Exchange

Language As Culture


Should language be taught simply as a tool to communicate, or can it be a starting point for deeper cultural explorations? This is a question that concerned the School of Chinese when it saw the government launch the Chinese language curriculum in 2000.

The School had always viewed the study of Chinese as something more than language and literature – as something that conveyed history, philosophy, tradition and all matters of Chinese culture. It therefore applied for and received a grant for an eight-year project that aimed to take this approach into school-based learning.

Starting in 2003, a series of books on Chinese culture was developed for junior and senior primary, and junior and senior secondary, and tested in schools. The feedback from teachers, students, parents, and principals, plus academic experts in 10 different countries, was used to revise the texts which are now available in nearly 1,000 primary and secondary schools in Hong Kong.

Dr CM Si (centre)

“In the past Chinese language learning was only regarded as a tool where you listen, speak, read, write, and no more. We’ve tried to put a Chinese cultural element into these subjects,” says Associate Professor, Dr Si Chung-Mou, who led the project.

Primary school children are provided with short poems and passages from classical writings to memorize and recite in class. “By memorizing them, they get the most important thing from classical Chinese – the thoughts, dialogues, values of the people who wrote them. It’s also useful for students later on because it can help them to improve their spoken Chinese. And when they write compositions, classical elements can be included, so it will enhance their writing ability,” he says.

“Of course we can’t increase their workload too much, so they just learn one small poem or passage each week.”

The junior secondary school students learn about different aspects of Chinese culture – 24 categories in all covering such topics as festivals, historic sites, legends and Chinese thoughts.

“At senior secondary school, we try to train their critical thinking and get them to think about what’s good or what’s bad about Chinese culture.”

The project has resulted in 10 books, which have been picked up by Peking University Press and produced using simplified Chinese characters.

“People are concerned that everything is about money, and what about values and spirituality in their children’s development. These Chinese classics can connect them to the philosophical thoughts of the past,” Dr Si says.

The Ministry of Education has also funded an English version of three of the publications, Introduction to Chinese Culture, to promote an understanding of Chinese culture to the rest of the world.

With the “Incorporating Culture Elements into Chinese Language for Schools in the Chinese Communities” project, Dr Si Chung-Mou shared the Faculty Knowledge Exchange Award 2012 of the Faculty of Arts with Dr Peter Cunich.