4: The Great Divide

After a week of introductions and sight seeing is was time to get serious.

The diary entry for Monday, September 22, 1975 is terse to the extreme: ‘language proficiency test’. . .

The test was as straightforward as can be. We were given several texts, gradually increasing in complexity. We were asked to read them aloud, while a panel of teachers would ask questions about the meaning of particular words, or request us to rephrase a certain sentence.

They were very skillful indeed as was reflected in the limited but pointed content questions with a more political nature.

A certain work team in a factory was described as ‘the red flag of our unit (unit? I will come back to that term later) ’. So what does the term ‘red flag’ mean in this particular context? There was the neutral reply that was never really wrong, but also never to the point: ‘it means that they are standing out among their colleagues’. You needed to do better than that to be able to move onto the next level. You needed to show that you were familiar with the symbolic meaning of the color red and why ‘flag’ was used to symbolize standing out.

You should not simply explain questions like that as purely political. The school needed to fathom to what extent each new comer could understand Chinese texts. Knowing words is the first level and being able to parse or rephrase a sentence the next. To dig deeper, down to the semantic layer of a text, you need to formulate proper questions and in 1975 the above was a very proper question. . . .

Are you eagerly awaiting further explanation about the proper reply to such a tricky political question? Get yourself a copy of the book and read all about it.

Chris had to give up soon. He ended up in a beginners’ group, with which he was quite content. His aim was to learn to speak Chinese with a reasonable level of fluency and to learn about China. That suited his ambition to become a diplomat.

I was different. As my field of specialization was linguistics (at least it still was at that time), I was aiming for the top: to reach native speaker fluency. During this test, my three years of self study during the final years in high school paid off again. After getting me sent to China after my freshman year, it now got me into the highest level group of BLI. My other group members were final Bachelor or Master students in their home countries.

Chinese love categorizing.

Divide et impera is a Roman adage, but it could very well have been Chinese. China is a large nation. No one emperor or government can rule it all, or them all. The only way out is to create differences between people through categorization, determination of people into various groups. The rulers then need to nurture a shared identity for each group, which can be used to create a certain level of strive, based on a mix of pride of being a member of certain groups, desire to become accepted by some other groups, and envy, the urge to reach what some others have already accomplished.

This aspect of Chinese public administration was gladly embraced and continued by the Communist Party, when it gradually established power over China. Even after the Cultural Revolution, when Deng Xiaoping stated that it would be no problem if ‘some people would get rich first’, he did so knowing that those left in arrears would be stimulated to catch up.

Maybe the top flaw of the Cultural Revolution was that all people came out equally poor. The salaries of a factory Director or its janitor should not deviate too much. The job of Director was open to all and would be given to the person who had accumulated sufficient political karma. Being selected for the post of Director was an honor, so no high salary was needed (at least so the political fundamentalists thought). A higher position would come with some privileges, but not with a high income.

One result of this love for dividing people in categories was that we Dutch became part of the English speaking group. Western students were divided in two main groups: the English and French groups. Being part of the English group meant that our textbooks had Chinese – English vocabularies, explanations of grammar and words in English, etc. Moreover, all my class mates came from English speaking countries: UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. No, Americans were not allowed into China yet.

The division was even more complex.

Non-Western students also had groups of their own. They usually did not come to China as Sinologists; i.e., people interested in Chinese language, history, culture, arts or politics, but to pursue a professional training in medicine, natural sciences or engineering. Others (like Vietnamese, Albanians or North Koreans) also came to study German, Spanish, or other European languages in China, because it was politically difficult for them to do so in the countries where those languages were typically spoken.

During meals, however, we noted that non-Western students had special teaching materials with more political content, introducing anticolonialist or postcolonialist thinking. Apparently, Western students were regarded as beyond the influence of the Chinese propaganda machine, so very little political propaganda was sent our way. For those who had only recently escaped colonialism, or were still ‘suffering’ from it, the Chinese authorities believed that a political message was suitable. . .

Group membership was further reinforced by the way we were housed in the various dormitories. All ‘English’ Westerners were housed in the same building, and several of my classmates were even living on the same floor as I was.

Many faces you saw in class during daytime were also sharing your washrooms and toilets. We did not only know one another’s faces, but were also familiar with our classmates’ birth marks, scars and other more intimate bodily features; that is, those of the same gender, of course. Gender was yet another way of dividing us students. A dormitory was either completely male or female.

Me and my class mates saw one another virtually 24//7 basis. However, this is how many Chinese lived as well. Most of our teachers lived in BLI dormitories. They would frequently visit each other in the evenings to discuss work related issues, and would meet again during their weekend shopping.

The curriculum of my group included a surprising course: Classical Chinese.

We seemed to be the only group with classes in Classical Chinese. Classical Chinese is not one particular language, but more an umbrella term for several literary styles of writings from the earliest literature to the second decade of the 20th Century, when vernacular Mandarin was made the national standard language.

Classical Chinese grammar is the grammar of the texts written in the first century BC. That language was petrified and used for official writings until the end of imperial China and a few years beyond. The use of Classical Chinese can be compared with the use of Latin in Europe as a lingua franca for clerics and academics. The writings by Han Yu (768–824) would have been difficult to comprehend for Confucius who lived more than a thousand years earlier. However, Confucius would have understood the basics of Han Yu’s ideas.

This was a double benefit to me. It added even more variety to the curriculum (which I will describe in a later chapter), and it addressed my anxiety to get familiar with that language as well. If I had not undertaken that adventure, I would have had my first lectures in Classical Chinese that same month. The course at BLI would at least give me a solid foundation for catching the following year. Everything seemed to be going my way and I was ready to start.


If you like this story and would like to read all of it, you are invited to buy the book. Benelux citizens can order a copy, signed if needed, directly with the author. Others can order it at Amazon.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s