6: Getting into a Routine

After the chapter about the rowdy National Day celebrations in our dorm, this is a more factual chapter, listing the various types of classes we were offered at Beijing Language Institute.

These were actually quite good. Due to all the negative publications about the detrimental effects of the Cultural Revolution on China’s educational system, we arrived in China prepared for rudimentary education, laden with political propaganda. The opposite was true.

In this post about Chapter 6, I will focus on the introduction of the various courses in that chapter.

. . . Each morning would start with two hours of regular language lessons, called ‘extensive reading lesson (jingduke)’. Jingdu is a standard Chinese educational expressing referring to comprehensive language teaching, comprising all aspects of language: pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, and rhetoric.

This course used a series of textbooks developed by the School itself, with the most standard title possible: Chinese Reader. The books were provided free of charge. Beginners like Chris would start with Volume I. If I remember correctly, my group started with Volume III, and managed to finish Volume VI to the end of the academic year. Volume VI then was still in the compilation stage and being the Institute’s experimental group, we helped fine-tuning the compilation while we were using the unfinished manuscript.

Each chapter, the equivalent of one lesson, in our textbook would start with a text. That was followed by a vocabulary list providing new words and phrases with English translations. The next section would discuss new grammatical issues introduced in the lesson, and the chapter would finish with exercises practicing the new vocabulary and grammatical structures.

That course would typically be taught by your group’s mentor, as (s)he would see your group six days a week. Our Comprehensive Reading teacher was Teacher Liu. Each time we started with a new lesson, he would request us one by one to read a sentence of the text. He may ask you to explain the meaning of a certain word, or discuss the contents of your sentence. . .

So this we had Liu every morning, i.e. 6 days a week. This was quite basic straightforward language teaching. It was definitely not ‘immersion’ in the language as was, and perhaps still is, so liked by many Western language teachers. But then, we did not need that. We were in China, so were already immersed 24/7.

. . . The second half of the mornings and the afternoons were used for a larger variety of classes, like: newspaper reading, literature, conversation, and Classical Chinese.

The Chinese term for the newspaper reading classes was baokanke, literally: ‘newspaper magazine lesson’. This implies that the scope of those lessons was broader than the daily newspaper. It included articles from various magazines and texts of a political nature from a variety of media. . .

. . . Although written Chinese has been generally based on the standard spoken language since the early 20th Century, it is still influenced by Classical Chinese and this is especially strong in the newspapers. Classical Chinese is terse and can express a heavy load of content in only a few characters. That suits newspapers, where journalists, and editors often want to compress what they want to state using as little space as possible. . .

. . . For example, in many official writings, including names of government institutions, the name of Shandong province is abbreviated to Lu. That character is also used on Shandong number plates, so you can immediately spot a car from Shandong in Beijing. . .

. . . Once I saw a small item about Dongdiwen. Dong means ‘east’, but diwen was not familiar to me, and could not be found in any of the dictionaries we brought with us to class. Teacher Hu then started to explain the geographic location of this region, and finally I realized that diwen was Chinese for East Timor. It was a news item about East Timor. Wow, make a quick note to record that finding for posterity. Actually, finding that out through common effort was a pleasure to both of us. It gave us a shared feeling of accomplishment.

The name of our teacher for this course was Hu. He was a much older man. Rumour had it that he had spent some time teaching Chinese in Pakistan. We did not see much of him outside the periods in his class.

. . . Then there were the literature lessons, called: zuopinke. This Chinese term is not so easy to translate. My electronic dictionary translates it as ‘works of literature and arts’. The literal meaning of zuopin is ‘works, things made’. The term was probably chosen instead of the more common Chinese word for literature, wenxue, because they were not lessons teaching us to appreciate a literary text, but again, to get familiar with the typical language of modern Chinese literature.

Teacher Chen, a chubby friendly man, supplied us with chapters from novels, poems, essays, comic dialogues, and film scenarios. Some of those texts came with vocabulary lists in the same format as those in the textbook of our morning sessions. The Beijing Language Institute employed several people selecting, copying, annotating, and stenciling such texts. Except for the printed materials, like the textbook, all teaching materials provided by the school were stenciled. . .

I learned a lot from these lessons. Chen liked to tell little stories when explaining new vocabulary or unfamiliar phrases. He did not confide much of his personal background to us, but it was clear that he was well educated.

. . . On Saturday mornings we could escape for a few hours to ancient China, during the Classical Chinese lessons. I acquired a liking for Teacher Liu (another one than our group mentor; there is only a limited number of surnames in China, so millions of people have to do with the same surname) who was clearly devoted to the rich literary history of China. He confided that, when it was time to choose a specialization in university, he had been the only one among his peers to opt for Classical Chinese. The feeling was mutual and we spent many hours discussing it after the end of the sessions. . .

So that was my typical week of studying. Two periods before lunch, with a break in the middle and one period after lunch.

Digital 06-Playground

. . . The Saturday lunch was the beginning of the other part of the week. Chinese worked and studied on Saturdays, but the school was aware of our two-day weekend in Europe. They made a minor concession to us by giving us Saturday afternoons off. Obviously, the teachers did not object. It gave them a little more air to breathe as well. . .

This was also the period in which my group of close friends started to form. The remainder of this chapter describes these fellow students, some of whom you have already met during my birthday dinner, with which the introductory chapter starts.

I also introduce a few other types of students

. . . An event that was the talk of the campus for a short while was the arrival of a bus load of Laotian students. When they arrived, it had already started to get colder, but apparently no one had bothered to inform them about the climate. They were all dressed in their traditional attire. This looked extremely picturesque, but was quite inappropriate for the Beijing autumn. They also struck us as very young, but on the other had they all seemed to be chain smokers. Several got off the bus, bare feet in slippers, with a cigarette in their hand. Funny people. Anyway, they moved on to another school very soon, never to return. . .

I am writing this post on November 17. I realise that the period covered by this chapter also focuses on that month, be it four decades earlier. The traditional European holiday season was already approaching. However, before the celebrations could start anew, something exciting was still waiting for us. I will tell you about it in my next post.


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.


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