Journeys East, Journeys West

From a 16th century version of the literary classic, Journey to the West.
From a 16th century version of the literary classic, Journey to the West.

by Chris Livaccari
June 2010

At the National Chinese Language Conference in April of this year, we offered a strand of sessions on bringing "China across the Curriculum." The more I think about these sessions and our vision for them, the more I realize how easy it is to talk about this concept, how hard it is to achieve, and how fundamentally important it is to everything we do as language professionals with an interest in Chinese. A number of experiences I've had since the conference have led me to reflect a bit more on the meaning of this idea and its place in our work.

For instance, I recently attended a conference for world language teachers, and sat in the back of the room with a Japanese language teacher from a prominent university. As the session opened, we chatted in English and Japanese, and then looked to the front of the room as the organizer asked what languages were represented among the participants. "Spanish?" Half of the hands in the room went up. "French?" A few more hands went up. "German? . . . Italian? I'm running out of languages . . .  Portuguese?" The Japanese teacher and I looked at one another nervously. "The less commonly taught languages?" Almost as soon as I raised my hand, I put it down, realizing that Chinese can no longer be considered a "less commonly taught language," nor can Japanese. The more things change, the more they stay the same, I guess. Although the number of Chinese learners in the United States is beginning to make it decidedly a "more commonly taught language," we as a community still exist in some ways outside the mainstream of the language teaching community more generally.

One of the challenges for our profession has been the incredibly rapid growth of Chinese language programs over the last several years. While we're rushing to start programs, find materials, and create curricula, teachers of European languages - either those with steady enrollments or those on the decline - have had more time to focus on the big picture, and have more experience in setting their languages in a richer context of cultural tradition. The European languages that are commonly taught in our schools - Spanish, French, German, and Italian - are also, along with English, the major languages of the Western literary, philosophical, and historical traditions. Teachers in other disciplines have all read works (in translation at least) from these languages, and all teach about these countries to one degree or in their classes. All schools teach the Italian Renaissance, Spain's colonization of the New World, the French Revolution, and German nationalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and many students leave high school having read bits of Dante, Cervantes, Goethe, and Voltaire. In some ways, it's quite amazing that, given the incredible diversity of our nation, we can still call a course on European literature "world literature." I've heard philosophers of language who are completely monolingual, perhaps with a smattering of French or German, discourse on the nature of language as such. I've even just heard a wonderful podcast from Stanford University in which a prominent literature professor endeavors to enlighten us about the unknown gems of Welsh literature and decries how neglected it has been, while among scores of previous shows, there is no mention at all of the Chinese, Indian, Persian, Arabic, Ethiopian, or Mesoamerican literary or philosophical traditions.

In the words of the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi, we are truly still "frogs in the well" (who don't know anything about the world beyond those confines), sometimes taking for granted that the tradition we know and see before us all the time is in fact the tradition, rather than part of a larger whole. And this is one of the great challenges for us as a Chinese language profession. Even many historians of China in the West talk as if China's intellectual journey to the West starts with the Jesuits and the Opium Wars, even though there is good evidence for cultural contacts between Han China and Imperial Rome, for example.

This is why I was so excited and gratified to have the chance to interview Professor Anthony Yu of the University of Chicago (watch the video), who famously translated the Chinese literary classic, Journey to the West. We talked about not only his own journey to the West (as a student from Hong Kong to the United States), but also China's first true spiritual and intellectual journey to the West with the assimilation of Buddhism into Chinese culture, starting in the Han dynasty and reaching a fever pitch in the Tang. Professor Yu was my graduate school advisor, and I have always marveled at his erudition and fluency in both Western and Chinese traditions, a true rarity even among American scholars of East Asia. He is the noted translator of the classical novel Journey to the West, which he describes in these talks as a "multicultural" novel that many Chinese misread because they are unprepared to deal with the Indian elements and cultural frameworks that shape the work. This month, I'd like to offer these conversations to you as an introduction to the idea of classical China as a diverse and cosmopolitan culture that was intimately connected with western countries, India, and Central Asia, if not Europe and the Mediterranean.

Journey to the West itself is a great starting point for a discussion of "China across the Curriculum." On one level, it is an allegorical tale of China's assimilation of Buddhism based on the actual journey of the scholar monk Xuanzang to India; on another it's a rollicking, over-the-top narrative of a magical and mischievous talking monkey, equally ripe for appreciation by spirited young children and intense University of Chicago doctoral students. Introduce it to your colleagues in the English department as the kind of archetypal journey narrative represented in the Western tradition by the Odyssey, Huckleberry Finn, and On the Road, an idea proposed to me recently by a colleague.

Why is it so important to do this? I think a recent episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart expresses this much better than I ever could. The show is an acerbic parody of opponents of a Chinese language program in southern California; these opponents equate everything from China with "Communism." Nudge your colleagues and community members beyond the Spring Festival and Mao jackets, and start introducing them to Tang poetry, Daoist philosophy, and contemporary youth culture. Without this background, your students won't understand contemporary China, and you may find yourself set upon by those who seek to preserve our "liberty" without any clear understanding of the contexts of contemporary or traditional China.

At the end of the day, it's not just about English and Social Studies, the subject areas with which world language teachers often see the most obvious opportunities for collaboration. I recently had the pleasure of attending a seminar on "Language, Brain, and Bilingualism," which offered insights from cognitive neuroscience as food for thought for language teachers. Why not ask your science teacher to consider the ways in which learning Chinese characters may use different cognitive abilities than learning an alphabet, or your math teacher to consider the ways in which traditional Chinese numerals shape arithmetic operations? By looking for these creative connections, you'll make your Chinese language program a more integral and dynamic part of the life of the school in the short term, and a more integral and dynamic part of the Western tradition and our educational culture in the long term. The research suggests that learning a second language in an interactive, immersive, and creative way fosters the possibility of attaining native-like proficiency, as does short periods of rest in which students do not use the language, but allow their brains to consolidate their language knowledge and assimilate their language skills. So get creative, and start connecting! You won't regret it, and neither will your students.