How I Slid Into an Appreciation of Chinese Culture
There's a big fuss out in Hacienda Heights, California because elementary school kids there are being taught the Chinese language and something about Chinese culture, and the instruction is being paid for in part by the government of China.
Some people think the whole thing is another in a series of sinister plots to undermine our sacred American values. They think it poses a serious threat to our very way of life. What better way to overthrow the government of a country and instill communism, they reason, than to brainwash the children who will one day take the reins of that government?
In their view, anyone who studies anything about China is a potential traitor. So I guess it's time for me to confess something -- a long time ago, in that bastion of undisciplined and dangerous free-thinking that is Chapel Hill, I studied ancient Chinese culture. And God help me, I enjoyed it and haven't been the same since.
But the Chinese government had nothing to do with coercing me into taking this subversive course, nor was I bent on fomenting revolution. I swear that the only reason I took it was because I was desperate to get a decent grade in summer school. I signed up for the course -- known at the time as Chinese 50 in the University of North Carolina curriculum catalog -- because it was famous for being, in the student slang of that era, a "slide."
A slide was a class in which you could get a decent grade in exchange for showing up for class and doing work that didn't require you to be a genius or a workaholic scholar. The names of such courses are circulated among the students on the campuses of colleges such as UNC, where you always seem to find yourself in classes with students who are a whole lot smarter than you and who ruin the grading curve for everyone else.
So during that summer session I took a seat in one of the largest auditoriums on campus, joining academically sluggish football players, party-hearty frat boys and other less-than-focused semi-scholars who knew their college careers depended on a QPA-boosting grade in this course.
I wish I could remember the name of the professor who taught Chinese 50, but that's long gone from my memory. But I do clearly remember his appearance and mannerisms. He was a small, wispy, slightly nervous American Caucasian, probably late 30s-early 40s, with a scraggly beard and graying hair. In those days you could still smoke in UNC classrooms, and he chain-smoked throughout his lectures.
In short, he was not a very imposing figure. But he was deeply in love with the culture and history of China, and he intensely wanted to communicate that love to his students -- even though he knew his class was a sort of summer purgatory for those who'd discovered that academics was only one of many pastimes in Chapel Hill, and probably not the most interesting of all the things you could do there.
On the first day of class, he laid his cards on the table. If you show up for all the classes and do all of the assigned work, you'll get a 'C,' he told us. If you do a little more than the assigned work, you'll get a 'B,' and if you do still more work you'll get an 'A,' he said.
But I'm not doing this so you can kick your mind into neutral and coast through summer school, he said. I'm doing this because I think the ancient Chinese built one of the greatest civilizations in world history, and I'm hoping you'll pick up just a little bit of that from this class.
And then he proceeded, during those muggy North Carolina summer mornings, to tell us a fascinating story of a long-ago people who were sublimely civilized. Like any group of humans, there were scoundrels, wastrels, thugs and thieves among them, but their culture was focused on moderation and self-discipline.
The ancient Chinese recognized the deep flaws of human nature, and took that into account in making their laws. They recognized that no human is as powerful as the forces of nature, and structured their lives to be in harmony with their surroundings. They recognized the ceaseless interplay between simplicity and complexity in all aspects of human existence, and wrote poetry and essays to express that.
They even devised a written language that was not intended to be spoken, but was designed to communicate an idea or a passion by creating a series of images in the minds of readers. It was a language that existed only in the mind, sort of like telepathy.
I also learned about Lao Tzu, the ancient philosopher who supposedly scolded Confucius for his pride and vanity and wrote the Tao Te Ching before disappearing forever.
I got a B+ for the course, but more importantly I came away from that class with a lingering fascination for a civilization and a system of thought that was based on reasoning and intellect instead of emotion and acquisitiveness.
It's been decades since I took Chinese 50, but a week hasn't gone by that I haven't thought of that class in some context. And now the story emerges about the frightened people in Hacienda Heights who have freaked out because kids there are learning something about China.
So the adults are upset because the children may become wiser than their elders. I think Lao Tzu would delight in that irony.
NOTE: The symbols at the top of this post are Chinese for "change."