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The government invests a lot of effort and money in the annual Speak Mandarin campaign to motivate the Chinese to learn their mother tongue. In recent years, the Promote Mandarin Council has expanded the campaign by encouraging the Chinese to become more knowledgeable about Chinese culture. Nevertheless, learning Chinese culture and passing it on to the next generation is too daunting a task for the yearly campaign to accomplish.

  In primary school, pupils are taught by the teacher the proper order of strokes in writing Chinese words. They also learn basic vocabulary and idioms. At the secondary level, the teacher will drill the pupils on forming sentences, grammar, spelling, dictation and essay-writing.

  Language is an integral part of culture and the symbol of a race. While stressing proficiency in the language, our policy on mother tongue does not seem to give equal emphasis to the transmission of culture.

  At his National Day Rally speech this year, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong spoke about riding on China's economic growth and urged Chinese pupils to learn the Chinese language and Mandarin seriously. He, however, did not touch on the importance of learning Chinese culture.

  Being able to write Chinese words and engage in simple conversation in Mandarin by no means indicates that a person understands Chinese culture. Some learn the Chinese language to pass examinations while others do so to close business deals. They are completely oblivious to the rich culture underlying the language.

  Picture this: A businessman having a meal with his Chinese client pauses and plunges the chopsticks into the bowl of rice as he continues to converse.

  The businessman who knows Mandarin but not Chinese culture is obviously unaware that his behaviour is considered rather rude in Chinese etiquette. The point is, knowing how to speak Mandarin and write Chinese words may not be enough in breaking into, and investing in, the Chinese market. The culture of a people is more than just language, and the contents and value system it embodies are far more significant.

  If we choose to learn Chinese culture through another language, would it be equally effective? While documented cultural material can be translated, some nuances tend to be lost in the process.

  Translation may suffer from a lack of accuracy. It may also turn one or two concise words into a long and boring essay.

  Take, for instance, the Chinese tradition to paste the word“福”upside-down. Anyone familiar with Chinese culture knows that it means“福到”。 But when the meaning is explained through English translation, it may become a long and tedious sentence such as this: The Chinese character“福”means luck and prosperity, and is commonly pasted inverted on the walls because the Chinese word for inverted is“倒”which has the same pronunciation as the Chinese word for “arrived”。 Thus, this practice is used to symbolise the arrival of luck and prosperity in one's home.“

  To have a good grasp of one's culture, learning its language is the best way.

  People who know the Chinese language but are ignorant of Chinese culture, or do not know the Chinese language but have translated information on Chinese culture, will not be able to truly understand their own culture. In addition to getting Chinese Singaporeans to learn the Chinese language in earnest, the government should also create an atmosphere and institute an education system that are helpful to the transmission of Chinese culture.

  Only when we are well versed in both the Chinese language and culture can we truly appreciate the depth of Chinese culture which dates back a few thousand years.

  (The writer is a second year student at the School of Communication and Information, NTU. This article first appeared in The Nanyang Chronicle, NTU's school paper. Translated by Yap Gee Poh)











  The Chinese character“福”means luck and prosperity, and is commonly pasted inverted on the walls because the Chinese word for inverted is“倒”which has the same pronunciation as Chinese word for “arrived”。 Thus, this practice is used to symbolize the arrival of luck and prosperity in one's home.“




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