The Merest Sniff of China (2)

Bayden's viewIn 1998 when Myrna and I were in China we spent most of our time in southern Yunnan close to the border with Burma, out of the way and very rural. I’d be interested to see how much things have changed in Mojiang, Simao, Pu’er and Xishuangbanna in that time. But this was an urban visit with nothing as new as the newlands of Wujiang, a vision of the modern world.

IMG_1905Wujiang means ‘Wu River’ and there were plenty of signs of being in wetlands with water trickling between expanses of concrete, lakes large and small, canals and whole towns claiming to be the Venices of the East. We visited one of these, Tong Li. Nice enough but we seemed to have been to a lot of places a bit like this before. We did see a film being made with a glamorous star (at right), and this amateur effort (below, he’s filming the boatman at work) which we watched for some time. I suppose if you pay you can do what you like. The birds are fishing birds.Tong Li boatman

The Chinese learnt how to build high rise buildings on mud in the mid ’90s — a honeycomb concrete pad with deep piles to stop tilting. It had certainly begun in Pudong when we were in Shanghai in 1998. The Pudong development now extends for 20 or 30 kilometres, a forest of high rises with small clumps of very high rise here and there where extra fertiliser has been applied.

The view above from Bayden’s window is ‘older’ Wujiang. Our view in the opposite direction was not only of a bus station but a series of construction sites. In three different moods —

Wujinag#3 not clearWujiang #1Wujiang #2 clear

and, yes, there was a clear day.

Wikipedia says what we heard regularly:

‘Wujiang is located just south of the city center of Suzhou. Traditionally, It has been regarded as “the Land of Fish and Rice”, and “the Capital of Silk”. In recent years, it is also known to be “the Capital of Cable and Optical Cable“ and also “the City of Electronics”.’ Very sweet.

There has been a remarkable effort to vegetate. Literally millions of trees, Suzhou boulevardmany of them apparently mature with boles 200mm in diameter, have been planted along the long straight boulevards. In 20 years time the whole place will look magnificent in Spring.

Many of these tower blocks are not fully occupied or occupied at all. They offer one-, two-, three-bedroom units, the last with two bathrooms and, on the basis of the advertising posters at their base they are very nicely appointed. Forget high rise slums.blossom buildings

High school statuesBut this wasn’t why we were here.

Bayden Findlay and I were making videos for use in a guide to Australian schools for developing partnerships with Chinese schools. This is part of a national initiative to encourage the teaching and learning of Mandarin. You can find an example here. (Although we made both the videos on this page, ‘Connecting Students: China BRIDGE 2012 is the recommended item.)

The previous Victorian government developed a very active relationship with Jiangsu Province of which Suzhou and Wujiang are parts, and its Education Department with a strong International Division has developed 47 such school partnerships. That’s quite a lot. How much longer this relationship will last is not known, but it will not be the fault of the Chinese if it stumbles.

The 17 people we were with were coming back to their seven schools after 12 months to re-enliven their relationships, and we were going to four of these schools to interview Chinese principals and teachers and capture some of what it was that these relationships were about and how they worked.

The studio:studio set up

The first school we went to was a primary with 1700 students and we got there for Monday assembly. Note the big kids. They could have been 13 but no older.Assembly kids

A white-gloved and very formal delegation of students marched the flag in and raised it. Everyone sang their hearts out. We had an exhibition of last week’s best calligraphy (Year Two: the fine motor control of 8 and 9 year olds at the schools we visited was of a startling high order), we had some opera accompanied with dancing, the playing of a traditional musical instrument plucked like a recumbent harp. Then, of course, the in-line skaters.roller bladers

No assembly complete without same. They circumnavigated the whole crowd three times and then went off … somewhere.

I have no way of telling how representative these schools were. The buildings of course were all new — spacious and well equipped. In their whopping classes the kids were attentive and responsive. The teachers were firm and direct but encouraging and perhaps softer than 15 years ago.

As Jane Orton notes, Chinese seven year-olds usually know about 1500 characters (of 48,000; 56,000 with the inclusion of classical characters). The requirement for second language learners of Mandarin at Year 12 in Victoria is 640. With 3000 you can read a Chinese newspaper (although there are those who believe this is on the low side).

The remarkable training that learning Chinese orthography entails must have an impact on neural processes. It is reinforced by hours and hours of homework a night. (Recently some Education Bureaus have tried to institute Wednesday nights as homework free, but this is largely ignored by parents (and students) who fear their child (they) might fall behind.) Learning is also very definitely a binary process — 权 right, 错误 wrong — none of this ‘pretty close’ or ‘I’m not quite sure about that Adrian, but good try’. Bang. One way or the other. Quite useful for maths as well.

This might have something to say about Chinese society more generally, and now I’m really just musing out loud.

Think: a computer. Performs astonishing tricks, but it only uses binary impulses, black and white — no hmmm not quite off, a bit in the middle, sort of a warm spark there. Its operation is completely hidden from those who aren’t afficionados; it uses its own artificial language which is programmed from elsewhere. Its operation might be intuitive, but only as long as you play by its rules.

There were many moments in my interviews and other conversations when I wondered along these lines. I might say that our main school contacts were the manifold English teachers who were keen to be friendly and not just to practice their English which was sometimes perfect. But I also interviewed each of the principals with the help of Julia Gong, our rather brilliantly bicultural tour leader.

Three moments.

In the first I was trying to explain why schools with 43 students might have trouble partnering with a school of 2750. I pointed out, wrote down in fact, that there are about 9,200 schools in Australia of which just under 4,000 have 100 or fewer students. This was the occasion for great hilarity and a certain amount of disbelief from several senior bureaucrats. It was left as a joke rather than an unusual and pertinent fact. It hadn’t chimed with what was known. No black, no white. Just weird. Foreign.

In the second, same audience, Mr Tsien was wondering how Australian schools could have such small classes and be ‘creative’. I could have said, it’s a trade. All Chinese teachers, primary and secondary, teach two or three 40-minute classes a day. I also could have said you’d need two and a half times more rooms if you want discrete classes of 20. Wouldn’t happen. But what I did say, and wrote down, was that it costs about $5,800 annually to educate an Australian primary school child. In China about 2300 yuan (about AUD400; adjusted for cost of living probably in the region of AUD1500-1800, but still rather less — what DO we get for all that extra dough?) He didn’t say, ah yes, of course, or without question, or that’s interesting, or is it really just a question of money? He congratulated me as a representative of Australia and suggested that soon China’s investment would be equivalent.

I was reading Peter Hessler’s book River Town at the time, a recount from an American of his two years spent as a volunteer teacher in Fuling on the Yangtze in Szechuan. A practiced and well-trained amateur athlete, he takes part in and wins a locally-celebrated long distance race. The newspaper report says nothing much about the race per se, or his win, but comments at length how the locals must struggle to do better to conquer their waigouren (foreign) rivals. Mr Tsien’s reaction reminded me of that.

The third moment. I was talking to one of the smartest and most fluent of the English teachers we met and we were talking about variations in schools. I offered the idea that schools were generally a precise product and reflection of the community in which they were embedded. And do you think I could make any way with that idea? Not a hope. And this was a 10-minute effort with diagrams and pictures, not just a passing misunderstanding.

I think the idea that communities might vary may have been a stumbling block, like for example, trying to persuade a Muslim, some Muslims, that there are very different varieties of Islam (‘One God, One Faith, One People’!). She may not have lived far from home, although, remembering, she had. She had lived in New Zealand. Perhaps not in the Uighur Territories or in southern Yunnan. Or it might have been the idea that there could be variations in ‘school’ and its products. Curricula and text books are standardised across China, although we came across teachers perfectly happy to leave bits out or change apparent stipulations and do things a different way. It may just have been a foreign idea in its speculative quality. It registered nowhere.

All students study English. They are aided in this by learning Chinese characters accompanied by their written pinyin pronounciation, so even young kids learn the Latin alphabet and its sounds very early and consistently. In Beijing and Shanghai there was a lot of environmental English: street signs, directions, ads and so on.

But, think, if we want young Australians to learn an Asian language (and that’s why we were there, directly) it should be one language (Mandarin would be a smart choice) in all schools at all year levels for 4-5 hours a week. All signs should have a Mandarin translation and attention should be paid to an increase in environmental Mandarin everywhere. Ridiculous or what?

That’s how the Chinese would do it. Black, white. And er hem … that’s how they have done it. You want to know the difference between Chinese and most western societies? There it is.

Finally, an invention from a 10 year-old student from Suzhou Experimental Primary School. An arrangement so little kids’ chairs don’t fall over backwards celebrated in a glass case at the school’s entry.

inventionWe queued at the designated carriage point (number 13) for the superfast train at Suzhou and, after travelling at 200 kph for 21 minutes, we were in Shanghai. At no point in that time did we not have buildings on either side of us.


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