Chinese Language and Culture – Why Bother?

Chinese Language and Culture – Why Bother?

Why bother learning Mandarin Chinese language?  It might be that China is Australia’s largest bilateral trade partner.  In an era when some countries are erecting “great big trade walls”, the opportunities for Australia are set to grow our trade relationship with China even further.  Noting that Australia has moved from being a resources exporter towards being a services exporter (financial services, professional academic services etc.) the importance of people-to-people relationships and hence communication through language has increased.  If you have taken the time to study Mandarin, your access and opportunities in China are undoubtedly improved.

Alternatively, you might be involved with a Mandarin speaking group in Australia such as martial arts and wish to extend that involvement to be deeper than physical and include cultural and linguistic elements.  Should you wish to expand your martial arts horizons to China itself, Mandarin is the vehicle which will allow you to do that.  Such was my own original motivation to study the language which then expanded to a lifelong relationship with China and its people at both professional and personal levels.  With Mandarin language, I gained access and opportunities.

I have used the term “culture” above, but what do I mean?  Language itself is part of a nation’s cultural heritage.  Art, poetry and music are all forms of culture as is martial art, the skill of cooking, a nation’s literature – all of these should be considered areas of potential learning or at least interest to those studying Mandarin.  There will be periods in our language study journeys when you don’t feel you are making any headway and there is a temptation to “give it a little rest” which turns into stopping study altogether.  It is at these low ebbs that exploration into the language of cuisine for example, provides a temporary diversion from the text book just long enough to reinvigorate your enthusiasm.  The is a plethora of books which provide a window into the Chinese characters which describe cuisine and cooking.  Treat yourself to a meal at a Mandarin speaking restaurant and practice your newly found words with your hosts.

Beijing Foreign Languages Press has produced many excellent translations of Chinese literature including the four ancient novels Journey to the West, A Dream of Red Mansions, Outlaws of the Marsh and The Three Kingdoms.  All four were translated by native English speakers in concert with Chinese translators and include poetry translated from Chinese and, in their English translations, amazingly maintain their rhyme and rhythm.  If you were to read only one of the four, The Three Kingdoms, translated by Sidney Shapiro formerly of the Australian National University, would be my choice as it reflects the historical period in China of the same name.

Let Chinese culture be in addition to your Mandarin study, not a substitute.  Let it be a diversion when you need a break from the books.  Having even a little knowledge some facets of Chinese culture and knowing Mandarin will give you more access and opportunities – it certainly did for me.

About Author

Lyall Crawford joined the then Department of Foreign Affairs in 1983 and first visited China in 1985.  He was posted with his young family to Beijing in 1995 where he served at the Australian Embassy for three years until cross posting to Australia’s Consulate General in Shanghai for another three years.  During his two years in Canberra he was appointed Deputy Director of the Australia-China Council Secretariat until being posted to Kathmandu which incorporated many visits across the land border to Tibet.  His penultimate posting was to the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou before ending his career as Consul-General in Singapore in 2014.  He continues to maintain a very strong interest in Chinese language and culture.