The Chinese language must be considered among the greatest creations of mankind. Too few Yalies will appreciate this while fulfilling their language requirement. Sure, one can take Chinese 115 and 130. After four semesters of all-consuming memorization and tonal training, one will have gained little more than simple conversation skills. But this isn’t studying the Chinese language.
The genius of the Chinese language is its integration — it integrates what is seen with what is written, what is written with what is heard, what is heard with what is spoken. Its form embodies a culture, and its content reflects a history. Indeed, the Chinese language is a complex web of characters and utterances in continual development alongside the varieties of human experience through millennia. What a wonder it would be to explore its intricacies, its harmonies, and its creative power.
At Yale, the language is taught in a surprisingly one-sided manner. The program accomplishes three purposes: Immediately, it enables colloquial conversation; intermediately, it launches Light Fellowships; finally, it facilitates international business. It is true that some students go on to a cultural study of the language, but only well after fulfilling the language requirement, and as an exception rather than the rule.
Those who are interested in the Chinese language as a gateway to the Chinese cultural legacy should not take it to fulfill distributional requirements. Those who do take Chinese should be prepared to study it for at least six semesters in addition to studying in China if they want any enduring oral proficiency. And all should be aware that the Chinese program will take over their lives.
Make no mistake, the Chinese program at Yale is taught by gifted and committed instructors. Courses are taught with great care, effort and precision. But as is true in any project, focused execution of the project reveals any flaws in its design. In this case, the flaw is that one size does not fit all forms of interest in the language. The program works for those who want serious training in conversational Chinese, but for few others.
When justifying the language requirement, the Blue Book notes, “The benefits of language study include enhanced understanding of how languages work … and the ability to recognize and cross cultural barriers.” One cannot understand how the Chinese language works without studying its development. Likewise, crossing cultural barriers with China presupposes a contextual understanding of its language. But the Chinese program does not attend to the developmental history of its subject — the characteristic perhaps most constitutive of the language’s greatness.
Yale has neutered the potential of the Chinese language by appropriating it for Western capitalist ends. This is not to be understood as an indictment of Western capitalism, but of the mistake of thinking that Western capitalism has the resources to appreciate the Chinese language. For the capitalist system that now dominates the world is notable and valuable for its analytical precision and its ability to break down wholes into component parts and move these parts to greater productivity.
But the Chinese language is fundamentally constructive. The form of the character allows that, in a complex situation, rather than analytical delineation, the Chinese can create a new concept to represent that situation in all its complexity. And the concept finds its context visually in a character and culturally in society, such that the social form is bolstered by the character and vice versa.
Thus the irony that Mao’s prophecy of capitalist imperialism was self-fulfilling. In his attempt to bring China on a par with Western efficiency, he simplified the language, abandoned his people’s traditions, and instituted a great Cultural Revolution that stripped China bare of its once-glorious legacy. Thus naked, China now flocks to don the clothes of the West, both a puppet and advocate of capitalist strength.
Oh! Weep for China! Weep for what is lost to furnish ill-considered gains! The gains may accrue to Yale, but the loss is that of China and her people.
Peter Johnston is a junior in Saybrook College. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.