Note: The point of this post is Joy’s video at the bottom. The rest is secondary.
Reading Dean‘s tweet felt oddly like posthumous eavesdropping on what the living say after we’ve passed. (It’s a Wonderful Life, anyone?) It’s nice that what was said was nice.
It’s also nice to be so caught up in loving what you’re teaching that you’re too busy learning more about it to want to sacrifice time to write about teaching. I’m that ga-ga over the history of China.*
Teaching Chinese history here in Singapore is especially poignant to me, at this point, because I’m now sufficiently steeped in it, after three spellbound years, to teach it from new depths — and hopefully to re-introduce so many of my Westernized Chinese students to their own exquisite and unappreciated roots. So many of these students come into my classroom saying “I know nothing about my Chinese roots,” and I wonder how this can be so, given that their parents, though Westernized, surely have a stronger connection than their American-educated children.
But then I think about my own experience in Shanghai last summer, when I went to the Foreign Language Bookstore downtown in search of one of China’s foundational Confucian classics, the roughly 3,000-year-old Shujing (The Book of Documents). I was amazed that the Chinese staff at the bookstore had no knowledge that it existed. Had Communist anti-Confucianism — or Chinese Communist Capitalist consumerism — so severed today’s Chinese from their roots that even they were oblivious to them too? I found the book, after being told they didn’t have it, by ransacking the shelves and discovering it myself. And I read this rough (and far more refined) equivalent to the West’s Hebrew Bible cover to cover, within the month, and tried to pass that torch, as any good Confucian transmitter of the ancients would do, to the young — especially my Chinese students.
When we reach the beginnings of the triumph of the West, in its Full Metal Jacketed glory, over China with the 1840 Opium War — and the triumph of Westernization and modernization — I tell my students that, to me, the best part of our story is over. Traditional China is finished, and now we move into 160 years of dreary and decidedly non-exquisite wars, hot and cold, between capitalism and communism, Christianity and Confucianism, and other uninspiring tales of woe.
We reached that point a week or two ago in the current course, and I put the brakes on for a brief discussion about the effects of learning this history on my students. That “poignant” part I mentioned above came when the occasional Chinese student articulated a new appreciation for the deep roots of that fine history, a new pride in its distinctive traditions and values compared to the rest of the world — and especially compared to the world of my own Western roots. Call me immodest, maybe even delusional, but I find great satisfaction in the possibility that I might have returned these young growths, uprooted from the native traditions and culture of their ancestors by the onslaught of my own gold- and God-obsessed ancestors, at least somewhat to an appreciation of what was lost in that transplanting. As I joke to my students, I’m white on the outside but yellow on the inside, and they’re the opposite — and don’t know what they’re missing while I, ironically, because of my years of immersion, do. (Thus, to repeat, the silence on this blog. My interest in iPads is nil in comparison to the supremely literate millennia of Chinese culture. My biggest sadness is knowing, first, that I’ll probably die before finishing reading all the texts I want to read and, second, that even if I don’t, I’ll only read them in translation, and not in the rich originals in the Chinese script.)
And now that I’m feeling like some silly and self-inflated reverse missionary of post-colonialism, I’ll get to the bone I originally opened this post to throw to Dean and anybody else who wants an example of beautiful learning. I read Dean’s tweet just before grading this independent research project on the Tang and Song dynasties (roughly 600-1200 ce).
The assignment itself was simply to research a self-selected aspect of this Golden Age of Chinese civilization, write a 700-1000 word script, and then create a screencast reciting the script to well-chosen accompanying images. In one class, a girl asked if she could take it beyond simply filming a Powerpoint and use film instead. Of course I said yes, remembering as I did Chris Harbeck‘s advice from the old ed-geek days to “release the hounds” and see where they run without the schooly, teacher-held leash.
Thank goodness I did. That girl is Joy, and she’s Taiwanese. Here in Singapore, Joy had already been re-discovering her Chinese roots by practicing Tai Chi and calligraphy, learning to make dumplings by hand, and surely other things unknown to me.
Joy chose to explore the Golden Age of Chinese lyric poetry of the Tang Dynasty. The result, below — technical quibbles aside — is evidence that Joy is aptly named. Give her a couple of minutes to get past her intro and into the heart of it all, and maybe you’ll get some of that ga-ga too.
I’d almost buy her some pro-quality audio and video gear if she’d promise to share more along these lines in a regular series.
(Joy posted the video on her class reflective blog here, if you want to read the script with the poems she recited or drop a comment.)
* I’m also in the third year and final year of coursework for my Master’s degree, he moaned. Can you say “exhausting”?