Brian Hayes reviews Contemporary Chinese Short Short Stories, ed. Aili Mu
Most Mandarin textbooks incorporate Chinese culture into the learning process. Typically, the textbook’s protagonists find themselves in some conventional location in China (climbing the Great Wall, crowding onto a packed subway in Shanghai, visiting the Terracotta Army in Xi’an) and a Mandarin conversation ensues. This framework attempts to simultaneously teach Chinese culture and language. However grammatical structures, vocabulary and character recognition usually takes precedence over discussions about Chinese cultural mores. Readers are challenged to decipher what the textbook’s characters are saying, not necessarily why they say it.
At some point, formulaic textbook conversations and edited essays can wear down even the most ardent of Chinese learners. It becomes apparent to most students that there is a huge gap between the language provided in textbooks and authentic Mandarin source material. It is one thing to master sentence patterns and vocabulary lists, but quite another to become sensitive to the unseen cultural concepts that native Chinese speakers draw upon in their everyday interactions. Advanced learners are often simply told to go read texts written by native speakers, but the harsh reality is that many cultural allusions and references made by native speakers may not be appreciated or understood by the Chinese learner still finding his or her way to fluency. In short, after a few years of Mandarin study, learners often reach an impasse: textbooks and graded readers are too simple, and native-level writings and articles are too difficult.