Monthly Archives: August 2007

Learning Chinese: How Difficult is It?

For the past year or so, the number of U.S. news items related to learning Mandarin has exploded. Just today, I read an article announcing the opening of another Confucius Institute, this time in Southern California at UCLA. The Confucius Institutes are vehicles for promoting Chinese culture, and serve as Mandarin learning centers, a la the British Council with its English programs.

In this week’s International Edition of Newsweek, Asia scholar Stephen Noerper writes in his piece “Over a Billion Served,” that the Chinese government predicts that 100 million people worldwide will be studying Mandarin as a second language by 2010. The U.S. Department of Education has set the goal of having 5% of all students in the U.S. enrolled in Mandarin language programs within the next two years.

What nobody is really talking about* is whether or not these people will actually be able to learn to speak Mandarin with any degree of fluency. For anyone who has been thinking “Gee, I’d like to learn Mandarin,” I think you ought to know something about learning Mandarin: getting fluent in Mandarin is extremely difficult, and very few non-Chinese people are able to become functional speakers and writers of Mandarin.

(Warning: Horn tooting follows) As an American who speaks, reads, and writes fluent Mandarin, I always encourage people who want to learn Mandarin to remain dedicated to the task. Matter of fact, over the past eighteen years, I’ve spent a good many hours offering advice and coaching to would-be Sinophiles who want to learn to speak the language of the Middle Kingdom.

Some language learners DO learn to speak and write Mandarin fluently. I worked with a group of missionaries way back when, and I’d say 20% of them were really fluent after a year or so in the country. But these were missionaries, guys and gals who devoted their lives to language (and scripture) study. The other 80% either gave up or achieved marginal functionality in the language. So yes, some people are able to get fluent enough in a few years to be able to interpret, translate, conduct business, etc.

Still, the fact of the matter is, the percentage of Mandarin students who are able stick with their learning program, overcoming the stress, frustration, and constant headaches involved in becoming fully, functionally fluent in Chinese is lower than the Navy Seal training graduation rate. I’d venture to guess that there are plenty of Navy Seals who can handle starvation and sleep deprivation but who would ring the bell after a few months of learning Mandarin.

Why is learning Mandarin so difficult? Check out this article by David Moser on for a humorous primer on why learning Mandarin is so tough. Mr. Moser’s article deals with some of the technical problems inherent in learning Mandarin. To add my own two cents, there are some very practical problems for native English speakers who want to learn Mandarin, namely:

1. You won’t really get fluent in Mandarin if you don’t live in Taiwan or China for at least six months to a year.

2. You can’t get fluent in Mandarin unless it is your all-encompassing mission in life to do so. Most people don’t have that kind of time or desire.

3. Even if you get somewhat fluent, you will probably always sound like a foreigner, and Chinese people will laugh at you and correct you all the day long. Are you prepared to deal with this somewhat disconcerting cultural difference? Note: I don’t think that Chinese people realize how hurtful it is to laugh at a foreigner who mispronounces a word or phrase in Mandarin. For them, the situation is humorous, but not really in a “you’re an idiot” sort of way. The problem, of course, is that even if you approach this situation objectively, there is something cutting about someone laughing at you or publicly correcting you that is difficult to digest without some difficulty.

4 . You’ll probably never learn to write by hand very well. You’ll have to get by with using a phonemic alphabet called BoPoMoFo to type, and your writing will always seem foreign.

For a more comprehensive report on the difficulties involved in learning Mandarin, see my article in Taiwanease Magazine entitled “Why You Shouldn’t Learn Mandarin.” (Note: The link takes you to a .pdf download. My article begins on page 4, and is written under my pen name, Steven D. Quinn).

I don’t want to discourage people who want to learn Mandarin, I just want them to know what they are getting into. Ergo, if you are thinking of sending your kid or your next China-based product manager off to weekend Mandarin classes, hoping that they’ll learn enough to “get by” after six months or a year of classes, I think you’re dreaming.

I’d first find out whether or not your student has a burning desire to speak fluent Mandarin, and is willing to stick with the program until he is indeed fluent enough to function in a Mandarin-speaking society. Otherwise, you’d be better off sending him to a modern Chinese history course, taught in English.

*To give credit to Mr. Noerper, he does mention in his article that “…the language is hard, with more than 2,500 characters generally employed in daily writing and a complex tonal speaking system.” These are good points, but they are only the tip of the linguistic iceberg.

If any of my readers wants specific advice about what you can realistically expect out of U.S.-based Mandarin classes, please feel free to e-mail me.


Filed under Language

Filial Piety

Last year and earlier this year, I wrote several articles for a magazine called Taiwanease. In April, I submitted a proposal for a regular column titled “Through Taiwanese Eyes.” I wanted to interview Taiwanese people on a variety of topics related to core cultural values, customs, and ethics, and produce an article on one of the topics each month. I completed the first article in early May, only to find out that the magazine went kaput. I meant to shop the article to other magazines, but got too busy.

What follows is the article in its entirety, 2000 words in length. I’ll look for another magazine to publish it in as soon as I get a bit more breathing room in my schedule.

The Good Son: Filial Piety in Taiwan

Filial piety (孝道) is one of the bedrock cultural values of traditional Han Chinese societies. Customarily, filial piety dictates that the children of Taiwanese parents treat their parents with respect and respond obediently to their directives. Upon reaching an age of financial independence, the children are then responsible for providing for their parents’ physical and financial needs. When the parents die, the children are accountable for conducting a proper funeral, with all of the attendant rites. The responsibilities outlined by filial piety do not end after parents die—parents, grandparents, and ancestors must be venerated as each occasion requires.

In the ancient Confucian text Classic of Filial Piety (孝經), the essence of filial piety is spelled out in a pretend conversation between The Master, Confucius, and his disciple, Zengzi:

Now filial piety is the root of all virtue, and the stem out of which grows all moral teaching…Our bodies—to every hair and bit of skin—are received by us from our parents, and we must not presume to injure or wound them. This is the beginning of filial piety. When we have established our character by the practice of the filial course, so as to make our name famous in future ages and thereby glorify our parents, this is the end of filial piety. (See footnote below for source)

In other words, a child owes his parents a debt of gratitude, and the scope of filial piety extends to bringing honor to the family name.

In an attempt to understand what filial piety means to Taiwanese people today, I interviewed several Taiwanese people from various age groups and walks of life.

The people I spoke with drew clear distinctions between modern and traditional notions of filial piety.

Jim Chang, 44, is the managing director of large asset management firm. Jim told me that filial piety is primarily defined as a commitment to one’s parents, one that is motivated by reciprocity. In other words, your parents gave you life, raised you, and supported you until were capable of supporting yourself, and you owe them a debt of gratitude that often takes a very tangible form. This includes providing them with financial security in their old age and being obedient to their wishes throughout life. He told me “at the end of the day, filial piety is about performing a duty to your parents. Love does not necessarily play a key role.”

I asked Jim if a person would be considered a “good person” by other Taiwanese if he wasn’t filial. He answered, “Yes, you can be a good person without being xiao. By the same token, there are plenty of mafia members who are extremely filial but who wouldn’t be classed among the best members of society.” According to Jim, the only situation in which not being filial would really hurt a person in the eyes of his peers is that of a politician whose lack of filial piety is exposed in the media. He would then be forced to leave office, or be demoted.

Kenoh Lin, a 29 year old student, defines filial piety as “taking care of parents’ physical and emotional needs, and obedience to their reasonable requests.” Kenoh feels that taking care of parents’ emotional needs is more important than supporting them economically, because satisfying parents’ emotional needs requires greater effort than simply paying their bills. Kenoh added explained that he does not feel obligated to absolutely obey his parents, because parents are sometimes wrong. He said that children actually have a duty to help parents recognize their mistakes, albeit in a private and roundabout way.

Alex Chen, a 33 year old computer industry executive, is the second of three sons. He defines traditional filial piety as the willingness to provide financial support to parents, commensurate with one’s ability. He also pointed out that total obedience was part of the traditional definition. For Alex, the modern definition of interaction between parent and child is dramatically different from the traditional notion. He pointed out that he takes it upon himself to educate his parents when he feels that their thinking or behavior is backward or erroneous. At the time that I spoke with him, he was into the third month of giving his parents the silent treatment, as punishment for their “improper behavior.” He acknowledged that most people in Taiwanese society would regard correcting of one’s parents as taboo, but that does not preclude it from happening in modern families. He feels that most parents, once they get past the shock of the redefinition of filial piety by modern adult children, are able to accept that this is way of the modern world.

Wu Jin-quan, a 36 year old teacher who is the eldest of three sons, defines filial piety as a traditional belief that now belongs only to ancient Chinese or Taiwanese. That is, under traditional beliefs, absolute obedience is required and negotiating or reasoning with parents is not allowed. He believes that in modern times, adult children will not obey stupid, ridiculous, or unreasonable demands, which is a modification of the traditional belief, and therefore a negation of the true meaning of filial piety. In Alex’s mind, filial piety as it once existed is no longer to be found in modern Taiwan.

Sandy, a 26 year old graduate student, pointed out that filial piety is not just about obedience to the wishes of one’s parents. As she put it, many children in modern families are exposed to ideas that are far more cosmopolitan than the ideas their parents were raised with, and it is within an adult child’s rights to introduce these ideas into a discussion with her parents. In addition, she believes that it is acceptable for children nowadays to negotiate with parents on rules such as an appropriate time to return home in the evening. Sandy’s definition of filial piety describes what many would consider a very Western notion of parent-child interaction. That is, calling them to keep in touch and let them know what she’s about in her life. As Sandy puts it, in this way, she shows her parents she remembers them and cares about them.

As for the way different generations in Taiwanese society view filial piety, Jim Chang pointed out that he belongs the sandwich generation of children who initiated a change in the definition of filial piety, because his was the first generation to be widely exposed to different (i.e. not exclusively Chinese) paradigms for parent-child interaction. He mentioned that as a young man starting out in his career, he personally did not respond to his father’s entreaties to leave Taibei to return to Taichung, where his parents live, and that this was considered acceptable behavior by his father.

Alex Chen said, rather pointedly, that while parents are important to today’s Taiwanese children, “absolute obedience is considered to be a stupid form of filial piety” by kids nowadays. Wu Jin-quan said that his parents sacrificed their own wishes for their parents, his mom giving up a teaching career to work in the family store and his father insisting on being present for Tomb-sweeping Day in far-away Hualien, even though there are other members of the family present to perform the proper rites. Wu told me that none of his friends in his generation make such sacrifices for their parents and that, at most, they demonstrate filial piety by trying to be successful in their educations and careers, and by “trying not to offend them (their parents) too much and sometimes listening to their advice.” In Wu’s view, his parents’ generation sacrificed too much for their parents and children. “When people adhere to the traditional definition of filial peity,” Wu says, “they can hardly achieve self-fulfillment,” something that is “beyond our imagination in today’s individualistic society.”

Sandy mentioned that her father would uncomplainingly give his father money to gamble with, even though her father was strongly opposed to such activity. By contrast, she and her brother have successfully “taught” her parents to communicate with their children openly about their lives.

Kenoh Lin said that there is an obvious difference in the level of adherence to traditional notions of filial piety among the generations. He said that his sister married a man his parents did not approve of, but his mother was not allowed to study past primary school out of obedience to her mother’s wishes.

I also asked the people I spoke to what expectations they have of their own children and the way in which they will be filial to them. Kenoh Lin stated that he will not ask his children to achieve any particular education or career goal. He is far more interested in them living happy lives. He also has no expectation of economic support from his children, feeling that planning for his financial needs in old age is his responsibility. “Counting on my children for financial support in my old age is that last thing I want to do,” he says.

Wu Jin-quan emphasized that the traditional definition of filial piety and the modern desire for self-fulfillment are mutually exclusive. He wants his children to survive in the real world, rather than focus on adhering to old-fashioned values. Wu wants his children to grow up to be responsible for their own decisions, rather than looking to their parents to tell them what to do. He thinks that too many kids use the exercise of filial piety as a lame excuse for their own lack of judgment, direction, and motivation, blaming their parents when things go wrong, because it is their parents who told them what to do. Wu plans to teach his kids how to live in this work, but performing filial duty is “absolutely not on the list of priorities.” In Wu’s words, “If I want a kid who is totally obedient to me, I may as well keep a pet.”

Jim Chang echoed many of the same ideas. In the case of his own children, he does not expect any support from them in his retirement years. Nor does he expect total obedience from his children, preferring that they learn to think and make decisions on their own.

When I asked about the differences between expectations of sons and daughters, Kenoh Lin told me that he sees that most parents expect their sons to achieve success in their careers, whereas the primary concern for a daughter centers around her marrying well.

I also asked about how people handle situations where an elder in the family is not reliable, or where a bad relationship exists. Wu Jin-quan was characteristically frank, “I avoid contact with them.”

Jim told me that if he is asked to attend a family function at his father’s behest, but that he has no emotional connection to the relative, he will show up, red envelope in hand, but will not stay and eat. In his wife’s case, she will not even show up.

Wu Jin-quan summed up his take on filial piety by saying that the traditional concept of filial piety was about sacrifice, sacrifice, and more sacrifice, and that it should be replaced by consideration for others and simple gratitude toward parents.

I came away from these discussions with three distinct impressions. First, filial piety as taught to school children from ancient texts is no longer relevant in modern society as a framework for interaction between parents and children. Things have simply changed too much. Sure, most children in Taiwan today feel a duty to their parents, but total obedience is now a thing of the past. Secondly, individual viewpoints on the notion of filial piety are diverse, and while certainly influenced by generational differences, are largely determined by the personalities of the children. Finally, I find that now matter how Westernized, worldly, or cosmopolitan Taiwanese children think they are today, traditional filial piety is a notion so strong that it will continue to color family relationships in Taiwan for many generations hence.

Copyright 2007, Truett Black

Footnote reference:

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture