The Forum | General Education

Classical Languages in Risk: How Classical Education Is Taught in China

July 30, 2019

In the United States, Latin disappeared from middle school and high school classrooms decades ago. Most public schools no longer offer courses in Latin, while others only offer the class as an elective. Ancient Greek is in a similar situation, and many Americans have trouble understanding even old forms of the English language, including the work of William Shakespeare. Only a small portion of Americans choose to learn these “dead languages.” Classical languages, however, are an important part of gaining a deeper understanding of the roots of Western Civilization and our literary heritage.

In contrast to the decline of classical Western languages in America, in China, schools require students to learn classical Chinese from elementary school to high school. Classical Chinese is very different from the language that Chinese people use today. It is only a written form and was used in all formal writings until the early 20th century when a cultural movement asserted that written language should be similar to the modern spoken language. Linguists believe that classical Chinese originated during the Eastern Zhou dynasty (770–256 B.C.). Since then, spoken language has evolved considerably, while written language has not changed much.

“Classical languages are an important part of gaining a deeper understanding of the roots of Western Civilization and our literary heritage.”

Without learning classical Chinese, it is nearly impossible to understand the profound meanings behind Chinese words, let alone the history and traditions preserved in the language through a great number of idioms and allusions. These idioms and allusions contain experiences, moral concepts, and admonishments from previous eras and are considered the collected wisdom of the Chinese culture. Many idioms have background stories, and without knowing them, people cannot grasp the meaning of various phrases or properly use the Chinese language.  

Due to the complex relationship between spoken language and classical Chinese, Chinese students learn classical Chinese throughout their entire education. Children begin to recite simpler poetry from the early stage of kindergarten. Although they may not have a clear understanding of the words they memorize, the words become part of their primal language memories, and the meanings behind them will develop later as they continue their study of classical Chinese.

Classical Chinese is not a one-time course. Instead, it is woven into the general Chinese curriculum. In elementary school, about 30% of textbook articles are in classical Chinese. Poetry and lyrics in classical Chinese that are relatively straightforward are commonly used in early education because the rhythm keeps students engaged. Epigrams of great thinkers from the pre-Qin period’s Hundred Schools of Thought philosophy (6th century to 221 B.C.) are introduced to children for moral instruction.

In middle school, students begin to study serious texts in classical Chinese, examining each word’s meaning and classical grammar. For tests, students are given an article and are asked to interpret a specific word, the meaning of a sentence, or to explain an idea from the article. At this point, at least 50% of studied texts are in classical Chinese. In high school, articles become more difficult, more profound, and can be from older historical periods. A qualified high school graduate who is ready for college should be able clearly to understand articles from the last 700 years, understand most texts from up to 200 B.C., and have a general concept of the main idea of articles from even earlier than that. With this proficiency in classical Chinese, students can read most historical texts, giving them the opportunity to explore traditional culture and philosophy.

“The United States should take note of China’s strategies to promote classical languages in the education system.” 

In addition to countries and communities made up of Chinese descendants, Japan also requires students to learn classical Chinese. Japan incorporated Chinese characters into its language starting from the 1st century, recognizing that classical Chinese education helps to understand wider literature and culture.

The United States should take note of China’s strategies to promote classical languages in the education system. The number of U.S. high school students learning the Latin language has slowly climbed back up since the mid-1970s. Each year, more students take the National Latin Exam than in recent past decades, and more students are taking Latin courses in college. Some schools are also trying to increase access to courses in ancient Greek. Students report that learning Latin has helped them to understand profound allusions in Western culture, literature, and politics. Building on this momentum, there is a bright future for the revitalization of Latin and Greek courses in public education.

Meixi Sun is a database management intern at ACTA and a rising senior at George Mason University.


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