A Letter from China
August 22, 2000
by Ernest Pinson--Ch'eng Ping Sun--Chinese adopted name
"Wo bu hui jiang Zhongwen." ("I cannot speak Chinese.")
This begins a new series of articles for this year that will be written from China and e-mailed to "The Harbinger" staff. At times I will enlist various Chinese to speak and write sections or entire letters for you about Chinese culture, history, education, or society. But most often I will be penning the articles myself. Just a word of explanation is needed. I am in my second year teaching English to university level students in Nanjing (7 million pop.), in the east central portion of China, not too far from the Westernized city called Shanghai (15 million pop.), and about 150 miles from the China Sea coast. I am a recently retired English Prof. living (generally!) in Ocean Springs, MS, who in the past with my wife reviewed plays and music for The Harbinger. I dearly love the Chinese students I teach (despite their wholesale borrowing from each other -- which they don't call "cheating"), and count myself blessed to be teaching at one of the great universities there.
This column will not be investigative reporting; rather it will be observational, descriptive, analytic and humanistic. I intend to invite some who will speak in their own voice (Chinese English majors have 10 years of English by the time they graduate from college), some I shall quote, and some I will interview--including peasants, businessmen, educators, housewives, newspaper editors, craftsmen, drivers, whoever. I can't promise these "Letters From China" will be interesting; I can promise they will be authentic, as honest as I can make them, and likely an alternative view to what you presently think about China and the Chinese.
Some possible topics include China and the WTO, The Red Guard and the Cultural Revolution, Who Was Chairman Mao, The 1-Family 1-Child Policy, What Do Chinese Eat and Why, Chinese Sports, Chinese Minorities, Chinese Poetry, American and Chinese Education Compared, The Japanese Massacre of Nanjing in 1937, the Plight of the Chinese Peasant. If anyone would like a particular topic discussed, just let the Harbinger staff know and I'll try to research it.
The rest of this letter will be about the school where I will teach this year, Nanjing University. Although it is the 5th oldest institution of higher learning in China, its history only goes as far back as 96 years. It is a liberal arts institution that ranks 2nd or 3rd in China among colleges and universities. It has the largest uncensored library in China, the largest publishing house in terms of publications per annum, and it placed 2nd in China's national debate contest among 28 universities last year. There is a place on campus that indicates the American Noble Prize winner, Pearl Buck, taught here in the 1930's. It sits squarely in the city center of Nanjing (itself 4 times historically the national capital of China), and commands about a mile square of property that is densely set with old, large, rustic buildings made mostly of concrete and stone and many trees. It has many small, delightfully lost gardens -- some encased in brick or concrete walls with benches, flowers, fountains, and walking paths meandering through them. International teachers live in one large hotel/apartment complex which is run by a private company on campus for the University. If you come to see me you must sign in and sign out at the hotel desk presumably for my protection (although that is not the practice throughout China). I am told that about 70 international teachers live here, and most of us have bicycles, but no cars, no pets, little assurance of privacy. I reside in a two-room apartment with a small kitchen and bath (shower only). Although I have heat and air-conditioning, most students do not, and most classrooms are without heat and cooling as well. One simply keeps his/her coat on during class in the winter. As strange as this may seem, I do not recall being uncomfortable in the classroom the entire winter, even thought it snowed 3 times and was often below freezing. Still, the University exudes learning and scholarship. Chinese seem to be able to memorize anything--I'm frequently asked if memorizing the English dictionary is the best way to learn the English language. But that's another subject -- stay tuned to this column and read The Harbinger next time for a study of the other side of the world, roughly 10,500 miles (15,000 Kilometers) away and 13 or 14 hours ahead of us in clock time; almost literally the opposite side of the world from us. Tune in next time same place.