Chinese children’s literature and the UK National Curriculum

We’re delighted that our first guest post is by Frances Weightman of the University of Leeds. On 2 July 2016 Frances and her team organised an excellent symposium on Chinese children’s literature, bringing together scholars, translators and teachers. There was a particular impetus for holding the symposium, in that the teaching of modern foreign languages – including Chinese – in UK schools is changing. In September 2013 the Department for Education issued new National Curriculum guidelines for the study of languages at primary and secondary schools in the UK, which places new emphasis on the study of literary texts within the curriculum.

Frances explains the changes below…

April 2016 marked the award of the hugely prestigious Hans Christian Andersen prize to Cao Wenxuan, the first Chinese recipient. Cao is a prolific writer of children’s books, already a celebrity in China, and now, with Helen Wang’s wonderfully moving translations, is making something of a splash in the English-speaking world. Bronze and Sunflower made me cry, and I’m a cynical lecturer in my 40s, so presumably should be beyond that.

At the University of Leeds we have been running a project, Writing Chinese, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council via the White Rose East Asia Centre, on new Chinese writing. Over the last couple of years, we’ve been looking at a wide range of authors, considering their reception on the global stage, focussing mainly on those appearing for the first time in English translation. We’ve featured several very controversial new writers, dealing with topics that are often very ‘adult’ in nature, in an attempt to showcase the range of writing produced in China today (more than just Cultural Revolution memoirs and the like).

But if we are to truly attempt to evaluate the ability of literature to pass from one cultural milieu to another, perhaps the litmus test is whether or not a story written for children in one country ‘works’ for children in another. But how on earth do we persuade kids, parents and teachers, from a nation not exactly renowned for embracing foreign languages, to take this step into the unknown? One part of the answer may lie in the dramatic changes currently taking place in UK school curricula.

Chinese teaching in UK schools has just received a significant boost, with the announcement this year of a £10million investment by the UK government in a Mandarin Excellence Programme providing intensive teaching of Chinese (8 hours per week) to 5,000 school pupils across England and Wales. As this programme develops, it is anticipated that the study of Chinese language and culture will be embedded across the curriculum in schools throughout the UK.

At the same time as this increasing presence of Chinese in the UK school curriculum, the nature of what is taught is also shifting away from ‘textbook’ dialogues. In September 2013 the UK Department for Education produced new National Curriculum guidelines for the study of languages at primary and secondary schools, placing new emphasis on the study of literary texts within the curriculum.

The introductory ‘Purpose of Study’ of the new National Curriculum states that one of the aims of teaching of foreign languages should be to give pupils opportunities to “read great literature in the original language.” Further, pupils should “discover and develop an appreciation of a range of writing in the language studied.” At Key Stage 2, pupils should be taught “to appreciate stories, songs, poems and rhymes in the language,” while by Key Stage 3 (11-14 year olds) they should be able to “read literary texts in the language [such as stories, songs, poems and letters], to stimulate ideas, develop creative expression and expand understanding of the language and culture.”

The GCSE and A-level specifications for Chinese are still being developed but they are being prepared according to the models and targets established for European languages. Specifically, at GCSE level  (14-16 year olds) in reading, to “recognise and respond to key information, important themes and ideas in more extended written text and authentic sources, including some extracts from relevant abridged or adapted literary texts”  and at AS and A2 level (16-19 year olds) to “engage critically with intellectually stimulating texts, films and other materials in the original language, developing an appreciation of sophisticated and creative uses of the language and understanding them within their cultural and social context”.

The new specifications for AS and A2 level must enable students to develop their language by a range of means, including “reading and responding to a variety of texts including some extended texts written for different purposes and audiences drawn from a range of authentic sources, including contemporary, historical and literary, fiction and non-fiction texts, adapted as necessary”. At AS level students must also study one literary work or film in depth and “include a critical response to aspects such as the structure of the plot, characterisation, and use of imagery or other stylistic features, as appropriate to the work studied.” At A2, specifications must require students to study two works, either a literary work and a film, or two literary works, which must be authentic. The literary works “must include a range from at least two of the following genres: novels, series of short stories, plays, selections of poems, life writing (such as autobiography, biography, letters and journals).”

Insisting that the syllabus for Chinese mirrors that for European languages, and on the need to incorporate ‘literary texts’, is a cause for concern for many. After the publication of these guidelines the Writing Chinese project conducted a survey at the annual Chinese teachers conference in London to gauge the reaction of school teachers to the idea of including literature within their teaching. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of teachers told us that they felt under-prepared and apprehensive. Literature, for these teachers, whether Chinese nationals or UK-trained, meant the great classical works – and how could these be adequately abridged or simplified to an appropriate level  of language for the pupils they were teaching? Texts, everyone agreed, needed to be available in English translation, regardless of whether they are being taught for language or content.

In recognition of these changes and the challenges they pose, and also in honour of the HCA award, on Saturday July 2nd this year the Writing Chinese project held a symposium on Chinese children’s literature. We were delighted to have presentations by Chen Minjie, from the Cotsen Children’s Library at Princeton University, Helen Wang, translator of stories by Cao Wenxuan and Shen Shixi (not to mention many other Chinese writers), and Anna Gustafsson Chen, translator of the Jimmy Liao series (although probably best known as Swedish translator of Nobel laureate Mo Yan). We gained an overview of the rich abundance of literature written for children in the world’s largest nation, and many fascinating insights into the agonies and ecstasies of rendering it into western languages.

Our afternoon round table discussions were led by secondary school teachers of Chinese, debating practical approaches to incorporating literature into the curriculum. Topics of discussion included the usefulness or otherwise of using Tang poetry to teach Chinese, and the practicalities of using dialogue and drama, and choosing age-appropriate texts.

For me, though, the highlight of the afternoon was a video recording from a bookclub set up at St Gregory’s school in Bath, with two year 10 students giving very impressive reviews and observations of both Cao Wenxuan’s Bronze and Sunflower and Shen Shixi’s Jackal and Wolf (both translated by Helen).  The school pupils had clearly enjoyed the books, and compared the anthropomorphism insightfully to that of western works they had read, discussed paratextual elements such as book covers and titles, and generally provided a level of critical analysis which would put many undergraduate students to shame. Above all, these reviewers proved that perhaps the new curricula, rather than simply being daunting and unrealistic, can, alongside the international recognition of Cao Wenxuan and the increased availability of English translations, provide a new opportunity to introduce young UK readers to the wonderful world of Chinese children’s literature.

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