Theresa Munford teaches Chinese at a secondary school in the UK. She took the initiative a few years ago to set up a Chinese book group. At a symposium on Chinese children’s literature in 2016 she played a video in which she interviewed two of her teenage students about the Chinese books they had read. They spoke frankly and eloquently about the books they had read. We invited Theresa to tell us more about the bookclub… [This piece was written for the Global Literature in Libraries and Paper Republic collaboration, February 2017.]
The inspiration for our book group came from a talk I attended a few years ago at the UK’s Annual Chinese Teaching Conference (aka the IOE Confucius Institute Annual Chinese Conference in London). Helen Wang and Frances Weightman talked about the wealth of literature being written for young people in China and how little of this writing is known in the West. It struck me that a book club that focused on Chinese literature in translation could bring a new dimension to our students’ reading and open up new worlds and ideas to them.
St Gregory’s is a mixed comprehensive school of about 1,000 students (aged 11-18) in the West of England. Our school is a keen participant in international programmes, such as Erasmus and, for a small city like Bath, our student population is comparatively diverse, with many students having roots in different parts of the world. Although we offer a limited amount of Mandarin on timetable, we have strong links with China and regularly host visiting students from our partner schools in Suzhou.
I decided that not only would a book group enhance the cultural knowledge of China among students studying Chinese, but it could also be a way of reaching students who were not studying the language. The librarians at the school are very pro-active and there are several book groups that meet regularly, often run by students themselves. The English department is also on a mission to boost reading and literacy across the school, for example with a ‘book in my bag’ initiative that insists on all students having a book in their bag that they can bring out and read during down time, registration time, cover lessons and such like.
I liaised with some of the more voracious readers amongst the students and one of them took on the co-ordination of the reading group. Budgets are tight and we knew that we could only buy one copy of each book so we decided to choose one to read each term and put it on a ‘one week loan’ system to give more students the chance to borrow it. In the first year, I took the lead from Helen Wang and Frances Weightman’s recommendations and chose three books they had flagged up in their talk. Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan, Jackal and Wolf by Shen Shixi , and Revolution is Not a Dinner Party by Ying Chang Compestine.
I went for variety – Bronze and Sunflower is based in rural China and is the story of a city girl’s encounter with rural life when her father is ‘sent down’ to the countryside in an anti-rightist campaign, Jackal and Wolf is an animal tale based in the far west of China. Ying Chang’s book is not, strictly speaking, a translation as she wrote it in English, but I thought it was a good introduction to the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution through the eyes of a young girl.
This year, we have been lucky enough to secure multiple copies of books from a publisher supporting our club and also interested in feedback. This past term we read The Bear Whispers to Me by Taiwanese writer Chang Ying-tai; the book queued up for the coming term is Again I See the Gaillardias by Li Tong, also by a Taiwanese writer.
Our book group discussions have ranged from content to style to the design of the book covers, and the comments and ideas of the students never cease to amaze me. Perhaps it is because today’s teenagers have access to such a wonderful selection of writing for young adults and so voracious readers can range far and wide in their reading and develop sophisticated insights into writing. They are far more ready to engage with the unfamiliar or the difficult than I had originally imagined. It certainly gainsays the stereotype of a generation whose horizons and concentration spans are limited to instagram and facebook.
The first year the book group ran there was a small group of readers, my aim this year is to draw more in. We flag up the group on the school’s internal bulletin system, the librarians have a shelf on the display rack devoted to it, and this year, excitingly, the library has a newsletter written by students. We will make sure that we include a review of the Reading China choice in each edition of that. Even if students don’t come to the discussions, I’m hoping that as the books move into the normal shelves, they will be picked up and read by students for many years to come.
From a curriculum point of view, having the reading groups naturally ticks boxes for literacy, but as a language teacher I hope it will help in the push at GCSE level (ages 14-16) to expose students to more authentic texts. Students at GCSE level Mandarin would not be able to cope with reading the books in Chinese, of course, as literacy in Chinese is a more arduous undertaking than in European languages, but the books make good sources of paragraphs or sections of dialogue that are sufficiently accessible to learners to be used in language classes. And for Pre-U Chinese which is an exam for 6th formers (pre-University, ages 16-18) that involves history and culture, these books will be invaluable.
In terms of background knowledge, some of the books are self explanatory. Jackal and Wolf, for example, is a familiar genre even if the geographical setting is an alien one to British teenagers. One thing the students remarked on, interestingly, is how the writer is much more matter of fact about the bodily functions of the animals, from mating to defecating, than authors of children’s animal fiction are in the West. The same comment was made by one of the students who has just read The Bear Whispers to Me, this term’s choice.
Other books need a bit more political or cultural background so it helps having a teacher in the book group. Because Revolution is Not a Dinner Party was written for a Western audience there is a little more explanation in the text itself, but Bronze and Sunflower’s political context was tricky for the students to understand without some background explanation. Issues in the book like rural poverty and famine are universal, however. The students were particularly struck by the way the book shows the precarious nature of rural life, where weather and bad luck can devastate a family’s fortunes, however hard the peasants work.
This term’s choice, The Bear Whispers to Me, has also taken me way out of my comfort zone. It is set in a forest aboriginal community in Taiwan and at times is almost surreal. It’s a book that creeps up on you and becomes a compelling read. I’m really looking forward to hearing what the students have to say about it when we meet to discuss.
[Written for the GLLI – Paper Republic Collaboration, Feb 2017]