In my youth, I knew about all the classic novelists, such as Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, D.H. Laurence, Jane Austin, Victor hugo, just to name a few. Yet, somehow, I admit now to going through life without ever actually reading one of their original works, cover to cover.
Brute honesty drives me to say it was the superficial nature of public schooling, coupled with the trappings of popular culture and subsequent distractions of adult life, that distanced me from literature at both a personal and intellectual standpoint.
Granted, I did learn a few Shakespeare plays, and read novels by Orwell, Steinbeck, Camus and more, but the motivation was always a plain desire to satisy course demands, rather than a genuine interest in the works themselves.
How many of you, hands on heart, are like me in this respect?
A Journey of Discovery
When my early days as a complete beginner in Mandarin, I broke through to intermediate level with the aids of a good old fashioned textbook, paper and old Nokia phone dictionaries, pirate VCDs of Chinese pop songs with lyric subtitles, Mark Rowswell’s ‘Communicating in Chinese‘ show on CCTV, and the Crazy English Reader magazine.
Athough I could hold a basic conversation after a year, the journey from higher intermediate, where it was possible for me to communicate on most everyday situations with decent fluency, took close to four years, culminating in me scraping past the old HSK advanced level nine in 2006.
Slowly but surely, the day came where I finished reading Crazy English, and turned to China News Weekly, a Chinese only publication that covered an interesting range of political, economic and social issues.
My original plan was to cover China News Weekly as a study resource, but it has since disappeared from the traditional newsagent racks, and presumably moved online.
As with Crazy English Reader, the only practical options are to either subscribe yearly with China Post with the publication code (11-5313/G2), or purchase back issues from online vendors. However, I always felt more motivated when the articles were up-to-date.
At this stage, I feel it’s worth heeding a note of caution.
On a personal level, Chinese is without doubt the most fascinating, challenging and sophisticated language you could ever try learning.
Although I’m still far from perfect, I always feel great pride when locals compliment my language skills, when I can explain the finer details of English grammar in Chinese to young learners and communicate with parents, the feeling of deeper integration in the community, solving problems by myself, taking calls, the pleasures of reading and writing Chinese, the possibilities that open for you.
Undoubtedly, the effort has paid off, but not without blood and tears.
Over the past sixteen years, it has also taken thousands of hours, intense frustration, brick walls, confusion, misguidance, lack of guidance, shifting mindsets, isolating yourself from English speaking circles, fun pokes in your direction, and lashings of humblepie when you realise you got it all wrong.
On top of that, to truly live and breathe Chinese practically requires you to marry in, as I don’t see how I could have made it through without the support of family and friends.
Even that may not be enough. There are many foreign guys in a similar position who choose to just speak English with their spouse, and maintain that awkward, taciturn existence with the in-laws.
Lastly, even though most people in the community are delighted to speak Chinese with you in Chongqing, they generally have zero experience on how to explain the intricacies of Mandarin to foreign learners, or how to adjust their speech to make themselves more understandable.
It’s definitely a matter of sink or swim.
Back on Topic
For those who share my innate stubbornness, or simply curious on the next step, the way forward has been reading the Chinese translations of English classic novels, with one French exception.
Walk into a Xinhua Bookstore, and you will find stacks of these books from different publishers.
My recommendation is the World Literary Classics Collection 世界文学名著典藏 series from Huacheng Publishings 华城出版社. Not only are the books of high quality and attractive design, the translations are top notch, and the proof-reading meticulous. They are truly excellent value for the miniscule outlay of around 30 yuan each.
Armed with my handy iPhone Pleco dictionary, I have polished off Great Expectations远大前程, A Tale of Two Cities双城记, Tess of the D’Ubervilles德伯家的苔丝, Sons and Lovers儿子与情人, Pride and Prejudice傲慢与偏见, Brave New World美丽新世界, and am currently on volume two of Les Miserables悲惨世界.
Admittedly, I’m only scratching the surface of literary greats, but at least I have covered a few initial titles that usually come to the forefront when discussing the subject.
The advantage of learning Chinese this way is the two-fold benefit you enjoy. You can expose yourself to new Mandarin characters and expressions whilst also appreciating the book itself as a work of literature.
So far, my personal favourite has been Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. His immensly touching literary style unfolds seamlessly through his greater than life Valjean character, interspersed around explorations into history, profound philosophies, the exhilarating polarities between sorrow and elation, cruelty and benelovence, despair and hope, apparently drifting into tangents whilst actually narrating matters of cutting pertinence.
Whilst I have discovered a passion for all these novels, Victor Hugo truly stands alone for his brilliance in my eyes.
Where to go from here?
Nothing has really changed since I first arrived. There was a never a systematic plan for me to follow. I’ve really fumbled my way through the dark, step by step, and somehow managed to stay on the right track to this day.
Like all my previous resources, I have stumbled across them by accident, with enough wisdom to identify their worth, and knowing when to move on.
It’s purely my hope to shine a light on the trodden path so that others may have the choice to follow in my footsteps. That’s all.
As things stand, I’m possible on the verge of a new direction in professional life, one that my years of effort learning Chinese has opened up almost exclusively to me, and will hopefully compliment ChongqingLife in future years.
I’ll keep you posted.
Whilst I may have to call a hiatus to the world of literary classics, there are still other Mandarin resources that I intend to present in due time.