Learning Shakespeare through Confucius

This blog is inspired by a documentary I watched on TV entitled “For the love of Shakespeare”. It was the winning entry of The Asian Pitch in 2008. The documentary was shot in the village of Shanggu in Chengde City. Mr. Tong, the founder of a mountain school, used Confucius’ teachings to teach the pupils in the school he has founded. He was convinced that reciting Shakespeare’s sonnets by heart was the first step in learning English. Since he himself does not speak a word of English, his pupils learned English predominantly through the use of DVDs. When asked, his pupils expressed that they wanted to learn English because they planned to teach US children The Four Books and Five Classics of China.

Do you know how many sonnets Shakespeare has written? I have to admit that I did not know any of his sonnets. Therefore it was interesting to learn that there is an annual national competition in Beijing, China, where children all over China take part. They recite Shakespeare’s sonnets, which are randomly chosen by a jury. This means that they have to know all 154 sonnets by heart. The exceptional point is that some of these children haven’t a clue about what they are reciting.

This documentary got me thinking about many different things.

Was the Confucian approach of learning a language by learning classical literature applicable to English? I do not know how much the language used in the Four Books and Five Classics of China has changed over the years. However I do know that Shakespeare’s language is not really a good basis to learning modern English. The grammar and vocabulary used in Shakespeare has few similarities to that of modern English. Shakespearean works are classics because of the way he uses the language in his works. Reading between the lines is just as important, in understanding his messages, as understanding the literal meanings of the vocabulary used is. Shakespeare’s use of double entendres and manipulation of the iambic pentameter rhythmic structure adds different levels to the verses. In fact, I had a classmate in secondary school, who could not understand Shakespeare at all, although her English knowledge was not bad at all. Therefore I question the sense of reciting Shakespeare as the first step in learning English. I am not the only one, who felt this way. In the documentary, family members of the children visited the school after 6 months to see the progress made. They were upset that the children could not read or explain the meaning of what they were reciting. Some of the children were then sent to other schools.

Another point that fascinated me was that one part of the education was learning to respect and obey the teacher. Teachers are considered superiors and the children knelt before him to show their respect and obedience. I could not imagine children in Germany doing something like that. In fact I have heard that in certain schools teachers are even afraid of their students and their retaliation, if they are upset. Personally I think that teachers deserve the respect of their students. On the other hand, what kind adults would these children make? Would they have the moral courage to stand up for what is right or when their leader makes a mistake?

Furthermore the children were extremely dedicated to learning Shakespeare. One of the girls woke up at 4 am in the morning to learn before school. Then she went to school and learned till late in the evening on her own. Even though they did not know who Shakespeare was or what he wrote about, they sincerely believed that his works held the key to them learning English. They all wanted to learn English, even the youngest pupil, who was only 5 years of age. This dedication to education, is it unique to Asian countries? I have the feeling that most children in western countries do not value education that much at a young age. They want fame and fortune but are not ready to work hard for it. Is it a result of living in a developed nation, where wealth is taken for granted? In Germany, companies complain that it is difficult to find qualified apprentices or trainees in certain industries. It is not unusual to find applicants, who lacked knowledge of the four basic forms of calculation. In my opinion both extremes are not conducive for the development of a child. It is important for us to pay attention to the development of children, as they are tomorrow’s leaders. They will make decisions that would impact us in our old age.

At one point in the documentary, the children wrote a letter to then President Bush. They asked him to stop the war on Iraq, stating that it was causing children to live in fear in Europe and the Middle East. They signed the letter with, “From the happy children of,” I wonder, what the source of their information was. Did they truly consider themselves to be happy? Over the years, I have heard about how China’s leadership is ignoring human rights. As a result, my expectation was that the people there cannot be happy under such circumstances. But is it possible to still be happy when one is not aware of alternatives? Conversely is having freedom of choice causing unhappiness?

Personally I would always choose freedom to enforced obedience. Otherwise I would not be able to write a blog like this. But what I think is right for me, may not be right for you. I guess what I am trying to say is that even if you know both sides of a coin, it is still not possible to decide which side is better because such a valuation is purely subjective.

Related Articles

  1. http://www.nhk.or.jp/asianpitch/en/winners2008.html#win2008_01
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Books_and_Five_Classics
  3. http://www.shakespeares-sonnets.com/sonnet/intro.php

4 thoughts on “Learning Shakespeare through Confucius

  1. Justin Kirby says:

    Great Post. I’m not so sure shakespeare is the right dose of the english language if you’re trying to learn english. I’m wondering how these students develop in the future.

    • Thanks. I am of the same opinion too. I don’t think it is very helpful to recite Shakespeare by heart without an inkling of what it is all about. Watching the documentary, I really had difficulty understanding these kids recite. It sounded like a foreign language. Some might say that Shakespeare is a foreign language compared to modern day English. But their recitation lacked rhythm and the pauses at the correct places. One of the girls, the crew visited a few months later. She was attending another school. The teacher there said that she was the best in class when it comes to reciting. Other than that she was not better than the other students in learning English. It seems that this annual event still takes place in China. Very interesting indeed. Wish you a great weekend. Cheers!

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