Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

French Versus Chinese

on May 25, 2015

le chateau de ma mereI mentioned in my last post that we also signed up for Advanced Level French and Chinese, which again, we planned to sit for without the help of any teacher. This time we got serious about it. We looked up the syllabi to make sure to prepare well for them. The French syllabus listed a good number of literature books. That was easy to solve. We visited the French Cultural Center on Jabal al-Weibdeh, took a membership with the library and checked out the books in question. They were absolutely great ones. All the Marcel Pagnol in particular, were new to me. Thus, I greatly enjoyed reading them, starting with “Le Chateau de Ma Mere”.  Later, these books were made into movies, including  “Jean de Florette” and “Manon des Sources”.

Now named Paris Circle, the roundabout near the Centre Culturel Francais, which has been renamed Institut Francais.

Now named Paris Circle, the roundabout near the Centre Culturel Francais, which has been renamed Institut Francais.

Chinese A level was a totally different affair. First, it included modern Chinese history. I knew some of it from television serial dramas in Taiwan, but the Chinese history from Secondary I covered only the early dynasties. Thus, we returned again to the library of the British Council to borrow everything we could find that covered the 18th and 19th century. The problem was that since these books were written by British authors, the bias was slanted towards Europeans.

Secondly, it did have  a section with assigned books, or rather, a single book, but the rest was totally unassigned. This meant, they could bring a text from just about anywhere. We wrote to the Mai cousin in Hong Kong. All students in Hong Kong used to take the GCE too, since this was before 1997, and Hong Kong was still British. She mailed us a copy of that book, a collection of short stories. We dutifully studied those stories, which were rather easy, and we happily assumed the rest of the paper would be on par with them.

One of the stories was the famous Sai Wong Shi Ma, or “The Old Man from the Borderland Who Lost His Horse”. Really. That’s the beauty (or the difficulty) of Chinese. Four short syllables to say all that. In brief, there was an old man who had a prized horse and a strong son.  The son fell off the horse and broke his leg. The horse in turn ran away and disappeared over the plains. When neighbors commiserated, the old man replied that they might be good things and not unhappy events. Just then, war started and the emperor drafted all able young men into the army. He also drafted all horses too.  Soon, most families either mourned their sons or saw them return without arms or legs. The next spring, the son’s leg was healed and he was up and about again. The old man’s horse suddenly returned, followed by a mare and a colt. The moral of the story (all Chinese stories have morals to them…) is that one should not feel angry or upset at downturns in one’s fortunes. An apparent disaster may actually be a blessing in disguise.

Border Elder Loses Horse, How Know Not Blessing

Border Elder Loses Horse, How Know Not Blessing

This story struck me quite deeply. To this day, I tell it to my students whenever they deplore whatever bad stroke of luck comes their way.

But to return to the A level exams: We sat in June for the French one, and both of us got A’s again. This was no surprise. If the reader has been following my previous history, you will know that I have always been excellent at French literature and writing, even in Paris, where the two of us regularly exceeded our schoolmates by at least three years.

The second Opium War, 1856-60, between China and Britain.

The second Opium War, 1856-60, between China and Britain.

On the other hand, the Chinese papers gave me a taste of what Napoleon felt at Waterloo. I believe we did fairly well on the history paper, what with the Opium Wars and such. But the language paper was totally about classical Chinese. The first section was from the book of short stories, and I did fine on that one. Unfortunately, it could only give me a maximum of  20 points or so. The next text was in recognizable classical Chinese, meaning it had the punctuation marks, you know, commas and periods. It carried 45 points. I tried my best to translate it and might have gotten a third of it right.


The cream of the crop was the final text, which boasted a possible 65 points: a huge full page monster in really ancient classical Chinese, with not a single period or comma in the entire thing. It started with: shi gong yue. I thought to myself, I can’t go wrong on these three words. I translated them as: “Lord Gong said:” The problem was since there were no quotation marks, I didn’t know when the said lord stopped saying things. Nor, for that matter, what he was saying. I bravely forged on, trying to translate maybe a few lines, and gave up after that.

Both of us got the same result: an “O”. This meant that we failed the A level, but got an “A” in the “O” level. Which actually we already had.

We showed the test paper to Papa and Uncle X, another embassy staff member. They laughed. “But this is material one would study in the Chinese literature department of a university!” they exclaimed. Even the two of them had trouble deciphering that humongous 65-point text. “Well,” I remarked, “at least I got three words right!” Papa laughed even harder. “No, you got those three words wrong! Shi Gong means “the historian”, not “Lord Gong”. So it should have translated into, “The historian said.”

I understand that exam questions are set according to the cultural background of the language being tested. But definitely, I thought and still think that there should be more equality and uniformity among the languages. If all the material in the French exam came from assigned reading, then so should the Chinese exam. If all the literature tested is 19th and early 20th century in the French exam, then so should the Chinese one. Why should French students get to discuss literary devices and characterization of easily understood texts, while Chinese students are asked to translate 5th century texts dug out of any and all obscure documents? Is this not discrimination?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *