Sunday, February 18, 2007

Correspondence with a Friend in Cambridge about My Chinese Language Instruction There

When I was in Oriental Studies at Cambridge in 1976 while we did learn history under Denis Twitchett (who I later encountered again at Princeton), and some really fun classes in sociology with Barbara Ward (who had the eight of us to her room in College for tea one morning a week), etc. the stress was on modern language. We took classes in that jointly with a group from the Foreign Officer getting training for postings in China. We did the Classical Chinese with Michael Loewe along with students in the Japanese program. My main Chinese instructor was Richard King who later became a Canadian and actually succeeded me as Counsellor for Cultural Affairs after my first posting in Beijing. My memory of it was that the quality of instruction was pretty good then. Richard was a committed and patient teacher and we later became very close friends. The program had also developed its own textbook under the direction of a dynamic enthusiast, Captain Bob Sloss. I do remember having a tutor for written Chinese though, Peter Nancarrow who was evidently not much for pedagogy. My first assignment was get a Chinese dictionary and re-translate a passage from a Chinese translation by Chao Yuen-ren of Alice in Wonderland back into English and to see Mr. Nancarrow in his office with the upshot a week hence. It was very difficult to look up the characters without guidance. But I did manage it after a number of late nights. Nancarrow had me read back the Chinese original and my translation with some exegesis on grammar while he shuffled some papers on his desk. Evidently he was very busy with something else. At one stage he got up and headed for the door --- me in mid-sentence. As an after thought he looked back as he was striding out and said to me: "Do carry on, Mr. Burton, I'll be right back." I continued like this by myself for a couple of minutes and then paused and silently awaited his return which occurred about 5 minutes before our time was up.

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