My path to studying Chinese at university

By James Cheese-Probert
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, March 28, 2022
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People visit the Zhongshuge Bookstore in southwest China's Chongqing on Feb. 8, 2019. [Photo/Xinhua]

It is no secret that China has an incredibly rich, complex and ancient history and culture. Unfortunately, many people around the world do not have the privilege to experience this vibrant culture. Furthermore, speaking from a Western perspective, much of the exposure that the public receives is political commentary as opposed to cultural insight or historical examination.

My first exposure to Chinese culture came at a very early age, totally by chance. At 8 years old, I snuck into my grandfather's personal library and plucked a book from one of the many shelves. Blissfully ignorant, and simply curious, in retrospect, perhaps it was the intriguing foreign symbols on the spine, or perhaps the delicate artwork on the cover that caught my attention. Nevertheless, the book turned out to be the "Tao Te Ching," a deeply philosophical book that forms part of the core doctrine of Taoism. As an 8-year-old, the book's content was obviously lost on me, but it provided me an early connection to a beautiful and profound philosophical tradition that still influences me today. 

Around this time, I also came across several cartoons that were heavily inspired by Chinese traditional culture and martial arts such as "Avatar: The Last Airbender" and "Sagwa, the Chinese Siamese Cat." Both cartoons depict beautiful landscapes and architecture not too dissimilar from those found in classical Chinese paintings. This further developed my fascination with the rich and beautiful culture.

At school I began studying Latin and ancient Greek, in addition to developing competence in French. My interest in languages developed early on, combining my love of travelling with my love of meeting new people. I always love hearing different perspectives and learning about countries and cultures. The linguistic proximity of Latin and ancient Greek to many modern European languages enabled me to experience the culture of my closest neighbours. 

Later on, my interest in languages blossomed into exploring far-flung cultures on other continents. I wanted to challenge myself in a totally novel linguistic landscape and listen to the lives and stories of others in their own languages. I have been lucky enough to live in six different countries and have lived in China cumulatively for around three years. I loved every second I spent there; the people are friendly and hospitable, and there is never a shortage of things to see and do, people to meet, and foods to enjoy.

Culture and food are closely connected and perhaps nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in China, a huge country which boasts 34 administrative divisions and is home to 56 ethnic groups, resulting in a uniquely diverse range of cuisines. Coming from London, which is a global and cosmopolitan city, Chinese restaurants can be found in every corner of the metropolis. Due to historic relations, many of these restaurants serve southern Chinese-style cuisine. In recent years there has been a rise in restaurants offering foods from other parts of China such as Sichuan province or the country's Northeast. I have introduced many of my friends to Chinese history and culture through a shared love of food — something we all share and which is necessary for life — but it is through this shared experience that one may be welcomed into a totally different historical tradition. 

It is safe to say that my journey has only just begun, and so far I have met many friends along the way. These first steps are only a drop in the ocean of lifelong learning, but as the Chinese philosopher Laozi says, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."

James Cheese-Probert is an undergraduate student in Modern Chinese at the University of Cardiff.

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