Monday, April 20, 2009

TV, Novels, and the Three Character Classic

My Reading and Kung Fu Show Buddy

Moving in with the family gave me my first access to Chinese TV. The two older children and I loved to watch historical Chinese dramas. These frequently included a kung fu component, so we watched adventures set in traditional Chinese society. The dramas usually played from Monday through Saturday and lasted for a month. The two dramas I remember most were a dramatization of Louis Cha’s novel, The Eagle Lovers and another about the legend of the Yang Family Generals. Both dramas were set in the Song Dynasty. The Yang Family Generals were a real warrior family, who lived on the northern border and fought the Mongolians for several generations. In the drama, one of the leading characters was the old matriarch who kept her sons loyal and fighting for China. The themes on TV reinforced the lessons we were getting every day in class.

Watching TV helped my listening comprehension, and it also helped my reading. Because there are so many regional dialects in China, and people from every region of China had fled with the Kuomintang to Taiwan, TV shows had Chinese subtitles so everyone could understand the Mandarin. Many times, I knew the words by sound, but I did not know what characters went with them. As I was watching TV, my reading vocabulary and ability to read quickly also increased.

As I got engrossed in the story from the kung fu novel, I decided that I would start to read real Chinese books. I went out and bought a few novels, but they were too hard for me. Then one day, I found children’s novels with the bo, po, mo, fo beside the characters. One company put out abridged versions of all the Chinese classics in bo, po, mo, fo editions. They were just the right level for me. I read The Tale of the Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West, The Legend of the Marshes (108 Heroes), and many other books. After devouring these books, I worked up to some easier novels and essays, and finally I got my hands on kung fu novels by Louis Cha. Each novel consists of several volumes, but since I started with the novels I had seen on TV, I was able to understand most of the plot. Eventually, I got the original version of The Legend of the Marshes and read it from beginning to end. It took me one year and one day, but I did it.

Then my friends at the publishing company decided it was time for me to begin learning some classical Chinese. They had me buy the Three Character Classic with bo, po, mo, fo and modern Chinese interpretation, and they had me get a book called Three Hundred Tang Dynasty Poems. Then they told me to forget about understanding them and just start memorizing. One of my friends had a degree in Chinese. She went through and marked the poems I “needed” to know. When I discussed this with Teacher she said it was the way she had learned these texts. She said that if I took the time to memorize them, they would help me for the rest of my life. I was a little skeptical, but I set myself to the task. This work was apart from my regular school work, so it did not go fast. But I kept at it, even after I stopped taking formal classes. By the spring of 1990, I was able to recite and write the entire Three Character Classic from memory, and I have to say that knowing it has helped me time and again because it is such a succinct overview of Chinese culture and history. I sometimes come across things in Chinese books that trigger a phrase from the Three Character Classic, and it helps me understand what I’m reading.


Joannalynne said...

I think this post really shows an important part of how you became "Chinese"... every Chinese child watches dramas and learns characters from the subtitles and starts reading novels with bo po mo before progressing to character-only novels. and knowing san zi jin is essential.

Teresa said...

How many of your Chinese friends learned the entire Three Character Classic? Most people I know only learn the first six lines or so. More of them learn the Tang Dynasty poems. I agree about the simplified novels with bo po mo fo and the dramas on tv. Where would we be without those great tv dramas?

murat11 said...

Your dedication and your love of this journey are amazing.

Teresa said...

Murat: I have to say that I was enjoying the ideas and the way of thinking embodied in the literature. I also love a good challenge. Seeing the kung fu novels made into a tv series made me really want to read the original. And I determined to do it. Now I'm writing my Master's thesis on Louis Cha and his kung fu novels.