Before our students can accept other cultures, they must first understand them. And what better way to foster awareness than by marking Chinese New Year, writes the British Council’s Don Watson. Anyone for dumplings?
Chinese culture has had a place in the UK’s cities for well over a century. But the past decade has seen the Chinese dragon come roaring into the spotlight, sometimes quite literally, as London, Liverpool, Manchester and other major cities have put significant investment into marking Chinese New Year with parades and celebrations.
Many of your students will know that we’re currently in the Year of the Rooster and that we will enter the Year of the Dog on 16 February. But how much do they, or you, really know about the culture that underpins the celebrations?
Our young people are exposed to more cultures than ever before, in the big cities at least. But is mere exposure enough to cultivate a more accepting attitude? In a recent review of scientific studies of the psychology of racism, Barbara Sahakian, professor of clinical neuropsychology at the University of Cambridge, concludes that, in order to be effective in diminishing prejudice, contact “must be associated with cultural learning”.
This is where teachers can play a part. Here we look at eight practical things that you and your school can do on the day of Chinese New Year itself, and throughout the Year of the Dog, to make your class more aware of Chinese culture.
Eight is China’s lucky number. The Chinese character for eight is composed of two complementary parts, which is considered to be lucky in China. It symbolises the yin and the yang, the two forces which are interdependent in the natural world. With this in mind, I present four things to do on the day (1-4) and four things to do during the rest of the year (5-8).
1. Learn how to talk to a dog in Chinese
If you’re worried about finding a dog that’s sufficiently fluent in Mandarin to follow orders such as “sit”, “stand”, “jump” and so on then worry not. The British Council has produced (a virtual) one as part of its Year of the Dog resource pack. Dumpling, or 饺子 (jiǎozi）in Chinese, responds to commands in Chinese or English. The pack contains a guide to the Chinese vocabulary and there are sound files on the website to help your class get the pronunciation correct.
Having something fun to use vocabulary for is a great way to make language learning stick. And of course if your students do visit China in future they won’t be lost for words if they encounter a genuine Pekinese.
(Jiǎozi is named after the type of dumplings that are as much a part of Chinese New Year as turkey is a part of Christmas.)
2. Make Chinese New Year the focus of an assembly
You could use an assembly to tell a popular Chinese story. The resource pack includes a section from the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, which tells the story of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King.
The Monkey King is dear to the hearts of all Chinese people. This story tells how a pack of dogs helped the Jade Emperor, the ruler of heaven, to capture the mischievous and disobedient Monkey King and bring him to justice.
Classroom teachers can take the learning forward using some of the techniques outlined in the pack.
3. Make a clay dog
In traditional Chinese culture the dog stands for honesty, fidelity and intelligence. There was already a Chinese character for “dog” in the Bronze ages. Get your class to study some canine representations throughout the centuries and follow the instructions to make their own clay dogs.
4. Learn how to make Chinese bǎozi
In China there are hundreds of different types of dumplings. Apart from jiǎozi one of the most popular is 包子 (bǎozi), a type of steamed bun stuffed with meat. They are an everyday treat and in cities you’ll see vendors cooking them in towering bamboo steamers on the side of the street. Teach your class why the most famous brand of bǎozi is called “Dogs ignore them” 狗不理 (gǒu bù lǐ). Then show them how to make bǎozi according to a traditional recipe.
5. Host a language assistant
Why not boost language learning by inviting a native Chinese speaker to your school to assist in lessons? The British Council’s language assistant programme is subsidised by the Chinese government; see https://www.britishcouncil.org/language-assistants/employ/chinese-language-assistant for more details.
6. Find a partner school
You can use the Schools Online partner finding tool to find a school in China to pair up with. Your class can try out some of the Chinese they have learned on their opposite numbers, compare festivals in the UK and China, and collaborate on curriculum work using some of the British Council’s dedicated resources.
7. Take the bridge to China
If you’ve come this far you're well on the way to developing a Chinese culture programme in your school. To go even further you might consider sending a senior teacher on a visit through China Bridge. Once again sponsored by the Chinese government, this initiative covers accommodation and expenses for a one-week visit to China to extend your networks and help you to build your programme.
8. Apply for funding to take it further
And it needn’t stop there. If you’re a secondary school in the UK you can apply for funding from the Mandarin Excellence Programme, which aims to get pupils on track to fluency in Chinese by 2020.
Don Watson is head of content production, education and society at the British Council. His first posting to China began with the last Year of the Dog 12 years ago. He’s been trying to learn Chinese ever since.