How we make Chinese textbooks culturally significant

One of the major tasks of Chinese textbooks is to introduce Chinese culture. 

This is easier said than done. Introducing Chinese culture runs a dangerous risk of being dry, distant and boring. Very often the highly valued and the deeply cherished seem trivial to others. There is an interesting story in The Savage Mind, by Lévi-Strauss, talking about how boring it can be to learn a new language. 

“E. Smith Bowen scarcely exaggerates in the amusing description she gives of her confusion when, on her arrival in an African tribe, she wanted to begin by learning the language. Her informants found it quite natural, at an elementary stage of their instruction, to collect a large number of botanical specimens, the names of which they told her as they showed them to her. She was unable to identify them, not because of their exotic nature but because she had never taken an interest in the riches and diversities of the plant world. The natives on the other hand took such and interest for granted.”

This account shows how intricately language and cultural meanings are connected. It also implies that students, Bowen at the least, are subconsciously expecting a pure language which the cultural significance is purged. It is probably true that such “pure” language has never existed in any communities anywhere. 

Today’s world is a highly connected world. Students of different cultural backgrounds can sit in the same classroom. Chinese textbooks are at a pivotal place to facilitate cultural discussions and recognition. Hence, for textbook writers, it is essential to find the right approach to teach Chinese and to introduce cultural knowledge.

Chinese culture as one of the many

To address to students of different cultural backgrounds, the best way is to place Chinese language and culture as one of the many in the world. This is a cross cultural approach, that does not treat Chinese culture as the opposite of the West.

In Mandarin Express series, multi-cultural images and texts are used from the beginning. Students are encouraged to reflect on the similarities and differences between Chinese culture and their own cultures. For example, in Pre-Intermediate Level A Student’s Book, Christmas is listed as one of the Chinese festivals. This presentation reflects the trend in China and signifies cultural exchanges. It also opens up discussion in the class, such as whether or not this festival can be considered as a Chinese festival. 

Moreover, there are mini monologues from individuals, for the purpose of sharing stories, expressing different perspectives, but not necessarily to debate. Such personal accounts are interesting and relevant, and can bring students into talking about their own experiences.

Get to the core of social values

Chinese culture has a long and evolving history. In addition to festivals and cultural practices, there are also deeply embedded traditional values and beliefs, such as Confucian thought and Daoist understanding of the world. Both of them have had a huge influence over Chinese way of lives. This aspect of cultural knowledge touches upon how societies are formed, what core social values are held, and explains many social and cultural phenomena.

Chinese textbooks are a good place to present and to discuss these values and beliefs. It is a great way to expand students’ cultural knowledge, to reflect on cultural differences and similarities, and inevitably to reflect upon their own values and beliefs.

Stay with Chinese texts

We said earlier that language and cultural meanings are intricately connected. When presenting Chinese language, the cultural knowledge is also embedded. And the best way for students to understand Chinese culture is through learning Chinese language.

Unfortunately, there are textbooks insert too many supplementary blocks in English for cultural knowledge. For example, one page of English text about Miao people in Yunnan province is inserted into a textbook still focusing on short Chinese texts. If this page were written in Chinese, no students would understand it. The information has to be presented in English. However, by doing so, introducing Chinese culture becomes a ticking-the-box exercise.

There are two drawbacks. Firstly, it leaves students an idea that Chinese culture is not accessible through Chinese language. The English text, although interesting, consequently becomes a barrier between Chinese language and Chinese culture. Secondly, this kind of detailed anthropological knowledge does not tap into the commonly held Chinese cultural literacy. Unless they are in the field of anthropology, students will hardly ever encounter this information again.  

It is the best to introduce Chinese culture in Chinese texts. For example, in Mandarin Express Intermediate Level B, a short poem 敕勒歌 is included. This poem is short and easy to understand. Students can get a direct encounter of the ancient tribe through the language, and understand the geographical and the cultural environment of the time. Moreover, the catchiness and the aesthetics of the poem has impressed Chinese people throughout the history and its lines are often quoted. Students can easily recognise the poem and use it themselves at ease.


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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