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Can you judge a book by its cover?

There are many Chinese textbooks for students to learn Chinese. It’s quite a common theme to see ancient Chinese cultural symbols on the book covers, such as the Great Wall, dragons, or part of the forbidden city. 

Since these images are put on covers of Chinese textbooks, they are meant to represent Chinese language and culture. However, even though Chinese language and culture are closely related, using ancient cultural symbols is, in fact, one way to separate the culture from the language.

On reading this proposition, many people probably go “huh, what are you talking about”? How can I possibly separate the Great Wall from learning Chinese?

Let’s start with a country also with a long history, Egypt, as an analogy. 

The ancient Egyptian culture was magnificent and mysterious. The cultural symbols are pyramids and those awestruck statues. 

For anyone who is interested in learning about ancient Egyptian culture, the options are: (1) pick up a book and read about it; (2) take a tour to Egypt; (3) watch some documentaries; (4) do all of the above. Whatever that person decides to do, he or she does not need to learn ancient Egyptian language.

Indeed, except scholars, no one is studying ancient Egyptian language. Even the Egyptians today don’t use it. They commonly use Arabic to communicate. Ancient Egyptian language has become a privileged asset that is belonged to the academic world.

If we look at the connection between Chinese cultural symbols and language through the lens of Egyptian culture and language, my proposition earlier makes great sense. Both countries are ancient civilisations. Both countries used drawings as their ancient languages and both have accumulated many awesome cultural symbols. 

However, a huge difference is that Chinese language has stayed on from its ancient form, and is still very much alive. Numerous ancient language motifs are still present in today’s language, while at the same time, subtle changes happen constantly. Millions of Chinese people still use Chinese language to communicate. They still study old Chinese texts, which are not fenced off by academics, at least not yet.

Therefore, Chinese language and culture are both ancient and new, both unchanged and changed, both mysterious and straightforward, both magnificent and ordinary, while all ancient cultural symbols remain ancient, unchanged, mysterious and magnificent. 

If we hang on to the past, the unchanged and mysterious side, there are no real reasons to learn Chinese.

Only when we consider Chinese language and culture as active and dynamic, it makes sense to learn Chinese. Learning Chinese opens up a path for direct involvement in life in China and the Great Wall serves as the magnificent backdrop of the scene. 

For this reason, ancient cultural symbols are not the best choice for Chinese textbooks, when we can find something current and more representative, something both ordinary and extraordinary. 

This is what I believe and what I did with the Mandarin Express series.

The images I used as book covers are snapshots of ordinary people’s daily lives, including market scenes, street scenes, exterior and interior of buildings, different seasons, different geographical terrains, and arts.

Mandarin Express textbook Intro Level A

For example, in this book cover, a regular Chinese woman is featured in the center of the image. Her gesture and facial expression are a display of friendliness and confidence. She looks healthy and happy. Her clothes are common day-to-day attires of young people.

Mandarin Express textbook Pre-Intermediate Level A

In this book cover, another woman is featured in the image. She is looking into the deli stand for possible purchases. She is well dressed and her hair is well maintained. She is carrying a nice, big handbag. The image also shows that this deli stand is located at a busy street, and it is full of Chinese delicacies.

These are real people with their life stories to tell. 

I hope that these images could make daily cultural environments real and visible to students. 

Then what about the ancient cultural symbols? 

They are the other side of the coin. Without the Great Wall and terra-cotta warriors, both Chinese language and culture would not be complete. 

One possible way is to put them side by side with other countries’ historical cultural images, such as what I did with the Great Wall.

Chinese language textbook

It is next to the pyramids, Colosseum, and Taj Mahal. 

It is much better to have a broader view of the world history and to present Chinese culture as one of the many.