Schools in HK must rebuild appreciation of Chinese culture

Chief executive-elect John Lee Ka-chiu’s election manifesto focused on four broad areas, one of which was education, in the form of “building a caring society and emphasizing youth development”. Meanwhile, “enhancing the sense of belonging toward the country and the sense of national identity” was given a mention, before the issue of “Promoting the ‘STEAM’ (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Mathematics) program”.

Chinese culture education in Hong Kong has long been unsatisfactory. I received primary, secondary, and university education in the colonial era, during which the priority of the British Hong Kong government’s education policy was to avert nationalism. Methods included “depoliticizing” subjects that might provoke anti-colonial nationalism; and “de-contextualizing” the content of the course, deliberately deconstructing its wholeness and weakening the elements of national emotion. Even so, knowledge of Chinese culture was scattered here and there discreetly in the education system through subjects, including the Chinese language, throughout the entire secondary education; Chinese history as an independent subject in junior secondary; and Chinese history and Chinese literature in senior secondary. These subjects could constitute a solid foundation for a sense of Chinese culture for some Hong Kong secondary school students, who were presented with the opportunity to admire the beauty and great richness of Chinese culture. In those days, history and literature served as branches and leaves of the great Chinese culture, supported by language education as the strong stem.

Since the 1997 handover, however, the stem has been weakened after a major curriculum reform conducted by the Education Bureau. The assessment of Chinese language, the curriculum of which is getting more functional, is forced into the way its English-language counterpart has taken. Chinese-language education’s growing emphasis on its functionality makes it difficult for learners to feel about the language and establish values from the subject, much less take over the responsibility of passing on the Chinese culture.

The situation of Chinese history and Chinese literature is no better. In the name of allowing students to acquire knowledge of both China and the West, the curriculum reform reframed junior-secondary Chinese History into Personal, Social & Humanities Education, which merged Chinese and Western history. As a result, students were at a loss when seeing the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), Rome, Qin Shi Huang and Caesar seemingly sharing the same space. The original intention of cultivating a sense of belonging toward the country and a sense of national pride through studying Chinese history was not realized. What is worse, the number of students studying senior-secondary Chinese history declined sharply under the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education Examination (HKDSE). The number of candidates for HKDSE Chinese literature was the smallest among all subjects. Apparently, junior-secondary Chinese history was confusing to the students, and senior-secondary Chinese history and Chinese literature never seemed to rise again because of students’ lack of interest.

With the stem replaced, the branches and leaves of Chinese culture education cut, secondary school students missed the golden time of learning Chinese history, literature and language. Consequently, younger generations become more distant from their own nation as they are not given enough opportunities to learn to appreciate the broad and deep Chinese culture.

The special administrative region government has become active in promoting the popularization of Chinese history and culture in recent years, hoping to foster a sense of belonging toward the country and nurture patriotism among Hong Kong people. The way to set things on the right course is to start with education.

First, junior-secondary Chinese history became an independent and compulsory subject starting from the 2018-19 school year. All students can learn Chinese history and culture more systematically; their sense of national identity is thereby strengthened. Second, Citizenship and Social Development (CSD) has replaced the constantly criticized Liberal Studies. About one-third of the CSD curriculum covers the national development since the reform and opening-up of the mainland in 1978, and another one-third is about the connotation and practice of “one country, two systems”, which give students a more comprehensive understanding of Chinese history and their national identity.

However, these changes are far from achieving the goal of “enhancing the sense of belonging toward the country and the sense of national identity”. Given that the new education policy must approach the issue in a different way than its predecessor, the new government may wish to start with “re-contextualization” to strengthen the national emotional elements by rearranging the curriculum and reconstructing its wholeness. One way to do it is to turn the spotlight from accenting the functionality of the Chinese language back to its humanity. Besides knowledge and ability, Chinese-culture education should engage students’ emotions and values. It is only through this kind of engagement that traditional values can be consolidated among the younger generations, and the enduring appeal of the ancient masters and their literary and musical legends can appeal to their young hearts. In fact, the treasure of Chinese history and culture knows no bounds: The stories of emperors and generals, the elegant classical Chinese, the remarkable ancient inventions, the picturesque landscape, the precious cultural heritage, the classics, cultural relics and artworks of great wisdom, and the mutually nurturing exchanges between ethnic groups are just a few to start with.

I believe that under the current favorable conditions for reviving Chinese culture, it is just a matter of promoting Chinese culture education creatively, and telling the national Chinese story effectively. I believe that after having a holistic understanding of our country’s long and splendid history, students would be very proud of its hard-won modern achievements, and see China among the world powers today.

The author is the executive director of the Academy of Chinese Studies.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.