From classical Chinese texts, to foreign literature and even math equations: Chinese like reciting. What are the advantages of this method and should foreign students adopt it when studying Chinese?

Chinese like to recite. This is the method they use when making their first steps in a language. In imperial China, scholars had to recite books in order to consider themselves educated. The ability to recite classical texts was often stressed in the imperial examinations, the highest official stamp on becoming a scholar. Italian missioners who spent many years in Qing China have also stated that when they attended a teacher to study the Chinese language, the first long step for them was to recite a classic essay or book. No questions to be asked.

In classical Chinese, in which sentences are short and firm grammar laws are almost non-existing, reciting was perhaps the only possible way. Adding the fact that some classical text were unanimously praised and considered the essence of Chinese thinking, then getting to know such texts from the inside out was stressed by most teachers, as such text were considered as a key to both Chinese language and Chinese (or global) wisdom.

The case is much different when it comes to contemporary Chinese language, though Chinese is still a quite flexible language when it comes to syntactic black-white regulations. No verb modifications, no tenses and understanding each word is often preceded by the understanding of the whole sentence meaning. Furthermore, advanced students of Chinese language often discover that the language laws they had learned in their ‘beginner' stage aren't as firm and inclusive and they assumed they were. Since us westerners often aren't given reciting tasks when we study Chinese in our home countries, we learn some basic grammar laws to start with, but the exemptions and the more subtle meanings of some expressions are only understood further on our education track.

Will it be more efficient for us to recite Chinese texts as a catalyst to faster accumulation of language knowledge? In terms of Chinese texts, nowadays the classics are praised as magical like in imperial days (though learning some of the Analects, Lao Zi or Da Xue by heart would certainly lead to some precious yet common knowledge), but it could release us from our (western) angle, and allow us to understand that studying Chinese by language study textbooks is not enough, plus, reciting also improves our pronounciation of Chinese.

Chinese kids recite simple language phrases, middle school pupils already have a lot of the classical texts in the library of their heart and up to high school the demands only gets higher. Though Chinese students don't only recite Chinese literature or poetic pieces, they also use this method when studying English, French or Japanese. Are they trying to force a technique which is efficient when studying Chinese on other tongues, or is the reciting method in fact the most suitable method for such students, no matter what is the learned topic?

  Chinese girls reciting emglish texts before the 8 am class, Shandong Normal University (山东师范大学) 
(photo by Gil Hizi)

The syntax of modern Chinese is becoming more flexible every day, thus hard to be studies by dry rules. Or how about Chinese idioms (chengyu), which are very difficult to learn by foreigners (and even after they are comprehended we still don't know exactly where to put them in a sentence, except maybe to 乱七八招 or 马马虎虎), therefore there's a great value in reciting and listening carefully to the language as it is expressed, and repeat the forms that sink our brain, before we allow ourselves to be creative and play with our words. However, we might still find out that with all it's uniqueness, Chinese is not 180 degrees different from our mother tongues; we also use idioms and sayings and reciting some texts could actually be quite handy (or ‘tonguey') when studying any language existing.

It's interesting to see how Chinese students, parents and teachers attach importance to recitation. Anyone who visited a Chinese university must have seen the students standing in the yard or on the stairs and reciting out loud, making good usage of the early sunshine before their 8 o'clock lesson begin.

One might be surprised to find out that kids who study mathematics recite equations out loud (2+2=4, 5-3=2), although such knowledge should be understood cognitively more than it should be orally expressed. Still, as a way to show their knowledge and study process and also realizing the view that an action on the surface (i.e. reciting) could lead to a deeper understanding (i.e. achieving the more creative skill to solve mathematic equations), a view which is rooted in traditional philosophical concepts (and is normally not practiced in the west), reciting mathematic makes sense. Though we will save the discussion on the cognitive effects of recitation to a more scientific journal...