Chinese-Speaking Westerners

One of the most amazing things about doing Chinese philosophy (or Chinese studies or China-related studies) here in the National University of Singapore (NUS) is that you get to interact with Western professors who are fluent in both modern-day Chinese and classical Chinese!

Many of them are even able to converse fluently in Mandarin too!

I’ve been privileged to have been taught by four such professors – two professors from the Philosophy Department, one from the Chinese Studies Department, and one from the History Department (though he has since moved to another university). It’s just amazing how these guys, who grew up in a different cultural background, have come to know so much about Chinese culture and language.

It’s rather embarrassing that I, as a Chinese, do not even know that much about my own culture and history. Heck! I’m not even proficient in the Chinese language! I failed Chinese in school! (Yes, it is ironic that I’m pursuing Chinese philosophy) Many of my friends feel the same way too!

It is very inspiring, nonetheless, to be taught by them. The fact that they are where they are now, teaching and writing books about Chinese philosophy, religion, culture, history, and language (all of which involve a great deal of reading, writing and speaking in Chinese) is a testimony that it is possible to improve one’s command of the Chinese language! It’s really a question of whether we want to do it or not. Many don’t want to do it possibly because many of us here in Singapore have come to dislike the Chinese language and culture for a variety of reasons (the horrors of how Chinese was badly taught does play a huge part in this). And yet, it is ironic that there are so many Westerners who have taken such a keen interest in the very culture and heritage that many of us, Singaporean Chinese, are so willing to abandon.

Well, it’s great to see the enthusiasm of these professors: to hear them speak and write in Chinese, and to show us – with great passion – just how rich our Chinese culture, heritage and thought can be!

Anyway, here’s a photo of the professor teaching us how to read classical Chinese. Today was our first lesson!


Classical Chinese is an entirely different language with a completely different grammar structure. Even those fluent in Chinese will have difficulty reading it. But the language is simply amazing. There’s so much richness captured in just a few words. It’s amazing how those few words are capable of expressing an idea in a succinct yet beautiful manner!

Here’s a picture of another professor leading a few of us philosophy majors in a classical Chinese philosophy reading group a few weeks ago.

487341_425350407508779_667036158_nI really look up to these professors, and I really do hope that my command of the Chinese language may improve to the high level of fluency that they have acquired. If they can do it, so can I!

Here’s a thought – perhaps, we should hire Westerners to be Chinese teachers here in Singapore. I think almost every Singaporean Chinese student will find it very shameful and embarrassing to be failed by a Westerner who speaks fluent Mandarin, and will thus be challenged to improve their command of the Chinese language. If they can do it, so can I!