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Wane in the popularity of Chinese language and literature no cause for concern

By Li Qing | 2013-08-01 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
A textbook for Chinese Literature
After the surging number of applicants to departments of Chinese language and literature in the 1980s, fewer and fewer college students are choosing Chinese as their university major. Having graduated with a degree in Chinese language and literature at the 1990s myself, I missed the heyday of my discipline. However, this never compromised my deeply-felt passion for my major, and even while I was in college, Chinese language and literature was still the number one department in both universities and teaching colleges. Not only did students’ writing appear on campus billboards and circulate in campus newspapers, but the ardent interest in literature could be seen from the thousands of students who would congregate in the fiction section of nearby bookstores. In contrast, one gets the impression that many of today’s liberal arts candidates have chosen their major simply because the admission standards are lower.
From my perspective, perhaps there is no need for us to be too concerned about the waning popularity of Chinese language and literature departments. To begin with, a decline in Chinese majors does not necessarily mean that students have lost interest in literature. In reality, many students from other majors continue to actively attend lectures and seminars organized by Chinese language and literature departments. Moreover, total higher-education enrollment has expanded greatly since the 1980s, so even if there are proportionally less Chinese majors, we are still training much higher numbers of them in actuality. Lastly, the social and economic demands of the present necessitate a more diversified allocation of human capital; our education system needs to cultivate applied skills relevant to today’s pressing issues, rather than fielding students through a classic curriculum of core subjects.
Additionally, I do not fear that lower numbers of Chinese majors will hamper the up and coming generation’s literary talent—good writers are not necessarily born in the classroom. While Chinese language and literature departments do exist to train writers and scholars of literature and culture, cultivating strong fiction and essay writing skills requires a broad variety of experiences, and other educational backgrounds can be equally advantageous. There are certainly many examples of successful writers emerging from Chinese language and literature programs, but there are even more examples of writers with degrees in all sorts of majors—some community college graduates have even gone on to become successful writers.
Undoubtedly, our education system as a whole lacks sufficient training in traditional culture and literature. This has led to a decline in the average university student’s writing ability, and students these days produce neither beautiful turns of phrase nor well-constructed articles. However, this is not a problem that should be blamed exclusively on departments of Chinese language and literature, and it would be absurd to argue that we could restore societal erudition and refinement simply by having every university matriculant major in Chinese!
In fact, I think that the reason people lament the waning popularity of Chinese language and literature is because they are truly concerned about the marginalization of humanities and social sciences as society becomes excessively utilitarian. Unfortunately, the decline of Chinese as an academic subject is an inevitable outcome of social development. Still, the constriction of Chinese language and literature departments can, in turn, become a catalyst for their reformation and adaptation to the demands of contemporary society.
I have no doubt that the humanities and social sciences will not become applied disciplines. However, it is obvious that self-contained aphorisms such as “investing Lu Xun as your principle to live off of the interest (executing a task definitively)” and “repeating the great man’s cough (mechanical memorization of illustrious figures’ quotes)” will not suffice as teaching methods in today’s society. At present, many universities allow liberal arts students to minor in more pre-professional tracks so as to enhance their career options. Likewise, enabling professors in of Chinese language and literature to establish more interdisciplinary ties, both in curricula and research, is a move in the right direction.
The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No.371, Oct.26, 2012
                                                                                                                      Translated by Zhang Mengying