Selected Modern Chinese Essays: Joys of the Teaching Career

◎ Bing Xin

I was a teacher for only ten years. In 1926, on my return to China after finishing studies in the United States, I began to teach at my alma mater Yenching University, Peiping, as a lecturer in Chinese. The deans and teachers of the Department of Chinese then were mostly my former teachers. Other faculties and departments also had no lack of my former teachers. I may well say that practically all the teaching staff of the University were my seniors. Therefore, at a faculty meeting, I always chose a seat at an unobservable corner of the room. Everybody jokingly called me“faculty baby”. I was then on the right side of 26.

It was, however, a different story when I was with my students. They and I were good friends. When I taught freshman Chinese as a required course, I used a textbook of classical prose. The freshmen were mostly young boys and girls aged between 17 and 20. Freshman Chinese was taught in five classes, each consisting of 30 to 40 students hailing from various places of China. Those from Fujian and Guangdong had difficulty in understanding the heavily accented speech of teachers like Ma Jian (Dean), Zhou Zuoren, Shen Yinmo, Gu Shui and Guo Shaoyu who all came from places south of the Yangtse River. Consequently, some of these students were transferred to my class through the arrangements of the Dean’s Office. Looking down from the rostrum, I was delighted by a multitude of rosy-faced naïve young students smiling and staring curiously at me—the little teacher. Their smiles were by no means unfamiliar to me, being similar to those I often saw on the faces of my younger brothers and younger female cousins. Often, when I opened the roll-call book and asked them each to give their own names, I corrected their accents one by one. Thus, between laughter and chat, we came to know each other better and were soon on friendly terms. The first composition they did was“My Autobiography”. I let them write on this subject because, firstly, everybody always had got something to say on it and, secondly, it would afford me a good opportunity to understand each student’s family background, habit, disposition, etc. I only put marks but never gave comments on the papers after reading them. Instead I laid emphasis on holding outside-class individual talks with them lasting not more than 30 minutes. They would tell me how they had done the composition, and I would express my opinion on it. And we would both feel pleased with the frank exchange of views.

I also offered a course on advanced writing, which was an elective for students above the freshman level. It gave them training in different genres of literary writing, such as fiction, poetry, correspondence and sometimes translation. I found that students with a solid grounding in Chinese often did good translations. For the end-of-term examination, I had them each hand in a self-edited magazine specializing in any subjects, such as fine arts, sports, etc. and complete with well designed front cover, aim of its publication, photos, etc. Students of the same class could solicit contributions or photos from each other, or from students of other classes. They called it an interesting try. The magazines they handed in by the end of the term were very lively and encouraging, each having its content quite in line with its title.

In recalling my past career as a teacher, I always think fondly of the intimate friendship between the students and me. In those days, teachers and students all lived on the campus, which greatly facilitated our after-school contact. We often went boating on the Weiming Lake, or had discussions about various things on the marble boat by the island in the middle of the Lake, or had heart-to-heart private talks about, for instance, job selection or marriage. At this moment the images of quite a few couples, such as Zheng Linzhuang and Wu Ruiwu, Lin Yaohua and Rao Yusu, etc. suddenly appear in my mind’s eye. I attended some of their wedding ceremonies in my capacity as a go-between. Sometimes, preparatory to making a match, I had the parents of both parties meet each other at a dinner I gave. All that took place over half a century ago, and now, alas, more than half of them have gone to another world before me. I feel very bad about it indeed.

It’s time for me to stop writing now. I’ve not been talking solely about“students respecting teachers”or“teachers cherishing students”because, to my mind, teachers and students should be friends with mutual respect and love.