Most curricula these days stress the importance of culture. That includes everyday things like how to greet people, etiquette when eating and so on, which are essential at a beginner and intermediate level, but it also includes “bigger” culture, such as literature, traditional stories and more.
Language and culture
Learning about this kind of culture is quite difficult as a second language learner. This is partly because native speakers learn about it during their whole lives, and partly because we don’t spend enough time on it. But it is important, especially when you reach a more advanced level.
Imagine being a fluent speaker of English who have never heard of Snow White, Cinderella and the Brothers Grimm. You will miss things. The same can be said about modern culture as well, of course, but in this article, I’ll stick to more traditional culture. For example, do you know about these:
Accessing Chinese culture through cartoons
To put it briefly, there is a huge body of culture that we don’t necessarily need to know very well, but that we should at least be aware of, because they pop up as references all over the place. Understanding theses stories might also be part of the key to understanding Chinese culture and society in general.
However, for most of us, returning to the original stories isn’t necessarily a good idea. They are often written in classical Chinese and are too difficult even for most advanced students. It could also be argued that focusing on classical Chinese is only indirectly helpful for improving our grasp of modern Chinese.
Fortunately, you can access a lot of culture through cartoons, which will allow you to explore the stories and improve your modern Chinese at the same time. Cartoons are often condensed versions aimed at a younger audience, making them more suitable for second language learners as well. Also, while children’s books in Chinese seem to be written to teach vocabulary, cartoons are aiming for entertainment, which makes them doubly suited for language learning.
Step-by-step guide to learning about Chinese culture through cartoons
This is the approach I’ve used for learning about Chinese culture through various cartoons I’ve found interesting or necessary to know more about. I first did it with this version of 白蛇传 many years ago, so if you if you don’t know where to start, you can try that one as well!
- Find a story that you think you should know about, either because someone has referred to it and expose your ignorance or because someone has recommended it. It could also be something you really think you should know about or something you find more or less randomly. Most versions have subtitles, which is very helpful.
- Read about the story in Chinese or English to give you a general idea of what it’s about. Use Wikipedia, Baidu or just search for a summary. If you think your Chinese is not up to par, reading a summary in English is a good idea. The more advanced you are, the less you should rely on such scaffolding, of course
- Watch the cartoon once, trying to understand the gist, but without obsessing over details. If you don’t understand anything at all, you might be out of your depth and should choose an easier story. It might be that that particular cartoon contains tricky language or is made for an older audience.
- Record, download or rip the audio and transfer the audio files to your phone. Listen to just the audio a few times and let yourself gradually understand more and more. Don’t force it too much. There are many tools for ripping and downloading audio that I won’t cover in this article, but you can start with Audacity, VLC, Freecorder and various services that grabs audio/video directly from YouTube (such as this one).
- Watch the cartoon again, now with close to full understanding. You are now free to obsess about details if you want, but it’s perfectly fine to be done with it and move on to the next story. Remember that perfectionism can sometimes be an obstacle to progress!
In short, I think this is a great method because it accomplishes several tasks at once (mainly listening and cultural knowledge) while still being quite enjoyable.
A few recommendations
Below, I have included a few links to check out. If you have further suggestions, please leave a comment and I will update the list. You can find a lot by searching for 经典/童话/神话 + 故事. Here’s the list:
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