Dr. XIE Chun Ling

Senior Lecturer (Putonghua), University Programme Section

Ex-officio member, Academic Activities Division



Editors note: Xie laoshi is one of the few teachers in the Centre whose mother tongue is both Putonghua and Cantonese. Her hilarious jokes originated from the contrast between Cantonese and Putonghua had made Ellen MAK, the editor, burst into laughter. Xie laoshi pursues ardently in Chinese language and culture and has ample Chinese language teaching experience in both mainland China and Hong Kong. She spent twenty years to compile a dictionary on Chinese Etymology. She is also an archaic script calligrapher whose works have been exhibited in Hong Kong, China and overseas. We are glad to have Xie laoshi in this issue of PEOPLE to share with us her discoveries in the teaching and research.


1.       How did you get connected with CUHK?

My children and I emigrated from Guangzhou to Hong Kong in 2003. Coincidentally, CLC was recruiting Putonghua teacher. I applied for the position successfully and have been serving until now. I teach Putonghua mainly to local undergraduates with Chinese character course to international students.


2.       Personal funny story on the contrast between Cantonese and Putonghua

There is a question in the Centres COPA Putonghua public test question bank. The situational context of the question was on the plane. The question asked, If a lady could not reach the overhead luggage compartment, should a gentleman extend his helping hands? A male student answered this question. Initially I heard like this, When a lady needs help, a gentleman should certainly paw her. Actually, the Cantonese sound1of the first word is the same for being slow and to provide a helping hand (w{hn/ wun4). This examinee had an inter-language negative transfer from huin, the Putonghua sound of the first character for being slow to yuhn, the first character for providing assistance. So, yuhnshvu (to provide a helping hand) sounded like huhng shvu (to paw a woman).


3.       Can you illustrate with more examples on the Putonghua errors frequently made by local students? (Click to see video)


Diversity in pronunciation, vocabulary and syntax can be found between Putonghua and Cantonese and the biggest amongst exists in pronunciation. For example, Cantonese has no retroflex consonants. Students confuse zhz ls (a main force) with zz ls (resistance); yychs (sharks fin) with yycs (fish bone). In the area of tones, students tend to mispronounce zh{ jijo (tutor) as zhx jijo (pig grunt); jp ching (airport) as jp chhng (chicken intestines); zhwng diin (a key point) as zhtng diin (part-time). For consonants, some students intended to say a shop has a discount (di zhm) and ended up slurred a shop can be robbed (di jim). Some mispronounced shjng jsn (being enterprising) as shjng jsng (being photogenic).


Regarding vocabulary, there are discrepancies in between as well. I lived in the Shaw College of CUHK for over 10 years. At the beginning, I often heard people saying that the landmark of Shaw College is a sculpture called Woman Legs. No matter what angles I viewed, I could not associate it with leg. Soon after, I realized that Cantonese called the whole leg jiio, and Putonghua called only the part below ankle jiio.  Difference can be found in between the word used for grave sweeping (ɽ and ɨĹ), swimming (ˮ and Ӿ)and body check ( and ). In some cases, the different words do not refer to the same thing, e.g. classroom (෿ ) and photocopy (Ӱӡ ӡ). The most hilarious one that made Putonghua speakers convulsed with laughter  is calling room-mate as ͬ (sleeping together).


As for grammar, the variation in between is not that big but we can still find some. For example in Putonghua, the position of (many) and  (a few) in a sentence. They are usually put in the front of a verb when they are used as adverbial modifier to a verb or an adjective. E.g. ٺˮഩһ· In Cantonese, and are usually placed after the verb, such as ʳ, ׬ and ݯ etc.


4.       Share with us how language teaching is different between here and mainland China. How did you adapt to it?

Before coming to Hong Kong, I taught courses like contemporary Chinese and Chinese etymology for many years in mainland universities. I was used to one-voiced class, the traditional way to emphasize on knowledge teaching. Since serving as language instructor in CLC, I have gradually apprehended the distinctive features in language teaching: to lay stress on language practices and not on knowledge impartation.  So, the teacher oriented lecture mode is not applicable to this new environment and the new student targets. After 10 years more of teaching practices, I have progressively shifted to student oriented and pragmatic framework language use teaching approach. During lessons, I tried my best to cultivate an environment close to real situation and context for students to learn the language and guide them to use it appropriately. Thus, there is a shift from one-voiced class to all-voiced class.


5.       You founded the new summer course CPTH2203 Chinese Characters and Reading Chinese. What is special about this course?

This course targeted non-local students who are elementary Chinese learners. The features are teaching of fundamental Chinese characters with reference to the source from oracle bone script; to illustrate by the vivid expression of pictographs; to enhance students to understand the structure, form and meaning of the early characters. The association of a radical character root with the multiple words formed by that root accelerated students character recognition.


6.       How did the Oracle Bone Scripts facilitate the learning of Chinese language?

Oracle Bone Inscription can be regarded as the gem in the treasure-house. They had been buried under the ground for 3000 years and until year 1899 did they being re-discovered. During the times, no revision, misrepresentation and additional processing were made. From the text form to the recorded content were kept authentic and original the way they were in the Shang Dynasty.  They are also regarded as the most reliable source of the historical relics for the Shang Dynasty. Oracle Bone Scripts and the Chinese characters used nowadays are derived from the same origin. Oracle Bone Scripts are the closest to the origin of archaic scripts. By understanding Oracle Bone Inscription, it helps us to comprehend the original meaning of a Chinese character. In comparison to the Regular Scripts we used today, we can understand the evolution of Chinese characters and their development sequence.




7.       The fate of being connected with linguistics and etymology from undergraduate to doctoral study

I studied etymology in my undergraduate study. It was taught by Prof. Zhang Gui-guang, a nationally renowned archaic script and etymology expert who was also the director of Archaic Script and Etymology Research Council. The vivid and lively illustration by Prof. Zhang on Oracle Bone Script had led me into the magnificent world of archaic script. This has given me life-long impact. After graduation, I continued my postgraduate study in Chinese language history and professional archaic script etymology. I still learned archaic script from Prof. Zhang. Under his guidance, I spent 20 years to compile and publish a dictionary on the evolution in the form and meaning of Chinese CharactersThe Concise Chinese Dictionary(published by Commercial Press H.K. Ltd). I could say that Prof. Zhang is a crucial person to me in my academic life.

During my doctoral study in HKU, my supervisor was Prof. Shan Zhou-yao, an internationally renowned archaic script scholar and chairperson of the Chinese School at that time. Under his guidance, I completed and published my second academic work, A Study on the Empty Categories in the Oracle Bone Inscriptions from the Shang Dynasty Ruins. I am extraordinarily privileged to learn from the 2 masters.


8.       How did you embark on your journey to archaic script calligrapher?

During the time when I was studying Etymology with Prof. Zhang, I always heard about his demand on students in learning Chinese calligraphy. He said that all etymologists are also Chinese calligraphers. In those days when one was fresh and vigorous, everyone wanted to be expert and eventually we learned Chinese calligraphy from him. As time passes, we came to comprehend his intention behind of such demand. It was to let us to be thoroughly immersed in the wonderful world of Chinese characters; to crave for knowledge and to accomplish. After we wrote more, we knew the form, structure and the regular pattern of the evolution of Chinese characters just like the back of our hands.


9.       Share with us your favorite calligraphy work.

That is an oracle bone couplet scroll. The first line wrote virtues before fame and independence, reminding us that as human we should not often seek ways to get famous, but should establish good moral qualities. The second line wrote actions before words. Paying lip service is not enough. Action is the most important. They can be called the cardinal rule of humanhood.


10.   Academic plan for the upcoming 1 year

Being a member of the Academic Activities Division, I aimed at optimizing the existing teaching materials and to further develop advanced level course materials.  Besides, I hope to try my utmost ability in mentoring new teachers; not because I taught exemplarily, but to share the lessons I learned and to help making their path straight.




11.   How did your family shape your personal growth?


      My mother was born to an affluent family. Various family members got official ranks from the imperial examinations. By the early years of the Republic of China, my maternal grandfather was a graduate from the law school of Sun Yat-Sen University. My father was born in a family of teachers. My grandmother could sing with the Three Character Classic, which had eventually become the lullaby of my life. I wonder if the blend of scholarly and teaching genes in my blood had nurtured the fundamental characteristics in my life.


       12.   Hobbies

I like reading during spare time. Sometimes, I write prose, play piano, practice calligraphy and carve seals. Yet, reading is my love. Reading can enrich ones life, because books unveil to you the known and the unknown, the facts and the probabilities. Books are a piece of mirror to reveal the multi-facets of life. Books can transform the many impossible into possible and to immerse you in a unique experience you would never could encounter by yourself in your life. That is why I could give up not chasing after popular TV drama and not to watch a programme for the second time. But a good book will reside next to my pillow, and I read it over and over again.



13.   Any advice to Putonghua learners whose mother tongue is Cantonese?

           If 5 years old or below is the critical period for learning languages, then all the students in the university are far beyond the age. So, I often told my students that, the key to excellent Putonghua is nothing more than to listen often and to speak often. Frequent listening nurtures the sense of a language and more speaking cultivates fluency. There is no short cut at all.


14.   Gratifying moments

           As the saying goes, "it takes 10 years to grow a tree but a hundred years to nurture people". Students study our courses for merely 2 to 3 school terms. We can at most tamping foundation for the trees and to bank up with earth. The biggest reward is nothing but a thank you card or a phone call from students showing their appreciation; telling you that he/ she indeed learned from your course; or achieving high level certificate in the Putonghua proficiency test. All along I treasured a card given to me by a male student from the Department of Economics. He told me that, the most important of all is that, my university life was as long as 3 years and you walked with me for one and a half year My Putonghua has indeed made a great stride. I attribute the success to your teaching with great attention and care. Along with the card was the result of the school terms he attended, showing the score from 60 marks (C grade) to 80 marks (A- grade). As a teacher, I cant think of something else that is more gratifying than this.



**Special thanks to Miss HO Cheuk Yan, student from the School of Communication and Journalism in assisting the interview production.



Oracle bone script calligraphy work of Xie laoshi



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