Master of language sees power of words
2017-10-30, WANG KAIHAO

 Joel Bellassen has long been a keen observer of China and Chinese culture. A Sinologist, he was the first inspector-general of Chinese language teaching at the French Ministry of Education.

“My motive in learning Chinese was to discover a culture that was distant from its Western counterpart,” he said, referring to the four decades he has spent studying Mandarin.

Regarding the changes he has seen in China, particularly in the past five years, Bellassen, who first visited the country in 1973, said he had witnessed many positive things.

“For example, China has paid a great deal of attention to environmental issues, like improving the air quality, in recent years.”

He added that many changes had also occurred in China in the academic field in the past five years.

“China has made great efforts in the protection and revival of regional languages and dialects during this time,” he said. “This shows a respect for traditions and diverse cultures.

“Many forums and symposiums advocating cross-cultural dialogue have been organized by the government and academic institutions, which is crucial and encouraging.”

Bellassen predicts this revival of traditional culture and the enhancement of cross-border communication will continue to be a trend in China.

As for other changes, he pointed to Chinese etiquette as an example. “When I talk about etiquette, I not only refer to traditional manners in interpersonal communication, but also rules on official occasions,” he said.

“For instance, we’ve seen the Chinese hold some key international meetings in the past few years in which there are mature formats (in receiving guests). The West, however, now makes such occasions look casual.”

He said the modern world still needs rituals in international communication, and it is easy to find them in Chinese culture.

Bellassen also has some unconventional explanations for common cultural phenomena seen in the country, which Chinese people often take for granted but foreigners are unfamiliar with.

As an example, he cited China’s public square dancing. “It actually reflects the Chinese people’s tradition of regimen, which is good for a harmonious society and people’s mental health, and should be learned by the rest of world.”

As someone familiar with ancient Chinese philosophy, he also advocates that the world should look for solutions to some modern issues in old Chinese wisdom.

Bellassen is also the president of the Paris-based European Association for Chinese Teaching, which he founded in 2015.

Looking to the future, Bellassen said as more people in Europe begin to learn Chinese, their understanding of Chinese society will increase.

“Knowing Chinese is a trump card for job hunters from overseas because it is now an international language,” he said.

But economic growth is not the only impetus for the development of Chinese. “For instance, in France, many parents see learning Chinese as a way to develop the intelligence of their children.”

Bellassen also expects that cultural similarities between France and China will help boost the popularity of Chinese in his homeland.

“Both China and France have always attached great importance to historical studies and literary pursuits, since ancient times,” he said. 

“Learning Chinese is similar to studying philosophy, which involves metaphysical thinking and thus builds the foundation to understand other aspects of Chinese culture, like cuisine and poetry.”

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