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Why I learn Mandarin

Anyone who studies Mandarin or another Chinese language is eventually asked the question by family and friends: "Why study Chinese?" (The unspoken assumption is that it is 'too hard' for foreigners. ??) The question is often asked and it led one of the early professors of Chinese studies at the ANU, C.P. Fitzgerald, to entitle his memoir, ironically, "Why China?"

Now that our March "Immersed in China's Iconic Beauty" tour has been successfully and happily completed, we begin a series of new blog posts where our wonderful younger Sino-Immersions' researchers and tour assistants share something of their own experiences learning the languages of around a fifth of the world's population.

My own experiences are long and varied and thus, rather than go into the details of the challenging complexities of the Sinophonic world, I'll tell a story. Its about this man, who we can call Mr Wang.

Yangshuo cormorant fisherman

During our recent trip to Yangshuo, Guangxi Province (home of the famous and picturesque karst mountains), the group was having an explore of the alleys and streets around the wharf area along the banks of the Li River.

Mr Wang was sitting on the old flagstones on the wharf landing, his raft nearby. Two cormorants stood placidly on a bamboo pole at his feet.

This wasn't an entirely innocent mountain-water scene, however, as Mr Wang also had a sign next to him asking for 3RMB per photo people took of him and his birds. I gave him a hefty enough note and began conversation.


Mr Wang has been fishing these waters all his life, as he is a resident of Yangshuo village and thus has seen many changes. Even now, in his latter years, he continues to get up early in the morning, push his punt out and take his birds on the river's currents for a day of fishing.

Cormorant fishing is a centuries-old technique used in these parts of China (and also in Japan), and although the picture is undoubtedly interesting, regrettably the methodology by which the birds are trained would hardly meet RSPCA standards. When young, the birds have their throats restricted by a piece of cord (or such) so that they cannot swallow big fish - only little ones - and thus are they trained to bring the big ones to a basket on the fisherman's raft.

Li River, Yangshuo

Once they do they are then rewarded and after a time they do it as their learned task, in order to receive a regular morsel.

Over the years, the birds and the fisherman strike up a working and living relationship, given that the birds are vitally important to the livelihood of their fisherman. Mr Wang has lived with these two birds since they were hatchlings, and now they are 8 years old.

They respond to his voice and each has its own name. Mr Wang expects that they will grow old with him, as these birds usually live for around 20 years. He spoke very fondly of them, and when he lifted up the pole to rest it on his shoulder, they flapped their wings in a lazy fashion to re-balance, and resumed their rest. As I finished my conversation and my photos I thanked Mr Wang and wished him well. He greeted me with the time honored blessing to travellers: “一路顺风” [yīlùshùnfēng], meaning "on the way home, have a gentle wind", which was especially apt on a rain swept day on the Li River.

I am grateful that I started learning Mandarin as a young teenager, as it means that over 2000 kilometres from Beijing, in a rural town that relies now more on tourism than it does on its traditional aquaculture, I could have a brief moment of human exchange with Mr Wang, and learn once more that regardless of the language, life is about relationships and how we engage with each other.

That is a gentle wind that encourages me to keep learning. Over this series of blog posts, we hope that other young students are similarly encouraged to stick at it, as the rewards are truly worth it. 加油!

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