Getting serious about learning Classical Chinese

I went to school at NCNM/NUNM in Portland, where classical Chinese medicine thinking & classical Chinese language were at the root of the curriculum. This meant that I picked up classical Chinese medical terms just by being in my classes, doing my assignments, and learning from my mentors. I even did some very rough “translations” for class assignments. But, I never really buckled down and tried to learn more vocabulary, or to understand the grammar.

Fortunately, I didn’t lose my chance to learn the language by graduating from NUNM. We are all so lucky to live a time where engaging, reliable remote education is a possibility. After leaving her teaching position at NUNM, Sabine Wilms, my friend and mentor, began offering her profound teachings online in multiple ways. I’ve just begun the first phase of her Triple Crown program, and I’m committed to seeing all three courses through.

Why am I studying Classical Chinese?

But why – oh why – would I subject myself to this? This is not modern Mandarin. I’m not going to be left with the skills to order in a restaurant should I travel to China. Nor will I be able to read modern commentaries, research studies and texts about Chinese medicine written today! It’s notoriously difficult to learn, taking significant amounts of time investment. And, to be clear, I personally struggle mightily with learning languages other than English – a fate that befalls many Americans.

So, why?

  1. Deeper engagement with the classical texts I use every day in clinic. I rely on the Neijing, Shennong bencao jing, Shanghan lun and Jingui yaolue , and therefore I rely on others’ translations of them. I’m lucky to live in an era where good translations exist, but even so, having more direct access to these texts – or at least having the capacity to comprehend the decisions the translators made – will be empowering.
  2. Overall increase in my brain’s flexibility – pathway to further language study. While this particular form of Chinese is not used frequently today, successfully overcoming a limitation I’ve nursed all my life may well open me up to further success. I definitely intend to learn to speak the modern language at some point, this certainly cannot hurt.
  3. Something about working with characters seems to enhance my understanding of concepts. As I mentioned, we worked with the classical medical language in school. Several professors were interested in etymological investigation of ancient characters, and nearly all the professors offered their own translations of texts. The more I dug into these while I was in school, the better I learned the topics I was studying. In the last couple of months, I’ve been working with some characters related to a case I’m working on and it’s already been useful. I’m not really sure why this works, but it’s almost as if while I’m practicing writing a character, or looking up its multiple meanings, my mind is engaged with the concept the character represents in novel ways. Hard to explain.
  4. Self cultivation in multiple ways. I don’t handwrite much in English, much less in Chinese. Part of Sabine’s course involves repeatedly writing characters. This is requiring a tremendous amount of focus from me – not to mention some hand-eye coordination I don’t regularly engage. The effect of all that concentration has already been profound. It’s like meditation. It does require a lot of time and patience, though, so I can only do short stints at a time.

Overall, it just feels like the right thing to do – benefits or no. Something about it calls to me.

What’s interfered with my studies in the past?

When I was thinking about joining up with this class again, I asked myself this question. I don’t want to waste anybody’s time or money, so it’s important to understand what barriers I encountered in the past so that I might avoid them in the present. Ultimately, I think my past failures were due to two things. First, I have just been too overloaded with other work. And by work, I don’t just mean patients and running the clinic, but also significant efforts in my personal & family life, as well as work on side businesses. ALL of those items have become less intense in recent months, and that reduction looks permanent.

The other reason is a bit more complicated, and personal. In short, I’ve needed to do some important psychological and spiritual work this last couple of years. One major effect of these efforts has been the liberation of a great deal of energy, attention & enthusiasm. I had been quite weighed down by a number of things, and while the work will always be ongoing, I find myself with more capacity than I’ve felt for many years.

How am I approaching my studies?

As I said, I’m starting the first course of the Triple Crown program with Sabine Wilms. I’m also a member of her Imperial Tutor membership group, which gives access to interesting cultural and historical information, as well as plenty of opportunities to learn more about classical Chinese language. This course runs 13 weeks, and has a pretty significant homework component. There are students from all over the world and of all kinds of backgrounds and experience levels. One of the real joys of remote learning!

Sabine gives us pretty strong structures to work with, but of course I have to adapt them to my schedule and working style. I’m doing the majority of my homework from Friday to Sunday, using the other days to memorize characters with my flashcards and read supplemental materials and the online forum associated with the course. My goal is to engage with that weeks’ vocabulary & passage(s) daily.

I’m using a lot of tools and support materials to help me, including:

  • Pleco dictionary with all the awesome add-ons, an incredibly powerful dictionary in my pocket! I do have three paper dictionaries, but they are massive and challenging to use. Pleco is the winner and champion. I do love Wenlin, too, but I find I use Pleco more and more as I go on.
  • Devonthink, my favorite database software. I have a special database devoted to my language studies. As it grows and develops, I’ll share more about it. I keep all of my homework and class materials there, but am also building a database of all the characters, passages and grammar rules I know, interlinking and enriching them as I go.
  • My trusty iPad Pro & Apple Pencil. While it’s important to me to do handwriting with ink and paper during my studies, I also enjoy what the digital tools bring. Using programs like Zenbrush and PDFExpert, I’m able to freehand characters or use digital character practice sheets, infinitely erasing & reusing them. The combination works.
  • The text for the class is Classical Chinese for Everyone : A Guide for Absolute Beginners, by Van Norden. I also have a number of books about Chinese calligraphy, characters and grammar, which I consult when Van Norden & Sabine aren’t quite getting me to full understanding.

We’re just in the first week, but I’m already feeling more on top of it than I’ve ever felt studying any language. What a difference a couple of years of intensive self-care makes!