Ancient Greek for Classical Christian Schools in Hong Kong

In the Abendland, or Western Christendom (including Germany), knowledge of Latin as a classical language used to be de rigueur for top students, and remains important today; in Hong Kong and the rest of China, the question remains of what classical language should be used as a vehicle of education in ancient cultural traditions.

Local students in Hong Kong should, by graduation, have decent command of 3.5 languages:

  1. Cantonese, spoken by the vast majority of Hong Kong’s population;
  2. Mandarin, written in formal communications since the early 20th century, including all standardized tests in Chinese, and important for spoken communication with the rest of the Sinosphere since the 20th century;
  3. Classical (or Literary) Chinese, a continuum of Sinitic that ranges from the writings of Confucius and Mencius to the most literary and formal registers of modern written Chinese;
  4. English, which remains one of the official languages in Hong Kong, necessary for day-to-day life and part of the basis of any particular œconomic advantage Hong Kong has in Asia.

Because of a vast increase in Hong Kong’s number of K–12 students in the postwar period, even having enough schools to support basic literacy was a huge logistical challenge. At that time, there was more than enough work teaching children to speak good Cantonese, write good Mandarin, and read some classical Chinese, as well as to read, write, and speak English.

On top of that, today, the political situation calls for decent spoken Mandarin as well, even as the South China Morning Post’s chief news editor Yonden Lhatoo has expressed his consternation at today’s ‘appalling English standards’: ‘There’s something terribly wrong with our education system when it’s churning out graduates who need serious help with their English.’ The need for good Mandarin and good English has never been greater, and few of my friends from Hong Kong have both. The situation for language proficiency in Hong Kong today is, to say the least, difficult.

Though the education system in Hong Kong as a whole is a problem too great for me to address briefly, I do want to suggest that, on the smaller scale, it would be useful to teach ancient Greek in classical Christian schools, and to require it for graduation with honours or an advanced diploma.

My suggestion is counterintuitive, I know. On top of 3.5 languages, you want local Hong Kong students to learn one more language? But the benefits of Greek would be, I believe, incalculable; it would have only to be done in earnest.

Until 1997, the uses of English in Hong Kong were utilitarian: the British empire needed a local élite whose proficiency in English would allow it to serve the British administration in civil service and in trade. In other words, British imperialism needed servants, not free men. To this end the education system was oriented, that Hong Kong might reliably provide compradors for Britain’s imperialist operations.

Today, however, such an orientation is manifestly unsuitable. Even civil servants who passed through English-medium education under the British empire often chafe at having to answer questions in English at press conferences. While Hong Kong’s place as a hub of international trade and a ‘free city’ in the Chinese empire requires that enough people be both able and willing to speak good English, it is not entirely surprising that the end of the colonial æra has changed people’s feelings about English. Rather than being about serving as a comprador in colonial society and moving up the social ladder, mastering English has to be about understanding of non-Chinese, not on the level of pidgin trade talk but on the level of civilization. Unless Hong Kong’s students go through these growing-pains, especially the city’s best students, Hong Kong cannot succeed.

For any school, an advantage of ancient Greek learnt on its own terms is a much better ability to deal with the grammar and literary style of English, as well as a deeper understanding of the ancient literary and philosophical roots of Western society. If the peoples of the world are to speak in rich cultural languages, expressing rich cultural heritages, they need more than a generic neoliberal pidgin English: they need deep culture, both in identifying with their own peoples and in speaking to other peoples. A Hongkonger able not only to parse a Greek verb but to write in the manner of Thucydides, and to read Plato in the original, could with much greater confidence find his voice in speaking to the West.

For a Christian school, the advantages are even greater. Even one cohort of secondary-school graduates who can read Greek is a number of students who can read the New Testament, the Septuagint, and many of the Church fathers, of whom the young men can already be further trained to serve as deacons in the Church, and some of those as elders able to teach people the word of God. The use of Greek rather than Latin also gives them access to a broader range of theological resources, by which the Chinese church can find its identity within the one Holy Catholic Church with reference not only to the theology of the Reformation but also to non-Western concepts that can speak to the Chinese. In this way, the Chinese churches will be independent from the West, but also catholic. One cohort may be but a few students; but cohort upon cohort, year after year, brings to the Sinosphere a growing number of students who already have the language skills that seminaries want their graduates to have, and others who with training will be able to teach ancient Greek themselves, and others who can begin to deal philosophically with both Plotinus and Zhu Xi.

This can happen. We need books in Greek that use the method that Hans Ørberg’s groundbreaking textbook Lingua latina per se illustrata (a.k.a. LLPSI) uses for Latin, with context and illustrations, and by using only the target language go farther than the ‘Italian Athenaze’ has gone; in Greek, Seumas Macdonald’s project in progress (Lingua Græca Per Se Illustrata; Patreon here) looks promising, though it does not yet have the kinds of pictures on which LLPSI relies. From experience using LLPSI with visiting students from mainland China, I know that even students with relatively weak English can learn some Latin inductively using that book in the space of a few days, because it relies on no other language than Latin. If we have something like that in Greek, we can achieve the same results with Chinese students learning Greek. We also need teachers who are able to teach Greek immersively, ideally with a good command of the pitch accent – a phonological feature to which native speakers of Cantonese, also familiar with Hong Kong English, can relate. If parents and students and teachers are commit to achieving the results, both for better command of English and better understanding of Hellenistic Christian civilization, it can be done.

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