It was probably in my third of four years of full-time Chinese study that I started reading real Chinese. Modern novels and film scripts were my favourite. I still love Chinese movies – everything from Kung Fu to Fifth Generation to low brow trash. I was very fortunate to have a brilliant teacher, Daria Berg, who was interested in both and not afraid to challenge us with relevant, authentic cultural material.

Although I last looked at this 27 years ago, I remember this translation very well, even now. It was the script of a controversial, but brilliant Chinese movie released in 1980.

I learnt large sections of it with the intention to reproduce it verbatim during an examination. As it turns out, brute memorisation is an unpleasant practice (starkly antithetical to newer notions of teaching) but proves very effective in the acquisition and retention of Chinese characters and those of other ideographic systems. I looked up every other character and then memorised about 90 pages at the cost of about 150 lonely hours surrounded by dictionaries. There were no online character look up-capable dictionaries in those days. It was pure cabin fever and frustration, hour after hour, day after day. And the slog never got easy. That’s how it was for four years of what should have been the best years of my life. With hindsight, I would have definitely chosen another path. For the gains, the costs were far too high.

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