By Liao Bowen, Li Jialu
“Driven by the motto Bahasa Jiwa Bangsa (language is the soul of a nation), Wu Zongyu has devoted his life to the promotion of the Malay language,” declared Malaysian media of Wu, a pioneer of Malay language education in China.
Over the past 50 years, Wu has contributed his wisdom and passion to Malay teaching at Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU) and trainedmany students who now wield a good command of Malay. He was honored for his “Outstanding Contribution to Malay Language” by the Malaysian government and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Literature by the University of Malaya, the oldest and most prestigious university in Malaysia.
At the BFSU Library, China Report ASEAN conducted aninterview with Professor Wu. Even in his eighties, his eyes still gleamed with enthusiasm as he recounted experiences as founder of the first Malay language program in Chinese higher education.
Malay Teaching from Scratch
In 1961, Wu graduated from Peking University as an Indonesian major and began working at the Department of Asian and African Languages (now School of Asian and African Studies) of BFSU. At the time, BFSU was preparing to introduce a new undergraduate program on the Malay language to meet the demand for closer China Malaysia relations, and Wu was assigned to oversee student enrollment and teaching. Both Indonesian and Malay are classified as Malayo-Polynesian languages. While sharing similar grammar rules, they are different in terms of pronunciation, words and spelling.
“The next year, 16 students enrolled to study the Malay language,” Wu recalled. “But despite promises, we lacked both a textbook and a foreign teacher. What could I do? I had to compile teaching materials all by myself.” He started with letters. The unvoiced and voiced consonants were listed in pairs, and the mouth shape and articulation of each letter were explained with illustrations. His work resulted in the first Malay textbook in China.
“You won’t find any shortcuts in language learning—you have to practice every day,” opined Wu. “In those days, students in the Malay language program attended only 16 lessons a week. Without a natural language environment and adequate classroom exercises, accurate pronunciation became the biggest challenge. I made visits toa Malaysian working in Beijing to correct my pronunciation.”
Every morning his students would gather in a garden on campus for a morning reading. Wu read a sentence, and the students followed. “In the garden, I was literally a walking tape recorder,” Wu illustrated. “I was trying to demonstrate authentic pronunciation as much as I could.”
A trailblazer in China’s Malay language education, Wu overcame tremendous difficulties to fulfill his teaching duties. The experience of being both a self-taught learner and teacher remains fresh in his memory. “Without native Malay teachers or textbooks available, I had to learn the language and compile teaching materials all by myself before delivering lessons to my students,” Wu revealed.
Resources for Malay learning were hard to find in China a half century ago. To collect listening material, Wu would stay up late until two o’clock in the morning to tape a Malay program broadcast on an African radio station using a borrowed recorder. With the help of the radio show, his students were able to practice listening in class the following day. Through heavy static, the tape provided invaluable listening material in a time when Malay learning resources were scarce.
Language Bridge to Friendship
When China and Malaysia established diplomatic relations in 1974, lecturers and students in the BFSU Malay language program still hadn’t found many chances to conduct face to-face communication with native speakers. After China’s reform and opening-up policy was introduced in 1978, Sino Malaysian relations improved, and bilateral exchanges increased dramatically. In 1987, Wu made a trip to Malaysia with the China National Acrobatic Troupe as an interpreter, his first visit to the country after teaching Malay for 25 years.
At an event during the visit, the Chinese delegation head remarked, “As soon as we landed in Malaysia, we felt we had sailed across an ocean of friendship.” Wu provided a literal translation of the sentence, but he was not so sure whether local people would understand such a figure of speech. To his surprise, the audience burst into applause. The trip to Malaysia enabled Wu to personally experience how language serves as a bridge to enhance friendship between peoples.
In 1989, Wu was invited to attend the International Academic Conference on Malay held in Malaysia. During the event he published a paper titled China’s Successful Experience Teaching Malay in the Absence of a Language Acquisition Environment, which was a sensation in Malaysia’s educational community. “I delivered more than 20 lectures on China and Malay teaching in China in different Malaysian states after the conference, and I was invited to academic seminars and lectures in Brunei and Singapore,” Wu recounted.
Thanks to Wu’s efforts, BFSU students began participating in Malay language training programs in Malaysia and Brunei in 1996. The China Malay Language Teaching Center was established at BFSU the next year with joint support from the Chinese and Malaysian governments. Renamed China Malay Studies Center in 2005, the institution has been serving as a platform for cooperation between BFSU and political, educational and cultural circles of Malaysia and Brunei ever since.
“Professor Wu is the founder of the Malay language program at BFSU,” wrote Ismail Hussein, former president of the Federation of National Writers’ Associations of Malaysia, in an article published on a journal of the organization. “A frequent traveler between Beijing and Kuala Lumper, he helped provide a window for us to understand China when the country was not as open as it is today.”
Wu has served as a cultural ambassador between China and Malaysia throughout his entire professional life. In 2011, the Malaysian government honored him with an “Outstanding Contribution to Malay Language Award” in recognition of his dedication to the promotion of the Malay language in China, which made him the first foreigner to receive the award. The Wu Zongyu Malay Language Education Development Fund was subsequently established with the 50,000 Malaysian ringgit (US$12,000) gift that came with the award.
The same year, Wu appeared on the cover of Dewan Bahasa, the official journal of Malaysia’s Institute of Language and Literature, with the headline “Wu Zongyu: Second Admiral Cheng Ho.” His brilliant achievements in promoting the Malay language in China as well as friendly exchanges between the two peoples were detailed in more than 10 pages.
After five decades of teaching, Wu still aspires to continue improving Malay language education in China and remains optimistic about the prospects of China-Malaysia educational cooperation. “We still have a long way to go, and I believe I will find more like-minded companions along the journey,” Wu smiled.